Forgiveness in Clinical Practice


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The Source, Oregon Mental Health Counselors Association membership publication.

Forgiveness in Clinical Practice

By Faith Winters, LPC, ACS

 Many clients come to therapy because they have experienced considerable injustice from others. Forgiveness has been shown to be one of the direct routes to effectively reducing a client’s anger, anxiety and depression while increasing their sense of hope and self-esteem in a way that is constructive and healing. One popular definition of forgiveness is to “cease to feel angry or resentful towards” someone. However, there is no simple or easy way for clients to cease to feel such emotions. Forgiveness is not simply excusing or forgetting. It is deciding to give up the resentment that one is entitled to, and by giving this gift to the wrongdoer, it is the gift giver who becomes psychologically healed. Research has shown that people who forgive can increase self-esteem and hopefulness. Forgiveness not only heightens the potential for relational healing, but may also release the client from prolonged anger, rage, and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer, and other psychosomatic illness. Forgiveness may be a significantly beneficial intervention, if the clinician and the client have an accurate understanding of the concept.

To more accurately understand what forgiveness is, let’s first look at forgiveness is not:

Forgiveness is not Reconciliation: Reconciliation requires the cooperation of two people and is dependent on whether the wrongdoer's destructive behavior and intentions change. Giving forgiveness is under one person’s control. One can forgive without reconciling.

Forgiveness is not Forgetting: Deep hurts can rarely be wiped out of one's awareness and ceasing to remember an offense leaves one vulnerable to re-offense. The offense may be forgotten when trust has been rebuilt, but forgetting is not required for forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not Condoning or Dismissing: Forgiveness does not excuse harmful behavior. It is not just putting up with an offense or letting it go. Forgiveness involves truth, taking the offense seriously and not passing it off as inconsequential or insignificant.

Forgiveness is not Pardon: The legal transaction of pardon releases a wrongdoer from the legal consequences of an action, but it is not forgiveness. (Example: a merciful judge is not the one harmed, therefore is not the one who can forgive).

So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is the response shown when one rationally determines that one has been unfairly treated, and chooses to willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which one has a right), and endeavors to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the harmful act or acts, has no right). Forgiveness is an intentional choice that does not rely upon feelings. Although the decision to forgive may be immediate, the process of forgiving may take an extended period. Even a decision to forgive takes time, because the client must first understand exactly what forgiveness is and willingly choose it as an option.

The psychosocial development of an individual client may have a significant influence on how the client experiences an injury and deals with the aftermath. Unresolved issues of psychosocial development may affect the meaning an individual gives to forgiveness and the very willingness to consider forgiveness as an option. Individuals who use moral reasoning forgive in order to maintain good relationships; those individuals who use the highest stage of moral development forgive out of a genuine concern for the well being of the wrongdoer. The inability of a client to forgive might indicate developmental delay in the trust or intimacy stages and the therapist may need to address more general trust or intimacy issues to promote the forgiveness process. Refusal to forgive may serve as a defense mechanism to protect the wounded person from further hurt.

Forgiveness psychoeducation involves actively teaching clients the skills and understanding required in order for them to be able to intentionally forgive. Intentional forgiveness is a choice that empowers clients to engage in a process of healing that can free them from debilitating emotions and resentment. The choice to forgive is an immediate opportunity but forgiveness itself is a journey that involves surmounting the barricade of difficult emotions and self-preservations that will repeatedly block the desire to renew trust. Clients should be allowed a time of anger in response to the wound. The initial choice to forgive opens clients to engage in the forgiveness process and gives them a perspective that not only helps them prepare to work through difficult emotions, but leads them in the latter part of their journey to convert their suffering into a personally meaningful and transformational event. Forgiveness begins by perceiving the truth of the offense. Clients are often unwilling to forgive for fear that forgiveness eliminates justice, overlooks a grievous wrong, or provides a wrongdoer with an easy way out; this misperception is clearly stated in the idiom, "forgive and forget." Forgiveness deals with truth. If there is ever going to be healing, there has to be remembering, and then grieving, and that creates the opportunity for forgiving. Therapists can provide their clients with a potent tool by helping them to understand the healing power of forgiveness.

Suggested Forgiveness Reading List.

Augsburger, D. (1981). Caring enough to forgive: True forgiveness/Caring enough to not forgive: False Forgiveness. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. P.  (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ferch, S. R. (1998). Intentional forgiving as a counseling intervention. Journal of Counseling & Development, Summer98, Vol. 76 Issue 3, p261, 10p.

Freedman, S. (1998). Forgiveness and reconciliation: The importance of understanding how they differ. Counseling & Values, Apr98, Vol. 42 Issue 3, p200, 17p.

Romig, C. A., Veenstra, G. (1998). Forgiveness and psychosocial development: Implications for clinical practice. Counseling & Values, Apr98, Vol. 42 Issue 3, p185, 15p.

Smedes, L. B. (1984). Forgive and forget: healing the hurts we don’t deserve. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers.

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 ©2005 Faith Winters  Published in

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