Gayle Reed received a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in Educational Psychology. During her work at the University of Wisconsin, Gayle participated in the Forgiveness Research Program under the auspices of Dr. Robert Enright. Dr. Reed's research on forgiveness therapy for women after spousal abuse is published in the October 2006 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Gayle currently teaches "The Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness" at the University of Wisconsin Extension and has an ongoing practice of forgiveness psychology workshops and individual forgiveness recovery consultation.
Forgiveness is perhaps the central virtue in a person’s religious or spiritual life. Yet it may be the most difficult response to consider after a horrific and violent event such as the recent campus shootings at Virginia Tech. Questions naturally arise: Shouldn’t one be angry about such a cruel and senseless event? Isn’t the pursuit of justice more important than forgiveness? Shouldn’t we find out why someone didn’t provide better protection from the violence? Wouldn’t the victims have to ignore their very real feelings of pain and grief if they forgive too soon? But other questions arise also: How should a person best respond to unjust suffering? Can an unfairly injured person become a stronger, better person by forgiving? How does forgiveness impact the restoration of a wounded community?
During the forgiveness process, it is, indeed, important to spend sufficient time uncovering anger and grieving the undeserved pain of the wrongdoing…but with the express purpose of relinquishing debilitating resentment and/or revenge. Most central to forgiveness is the paradoxical benevolent response of goodwill toward the wrongdoer (even if he/she is no longer alive). In this way the injured person him/herself finds release and healing. Then engagement in the pursuit of restorative justice and related social causes can proceed with a positive energy that is no longer confused by or acting as a form of resentment or revenge. Thus can communities also become places of healing rather than the settings of relentless cycles of violence and revenge (however subtle or “legally justified”).
Individuals and communities that practice forgiveness over time and support one another in that process demonstrate “overcoming evil with good.” This deserves our profound respect and they can show us the way. The forgiveness offered after the Amish school shootings near Paradise, Pennsylvania in October 2006 is such an inspiring example. In the aftermath of the shooting of ten innocent school children , this non-violent community responded to the unjust suffering of this shocking violence by offering forgiveness and kindness to the shooter’s family. The Amish families also expressed sadness for the shooter himself thus practicing goodwill for the wrongdoer and offering him a “place in the human community.” For the young people, faculty, and families at Virginia Tech today this can be a powerful model as they face the reality of the unjust suffering that they themselves are enduring. Forgiveness can provide them the path to “becoming stronger, better people,” emotional healing, and community renewal. And these brave survivors will have much to teach the rest of us as they tell their forgiveness stories in the months and years to come.
A summary follows of a forgiveness therapy that has been developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the psychological health benefits that follow that therapeutic experience. But more importantly, it must be stressed that forgiveness is a vital aspect of moral and spiritual wholeness. Forgiveness is choosing to generously offer goodness where unjust harm has been inflicted. Forgiveness means being changed deeply because of this ongoing morally and spiritually transformative response. This transformation is the true foundation of the psychological health benefits that we see in our research.
What happens when people forgive? Nearly twenty years of research at the University of Wisconsin demonstrates that people who choose to forgive do display improved psychological health. Numerous research studies have been conducted with participants who had various deep, unfair injuries to forgive such as parental neglect (Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis, 1995), incest (Freedman and Enright, 1996), and spousal emotional abuse (Reed and Enright, 2006). These studies reveal significant improvements in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, self-esteem, and positive coping skills. Moreover, participants with drug and alcohol addictions have demonstrated improvements in vulnerability to substance use (Lin, Enright, Mack, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004).
The University of Wisconsin forgiveness research programs are based on two key components: a solid definition of forgiveness and a clearly delineated process of forgiving. In essence, therefore, this is a cognitive therapy. The intervener helps the participant understand what forgiveness is and how to forgive. Then participant’s forgiving feelings and behaviors follow. Thus, at the end of the forgiveness therapy the participant will have changes in thinking, feeling, and behaving toward the offender as well as significant health improvements.
Forgiveness therapy begins with the Definition of Forgiveness. At the University of Wisconsin, we define forgiveness as a gift freely given in the face of a moral wrong, without denying the wrong itself. It is a relinquishing of resentment, which the wrongdoing incurs, and offering goodwill to the wrongdoer, which he/she has forgone, the right to as a result of the wrongdoing. Forgiveness recognizes the inherent human worth of the wrongdoer, welcomes him/her back into the "human community", and frees the injured party to pursue a process of healing as well as moral and psychological growth. We have found that clarity with the definition of forgiveness helps participants overcome important barriers to forgiving, particularly in considering what forgiveness is not. For example, a person who mistakenly thinks that forgiveness is merely forgetting and “moving on” might be very resistant to forgiving a wrongdoer for a significant betrayal or injury. We also clearly distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation. Forgiveness is the offended person’s moral choice whereas reconciliation is the fully engaged choice of both the offended and the offender. This distinction allows participants to work on forgiving an offender who is not yet ready to reconcile or who might cause further injury or who is now deceased. Thus, the forgiving person is not held captive by the readiness, willingness, or availability of the wrongdoer but can instead freely pursue his/her own personal growth and health.
The remainder of the forgiveness therapy is based on the Forgiveness Process Model developed at the University of Wisconsin by Dr. Robert Enright and his graduate research group. This process model has 20 processes that are grouped into four phases. This is a flexible model, which allows participants to spend the time they feel they need on each process and to alter the sequence of the processes where appropriate and helpful.
The first phase of the process model is called the Uncovering Phase and includes processes that allow the individual to become aware of the anger and emotional pain that has resulted from the unjust injury. Consequences of the injury such as psychological defenses, shame, cognitive rehearsal, and energy depletion are explored. As the impact of the injury is revealed and validated, the choice of forgiveness can seem more possible.
The second phase is called the Decision Phase in which the participant can consider the possible continuing damage if he/she does not choose forgiveness and, by contrast, the possible positive outcomes of forgiving. This is a process where a person actively has a “change of heart” and chooses the virtue of forgiveness for moral growth as well as healing. The person also commits to the hard work of forgiveness over time.
The third phase of the forgiveness process is called the Work Phase. This phase includes grieving the pain of the unjust injury, reframing the wrongdoer, and deciding to offer goodwill to him/her. The pain that is grieved includes the injury itself, the betrayal involved, and the subsequent losses (such as the absence of a murdered loved one at future events). The wrongdoer is reframed in his/her larger context (he/she is more than the wrongdoing) and in terms of inherent human worth. This is done without excusing or condoning the wrongdoing. So then, he/she is culpable but vulnerable and valuable. This new perspective lays the groundwork for empathy and the goodwill of forgiveness. This goodwill (mercy, generosity, and moral love) may be offered while, at the same time, taking into consideration current issues of trust and safety in the relationship between the injured person and the injurer.
The final phase is called the Deepening or Outcome Phase during which the forgiving person begins to realize that he/she is gaining emotional relief from forgiving the offender. This is also a time when a foundational aspect of forgiveness is discovered: finding meaning in suffering. The person realizes that choosing the virtue of forgiveness as a response to the undeserved pain from the wrongdoing has indeed led to remarkable personal growth. One can’t change the hurtful past but one can choose to be changed for the better. Thus, the forgiver discovers the paradox of forgiveness; as we give to another the gifts of mercy, generosity, and moral love, we ourselves are changed deeply and healed. Many forgiveness therapy participants then go on to consider how they might help others change and grow in a similar way. Numerous times these forgiving “survivors” have implemented this community outreach freed of the burden of “victimhood” and with a new “living narrative” of ongoing forgiveness.
Marietta Jaeger Lane (1998) is an example of a living forgiveness narrative that demonstrates goodwill, finding meaning in suffering, and finding new purpose. Marietta’s eight-year-old daughter Susie was murdered in 1973. Marietta bravely chose to forgive Susie’s murderer. Since that time, she has experienced profound changes in her life. Marietta has reached deep inside her own experience of forgiving, found support in a community of faith, and has spent the last nearly 30 years helping other families who have also experienced the murder of a child or other family member. Marietta teaches these families the healing alternative of forgiveness. Marietta has also displayed her deepened commitment to mercy for offenders by working to eliminate the death penalty.
There is another narrative that provides an inspiring model of forgiveness. You probably know this one: the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. This is an ancient story of a favored son, Joseph, whose jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph served faithfully as an Egyptian household slave for a powerful man named Potiphar. But Potiphar’s wife, after failing to seduce Joseph, becomes angry and has Joseph thrown into prison. Now Joseph has two very unfair events to cope with. Rather than becoming bitter, Joseph stands by the moral virtues that he believes in and takes strength from the God he relies on. Joseph then finds many opportunities to benefit both his Egyptian overlords and his brothers. On his release from prison, Joseph proves himself to be a wise and capable civil servant in Egypt. Years later, during a famine, both the Egyptians and Joseph’s brothers come to him for help. Joseph helps the Egyptians manage their food supplies and offers his own brothers precious grain as well. Joseph, by this time, had attained a very high position in Egypt and he could have taken revenge. But instead, he extends forgiveness and mercy to his brothers, his entire extended family, and to the Egyptians. An ever-widening circle of benefit flowed out from Joseph’s decision to forgive. Joseph pursued a livelong forgiveness journey and this was his expression of the outcome. “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Genesis 41:52
Forgiveness can be a powerful impetus for healing and restoration of individuals, families, and communities. Is there anything more needed as a response to betrayal or violence? It is our hope that anyone who has been unjustly wounded will find the timely help and support that is needed to embark on the transformative journey of forgiveness. A book that guides a person through the forgiveness process, “Forgiveness is a Choice” by Dr. Robert Enright, is available at www.amazon.com.
For more information on the forgiveness work developed at the University of Wisconsin, please see www.forgivness-insitute.org or ww.forgivenessrecovery.com.
Al-Mabuk, R.H., Enright, R.D., & Cardis, P.A.(1995). Forgiveness with parentally love-deprived college students. Journal of Moral Education. Vol. 24, 427-444.
Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness is a Choice. Washington, D.C.:APA Books.
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.
Jaeger, Marietta. (1998). The power and reality of forgiveness: Forgiving the murderer of one’s child. In Exploring Forgiveness. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 42-45.
Lin, W.F., Enright, R.D., Mack, D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance- dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72 (6), 1114-1121.
Reed, G. L. and Enright, R. D., (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74 (5), 920-929.
© 2007 Dr. Gayle Reed. Used by permission