By Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.
“Just forgive her already”, “Forgiveness is the right thing to do” and “Forgive and forget” are frequently heard statements after someone experiences a deep, personal, and unfair hurt. Although society encourages forgiveness, it does not often share with us what forgiveness looks like, the path to achieve forgiveness and/or the benefits of forgiving. These aspects of interpersonal forgiveness are critical and must be included in conservations about forgiving. Child sexual abuse and incest are some of the deepest hurts an individual can experience, and as a result, most abuse survivors are advised against forgiving these deep hurts. However, if accurately understood and practiced, forgiveness can be very healing for sexual abuse survivors. This brief blog will discuss some of the most important points regarding what forgiveness means, the process of forgiveness, and the benefits of forgiving.
For sexual abuse survivors to choose to forgive, they first need to know what it means to forgive. Forgiveness is accomplished when one experiences a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender, and maybe over time, a gradual increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors may occur toward the offender (Freedman & Enright, 2017). Unfortunately, this process does not magically happen overnight. Enright & the Human Development Study Group (1991) developed a four-phase process model of forgiveness that initially included 17 guideposts and later expanded to 20 (Enright, 2001). Forgiveness is more than just letting go of anger, hatred, and revenge, it also includes accepting the offender’s humanity and value as a person, despite their hurtful actions (Freedman & Enright, 2017). Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing or deny or ignore your feelings of pain. Forgiveness includes the courage to face and acknowledge one’s hurt, as well as feel the emotions related to the hurt. In fact, the first phase of the process model developed by Enright (2001) involves Uncovering One’s Anger, which includes recognizing and naming one’s anger, identifying its cause, and expressing it in a healthy way. If we try to avoid or repress our feelings of anger and hurt, we are not able to move beyond them. If someone did something to us, which was totally unfair and deeply painful, such as sexual abuse, our anger is absolutely justified. Thus, despite society’s misconceptions about anger’s role in the forgiveness process, feeling and expressing anger in a healthy way is encouraged and necessary prior to forgiving (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2016).
Deciding to Forgive is the second phase in Enright’s (2001) model. Forgiveness is an individual decision that only the injured can make for themselves. Thus, although one can be educated and encouraged to forgive, it is always up to the individual whether they choose to forgive and when they are ready to forgive. Forgiveness requires great effort and hard work, even though we receive messages and expectations from society about quick forgiveness. As a result, people often perceive forgiveness as a shortcut to healing. This can be similar to thinking, if I say the words, “I forgive you” out loud, I have forgiven and am healed. In the context of a deep hurt, such as child sexual abuse, forgiveness requires more than just saying the words. Incest survivors who participated in a forgiveness education research project took an average of 14.3 months to forgive (Freedman & Enright, 1996). Thus, asking individuals to forgive too early, or before they are ready, will lead to false forgiveness and negative consequences. Although it can be too early to forgive, it is never too late to forgive.
Identifying and naming the specific injury one personally experienced is also very important when working on forgiving. You can only choose to forgive for the way you were deeply hurt and affected by the offense. We cannot forgive for, or on behalf of, our father, daughter, brother or friend. For example, hurt my child, hurt me. However, I can only forgive the offender for the way I was hurt when my child was hurt. I cannot forgive the offender for the hurt my child experienced; only my child can do that (Smedes, 1996).
The third phase of forgiveness is the Work Phase and involves coming to a place where you are able to recognize the offender’s humanity and worth as a human being and begin to feel empathy and compassion for them. Learning more about the offender and their background is helpful in understanding the context of the injury, and expanding one’s view of the offender. This is not done to excuse the offender and their actions, but to better understand the offender as a complex human being, i.e. not just the monster who hurt you. Forgiveness is not forgetting, condoning, saying that what happened was okay, or that justice cannot occur. Forgiveness is saying, I see your humanity, and that you are made up more than your most terrible act. Sarah Montana, in her fabulous Ted Talk, The Real Risk of Forgiveness – And Why It’s Worth It, shares her experience forgiving the murderer of both her mother and brother. She passionately states, “I know what you did, it’s not okay, and I recognize you are more than that. I don’t want to hold us captive to this thing anymore. I can heal myself and I don’t need anything from you”. Another common misconception about forgiveness is that you cannot forgive unless you receive an apology from the offender. This may be true for reconciliation but not forgiveness. Forgiveness is something a survivor can do all on their own, for their own well-being, without any response from the offender. Forgiveness can sometimes lead to reconciliation between the injured party and the offender, but it does not have to.
The Deepening Phase is the final phase in Enright’s process model and is characterized by finding meaning in the pain and suffering, the emergence of a newfound purpose in life, and the realization that one is not alone in their pain. These guideposts lead to an increase in positive feelings, as well as feelings of increased peace and freedom (Freedman & Enright, 2017).
With an accurate understanding of what it means to forgive, respect for one’s own timeline in forgiving, and support from others in one’s forgiveness journey, the forgiveness process allows one to heal. Research shows that forgiveness is an effective way of restoring both psychological and physical health following abuse and other deep hurts. Specifically, forgiveness is associated with decreases in depression, anxiety, and anger and increases in hope and self-esteem (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Freedman & Enright, 2017). Physical health benefits of forgiving include decreased blood pressure and improved heart functioning (Enright, 2001). According to one abuse survivor, “Forgiveness is the only path to freedom”. A domestic abuse survivor eloquently expresses what forgiveness means to her with the following statement, “When willfully abandoning resentment and related responses, there is air that extends through the depth and width of my soul, leaving little room for the dark places that once consumed me” (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2016). I am often asked “why forgive”, and my response is always the same, “What’s the alternative?” Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury or damage caused by the injury, it allows us to move forward in our lives free from the negative effects of anger, hatred, and resentment. It offers us a way to heal while still acknowledging that what happened to us was wrong, unfair, and extremely hurtful. For more information regarding what forgiveness is and how to go about forgiving, check out the references below.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, DC: APA Books
Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: APA Books.
Enright, R. D., and the Human Development Study Group. (1991). The moral development of forgiveness. In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development, (Vol. 1, pp. 123-152). Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.
Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
Freedman, S. & Enright, R.D. (2017). The use of forgiveness therapy with female survivors of abuse. Journal of Women’s Health, 6:3 DOI: 10.4172/2167-0420.1000369
Freedman, S. & Zarifkar, T. (2016). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and guidelines for forgiveness therapy: What therapists need to know to help their clients forgive. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 3(1), 45-58.
Montana, S. (May, 2018). Ted Talk: The real risk of forgiveness – And why it’s worth it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEK2pIiZ2I0Smedes, L. B. (1996), The art of forgiving: When you need to forgive and don’t know how. Nashville, TN: Moorings.
Brief Bio for Dr. Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.
Dr. Freedman is a Professor in the Educational Psychology department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright whom Time Magazine called “the forgiveness trailblazer.” Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology on Forgiveness with Incest Survivors.
Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest, and sexual abuse, eating disorders, early adolescent development, and at-risk adolescents. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. At the University of Northern Iowa, she has taught a variety of psychology courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness. Dr. Freedman email is firstname.lastname@example.org