Forgiveness Work: Issues and Modalities to Use
Many people view a new year as a clean slate: a chance to start afresh, including emotionally. For some this includes healing from past hurts which may have kept the person from moving forward in life. If a client comes to you with forgiveness on her mind – and, perhaps, whether she should or should not forgive someone for something – what are the issues that are likely to be bound up in the decision? How would forgiving serve the client? And if she decides to go for forgiveness, what modalities will be helpful to her in letting go of a past wrong? This post looks at these questions.
Many issues become entangled with forgiveness
Your client may not articulate all of the reasons for which she is struggling with the issue, but some of the following dynamics may be subtly present. Alerted to them, you can listen more meaningfully to her deliberations.
Not letting go of anger and resentment
Coming into relationship with how someone has truly injured us is hard, whether the injury was through betrayal, abandonment, assault, breaking our heart, failing to protect us, or any of myriad other ways. Once we acknowledge the hurt, we are likely to feel anger and resentment. That’s natural, and can often be a healthy response in that we are very much in touch with our emotions – and boundaried enough to know that we have been violated. Yet like the inflammation arising from a soft tissue injury, this response is helpful at the beginning but can cause more damage later on (we will go over the physiological consequences of harbouring unforgiveness shortly). There is a sense that we have lost control; we are outraged at the injustice. And we are told we should just let it go? There is a cascade of reasons why at least part of us rebels against the idea:
It feels like if we do, our sense of justice will not be satisfied. We don’t want to condone what they did.
We feel like we’re letting the offender off the hook; it’s like we’re letting them “get away with murder” – perhaps even literally. Yet the client can be reminded: forgiveness is not the same as justice.
The offending party refuses to apologise, or possibly even recognise the wrong – so it feels “wrong” or impossible to forgive. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, so we do not need their apology.
A part of us may want to avenge our wrong, or merely get revenge (Lickerman, 2013).
Conflating forgiving with forgetting or reconciling
Some clients may rightly wonder if they are wise to forgive when the wounding was so grievous that they need to protect themselves in future against the person. This unease may result from assuming that, if they forgive, they must also “forget”. Forgiving is not forgetting! Thomas Szasz noted that, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget” (Greenberg, 2015).
Neither is forgiving equal to reconciliation. Imagine the discomfort for survivors of abuse or incest if they were to think that their healing was dependent on having again to confront the abuser, in what was a relationship of unequal power, in order to “reconcile”. Remind your client that, while reconciliation is a two-sided conversation (an interpersonal encounter) in which both parties make a decision to let go of the past and move forward, forgiveness is intrapersonal. We do it as a conscious decision inside ourselves to let go in order to move forward. And doing so does not mean that we accept continued bad behaviour toward us. If the client is/has been in, say, a primary relationship with someone who continues to disrespect her or disregard her needs and wishes (such as a narcissist or someone with psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies), “reconciliation” can be empty. Research tells us that the resultant “doormat effect” of forgiveness in this case lowers the forgiver’s self-esteem (Greenberg, 2015).
The health effects
Hanging onto resentments and anger can feel good, even though those emotions are long-term toxic, and as we noted, it is sometimes easier to hang onto them than do the work of letting them go. That’s the “serve” of not forgiving. Let us look at the “limit” of it, although your client will probably be able to tell you this aspect herself.
When we don’t forgive
When we feel wronged, the amygdala in the old part of the brain activates the “fight or flight” response, stimulating the adrenal glands to pump out cortisol and triggering the sympathetic nervous system to go into overdrive. The heart races, the breathing rate increases, stomach acid gets pumped out, and the body’s self-repair mechanisms get turned off, putting us at greater risk of everything from heart disease to cancer (Rankin, 2012). People who cannot forgive themselves or others tend to be more depressed. They act in a more callous manner towards others, are less happy, and have higher mortality rates (Powers, 2016). But there is another way. We can choose to forgive.
Forgiveness as medicine
Skin grafts stick
Research on the effects of forgiving has turned up some interesting findings. One is merely anecdotal, but astounding. Burns surgeon Dabney Ewin noticed, over many decades of treating emergency room patients with burns, that if they could identify at a feeling level that they were able to let go of the anger (either at themselves or others) for their terrible injuries, the skin grafts that Ewin was putting on would take, but if they could not let go of the intense emotion around the injury, the patient’s body would reject the graft (some did this three or four times). Ewin eventually developed a method of asking patients to focus their energy on letting go and healing and to raise their hand when they felt they had let go. At that point, he said, he could apply the skin graft and it would stick (Powers, 2016).
Research at different levels of being
Physical health: Forgiveness is linked with better immune system function, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and a reduced risk of heart problems.
Mental health: Forgiveness has been associated with less anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, more feelings of control and freedom, an increased ability to cope with stress and trauma, an increased capacity to make meaning from pain, and increased feelings of closeness to God and others.
Relationship health: Forgiveness is correlated with higher-quality marriages and more committed romantic relationships (Powers, 2016). As one sage said, “A happy marriage is a union of two good forgivers” (Greenburg, 2015).
Forgiveness, moreover, is said to be a conscious and deliberate decision to release the feelings of vengeance and resentment, ushering in peace, liberation, and empowerment which strongly support healing. So, if the client wants to embark on the path of forgiving, which modalities might you use to help her get there?
We do not have scope within this text to name all, or even most, of the therapies currently available for working with issues such as the challenge of forgiveness. But below are some thoughts on how some of the more common modalities might be able to assist with the issue. With most of the therapies, psychoeducation which shares findings on research into forgiveness (as we have noted above) may be a useful adjunct to the therapeutic interventions.
Motivational interviewing (MI)
Originally designed to help those with substance misuse issues commit to changing away from their addiction, MI can help clients who feel conflicted about the possibility of forgiving wrongs. You can explore their ambivalence, possibly turning up arguments for and against forgiving. One sample intervention might be, “You’re telling me that you think about this all the time. Your guts are so churned up with resentment for what he did to you that you can’t even digest your food properly, and your friends are backing away from you. What might life look like in ____ months’ time (say, three or six?) if you continue along this path?” Or: “It sounds like right after it happened, the anger galvanised you to protect yourself and really energised you, but now I’m hearing that carrying all that anger is starting to make you feel weighed down. What might life be like if you did forgive him?” Asking clients to scale how important change is to them and/or how confident they are that they can change will be useful, too.
If clients are expressing intense emotions which are troubling them, you can help them find the maladaptive thoughts that are giving rise to the emotions. With anger and resentment, you will be hearing a lot of “shoulding”: “She shouldn’t have done that to me”, “That shouldn’t have happened that way; I didn’t deserve it”. Working towards more accepting thoughts which engender more moderate, helpful emotions can move your client along toward a space where it may feel ok to forgive. She can be reminded that it is often a slow process.
Object relations/Schema therapy
Psychodynamic therapies work from the premise that our early childhood experiences with relationship (normally, with the mother or other caregiver) sets up our relational template for our lifetime, so wounding in those early vulnerable years is particularly deep and troublesome. Survivors of neglect or abuse may only be able to face into intense feelings as adults after some therapy has already occurred.
In terms of object relations therapy, decoding transferences which develop in session with you may help the client understand what has happened. As the psychotherapeutic healing takes hold, your client may be able to “take back” the transferences, seeing you for the person you are, seeing the perpetrator of the wrongdoing more as a whole human being (even with some good characteristics despite the wrong deed), and accepting what has happened. Part of that process is to see how to meet unmet needs in a different way.
As far as schema therapy goes, your work within this modality may allow the client to see the wrongs she has sustained in terms of schemas developed early on. The known methods for coping with the schemas can then be explored in the context of her responses to the wounding, and to the sense that perhaps she should forgive. For example, a client with an abandonment/instability schema who has been cruelly betrayed and then jilted by a partner may be choosing a maladaptive coping mechanism of surrender to the schema. If she avoids conflict, passively accepts that she somehow “deserved” it, and clings to hope that the person will return, she may not fully experience the actual emotions of the event which would allow her to genuinely forgive, instead squashing such emotions down as a way of appeasing/surrendering. The CBT-like aspects of schema therapy can help work through maladaptive schemas and their responses, freeing the client to confront the situation emotionally and move on.
This transpersonal psychology is made-to-order for someone with inner conflict. Psychosynthesis proposes that, if we are in a body, we have needs. We go into relationship to try to meet them, but the quality of the relationships determines whether those needs will be met or not. Those which are unmet are likely to constellate as subpersonalities, which act out. You can encourage the client to recognise and begin to accept these parts of herself (which often occur in pairs). So, for example, she may discover Angry Annie, who never forgives anyone ever (too dangerous) and also Harmonising Harriet, who also acts out, by virtue of disavowing her anger and resentment but letting it poison her relationships. The identified drives (subpersonalities) can be synthesised: that is, integrated into your client’s whole person, which can more easily forgive if her needs have been met.
The post-modernist assumptions of narrative therapy that reality is not absolute, but socially constructed, that reality is influenced and communicated through language, and that it is maintained by stories can be helpful in forgiveness work. Your client has a narrative going about how she was hurt; that story is undoubtedly serving her in some ways, but may be limiting her in others. Especially if the wrongdoing was major, as in the case of abuse, she may feel victimised and will be helped by seeing that she has the choice to forgive or not and to go for reconciliation (not always advised or possible) or not. If also given psychoeducation about the effects of holding on to anger and resentment, she may begin to understand that the wrongdoer had his or her needs to meet and “get” reasons for why they did what they did. She can re-story, including now elements of how she was resilient under pressure, how she has maintained a fairly healthy level of beingness despite being wronged, and how she is powerful enough to forgive (if she wishes).
Mindfulness and compassion
Not full-fledged modalities in their own right, mindfulness and compassion exercises can be most helpful adjuncts to the healing work of forgiveness. Mindfulness urges us to be in the present moment (which might not include resentment, a thing from the past). Compassion encourages us to see all people as beings who were doing the best they could under the circumstances, even if their actions hurt us. It reminds us that we are all human and thus imperfect.
Ultimately, forgiveness is a journey of many twists and turns, but the traveller eventually comes to a “t-bar” intersection, which offers either a turn to permanent grudge-holding in the name of justice or avenging, or a turn in the other direction to head down an undulating road of letting go. From where we sit, the road of letting go – forgiving – may look more difficult at the outset with its ups and downs, but ultimately leads to life scenery which is stunning in its rich capacity for peace, freedom, and empowerment. You may be instrumental as the guide who got the client onto that road.
- Greenberg, M. (2015). 6 important facts about forgiveness. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 18 December, 2018, from: Website.
- Lickerman, A. (2013). Forgiveness: How and why to forgive others. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 18 December, 2018, from: Website.
- Mental Health Academy. (n.d.). Motivational Interviewing: The Basics. Mental Health Academy.
- Mental Health Academy. (n.d.). Narrative Therapy: The Basics. Mental Health Academy.
- Mental Health Academy. (n.d.). Schema Focused Therapy: The Basics. Mental Health Academy.
- Mental Health Academy. (n.d.). Working with subpersonalities. Mental Health Academy.
- Powers, J. (2016). Forgiveness is the answer to (almost) all of our ills. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 18 December, 2018, from: Website.
- Rankin, L. (2012). A lesson in grace. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 18 December, 2018, from: Website.