An analysis of a sample of the general population's understanding of forgiveness: implications for mental health counselors.Forgiveness can be a long and treacherous process, but it can eventually lead to a better understanding of ourselves, as well as a deeper understanding of the person who hurt us. These interviews have shown the impact of forgiveness in real life. They have reinforced the importance of including forgiveness, or at least parts of the forgiveness process, into our recovery from a deep hurt. By recognizing the opportunity to forgive, [we] may already have a greater understanding of [our] pain and may have the potential to offer forgiveness in a seemingly unhopeful situation.
--Honors student who conducted three interviews on the general population's understanding of forgiveness
Although forgiveness has been an important part of religion and philosophy for as long as we can remember, it has become a popular topic for empirical investigation by social scientists only during the last 25 years (Enright & The Human Development Study Group, 1991; Enright & Coyle, 1998; McCullough, Sandage, & Worthington, 1997; Freedman, Enright, & Knutson, 2005). Psychological inquiry about forgiveness has greatly increased over the past 15 years, with clinical and educational intervention studies being conducted, as well as developmental research and examination of the associations between forgiveness and enhanced physical, mental, and spiritual health (Al-Mabuk, Enright, & Cardis, 1995; Coyle & Enright, 1998; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Freedman et al., 2005; Lawler-Row & Reed, 2007; Malcolm, DeCourville, & Belecki, 2008; McCullough & Worthington, 1995). The use of forgiveness with a variety of populations who have experienced deep hurts, such as incest survivors (Freedman & Enright, 1996); parentally love-deprived college students (A1-Mabuk et al., 1995); elderly women (Hebl & Enright, 1993); men hurt by their partner's abortion (Coyle & Enright, 1998); victims of spousal abuse (Reed & Enright, 2006); terminally ill cancer patients (Hansen, 2002); at-risk adolescents (Freedman, 2008; Gambaro, 2002); and substance abusers (Lin, Mack, Enright, Kahn, & Baskin, 2004) has illustrated that forgiveness can be a powerful counseling tool for a variety of clients. Cosgrove and Konstam (2008), citing Fenell (1993), state that willingness to forgive and be forgiven was identified as one of the 10 most important characteristics of long-term relationships.
Considering the backgrounds of those examining the topic--mental health counselors, philosophers, developmental psychologists, religious leaders, and social psychologists--it is not surprising that there is debate about the definition of forgiveness and how best to forgive (Cosgove & Konstam, 2008; Enright, Eastin, Golden, Sarinopoulos, & Freedman, 1992; Kearns & Fincham, 2004). Definitions vary when individuals describe what forgiveness is and is not, whether one has to feel love and compassion toward the offender, whether forgiveness includes reconciliation, what facilitates or impedes the process, whether an apology is necessary before forgiving, and the primary focus of forgiveness (Cosgrove & Konstam, 2008; Freedman, 1999; Kearns & Fincham, 2004; Malcolm et al., 2007). Some consider the role of the offender to be the defining feature of forgiveness (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997); others look more broadly at cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of forgiveness (Enright et al., 1992). Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) define forgiveness as the following:
People, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right) and endeavor 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 hurtful act or acts, has no right) (p. 29).
Enright et al. (1991) focused on morality and goodwill toward others in their view of forgiveness, describing it as a gift given to the offender by the injured even though the offender does not deserve it. It is a choice that the injured makes so as to overcome or move beyond negative thoughts, feelings, and reactions toward an offender. At first the decision to forgive may be self- motivated (one wants to feel better) but during the process the injured begins to take the offender into consideration and may hope that good things come to him or her or that at least he or she stops the hurtful behavior (Freedman et al., 2005).
Cosgrove and Konstam (2008) discussed how most researchers agree that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, condoning, excusing, or justifying the offense. However, they argued that forgetting may help one forgive in certain situations, and in doing so they confuse the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation, which illustrates the different ways even researchers understand forgiveness. Specifically, they pointed out that there are cases where advocating forgiveness reinforces injustice. They cited the finding of Katz, Street, and Arias (1997) that participants who were more likely to forgive their partner for physical abuse were also more likely to return to or remain in abusive relationships. However, in this situation one can forgive and not reconcile: it is not the forgiveness that is reinforcing injustice, it is the return to an unhealthy relationship. One can forgive from a safe place and not return to a relationship where re-injury is likely. Reconciliation should not occur if there is a chance that the individual will be hurt again (Freedman, 1998).
Cosgrove and Konstam (2008) also stated that forgiving allows the relationship to continue. This is true sometimes but not always. Forgiveness is something people can do on their own, but reconciliation is influenced by the offender's behavior and actions after the offense. They also discussed the dangers of distinguishing between "true" forgiveness and "false" or "pseudo" forgiveness, or authentic and inauthentic forgiveness. They argued that
In order to improve our knowledge about the process of forgiveness and be genuinely attuned to both individual as well as cultural differences, it is necessary for researchers to grapple with definitional issues and assess the meaning systems of individuals who are struggling with forgiveness (p. 9).
However, terms such as "true" or "false" or "pseudo" forgiveness may help explain differences between the forgiveness that leads to actual increases in psychological well-being as a result of effort on the part of the injured; the forgiveness that results when people are fearful of confrontation (Sandage, Hill, & Vang, 2003) or unwilling to acknowledge their own anger (Sandage et al.); and the forgiveness that is simply saying the words and overlooking the personal hurt and anger and the right to express it. Distinctions like "authentic" and "pseudo" forgiveness are necessary because too often the word forgiveness is used to describe many different forms of response that do not necessarily bring about a genuine decrease in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the offender or a focus on the offender, which distinguish forgiveness from alternative ways of healing and moving an after an injury (Enright et al., 1991).
In addition to the confusion about the definition of forgiveness, Kearns and Fincham (2004) point out that there is no consensus on the dimensions of forgiveness or the steps involved in it. Baskin and Enright (2004) gleaned from the literature three basic models of forgiveness. The first is the process model of Enright and the Human Development Study Group (1991), which will be discussed in detail below. The second, which was developed by McCullough et al. (1997), is described as fostering "both cognitive and affective empathy." It, too, is a process model, with nine different components. The third model was developed by McCullough and Worthington (1995) to introduce people to the idea of forgiveness and to consider the decision to forgive in a one-hour session. It is therefore considered a decision rather than a process model. Process models include both the decision to forgive and other cognitive and affective units; decision-based models emphasize making the decision to forgive (Freedman et al., 2005). As Fitzgibbons (1986) stated, people first approach forgiveness cognitively and then emotionally. In all three models participants are asked to focus on the person who hurt them and work on forgiving that person.
Many of the forgiveness intervention studies have used the Enright et al. (1991) process model, which now has 20 units. Units 1 8 constitute the uncovering phase, as individuals gets in touch with the pain and explore the injustice experienced. Working through these eight units allows those injured to experience both the pain and the reality of the injury and how it has affected them (Freedman et al., 2005). Units 9-11 constitute the decision phase, a critical part of the forgiveness process in which individuals explore what is involved in the idea of forgiveness before making a cognitive commitment to forgive.
It is also possible that they may make the decision to forgive even though they do not feel empathy, compassion, or any positive feelings for the offender when the decision is made. These will emerge during the work phase of the model (Units 12 15), which begins with refraining. Reframing involves seeing the offender with new eyes or in context, which often leads to empathy and compassion. Part of the work phase is accepting and absorbing the pain rather than passing it on to others or the offender; this is seen as at the heart of forgiveness (Enright et al., 1998). The outcome ("deepening")phase comprises the last five units in the model, as those injured realize that as they give the gift of forgiveness to the offender, their injuries heal. (See Enright, 2001, and Enright et al. for a more thorough description of the 20-unit process model.) Forgiveness will be affected by the severity of the injury and the relationship between offender and victim before the offense (Enright, 2001).
What is missing from the literature is how the general population understands the psychology of forgiveness, their experiences with forgiveness and forgiving, the obstacles to forgiving, how religion influences individuals' understanding of forgiveness, reasons for forgiving, and how forgiveness relates to healing. More detailed knowledge of how the general population makes sense of the psychological construct of forgiveness will allow mental health counselors, educators, and researchers to work more effectively to help others forgive. Hearing more real-life stories and experiences of forgiveness will also give us much-needed information about factors that help individuals forgive and when individuals in the general population find forgiveness most important.
The media in both print and documentaries have realized the importance of forgiveness for emotional well-being. Journey Films released the documentary "The Power of Forgiveness" in 2008; it features stories on forgiveness and real-life experiences, such as the Amish shooting, the September 11 tragedy, and peace-building efforts in Northern Ireland. However, in the media forgiveness is often portrayed as simplistic and easy to achieve (Kanz, 2000). Yet research has made it clear that forgiveness takes time, effort, and energy and can be one of the most difficult acts a person undertakes (Freedman & Enright, 1996). Before reviewing research on the general population's understanding of forgiveness, we will briefly review how mental health professionals understand forgiveness.
How Professionals Understand and Use Forgiveness
After surveying 381 mental health counselors to assess if and how they were addressing forgiveness in their practice, Konstam, Marx, Schurer, Harrington, Lambardo, and Deveney (2000) found that interventions and techniques designed to facilitate forgiveness with clients seemed to illustrate a lack of understanding of activities that were effective in bringing about forgiveness with a variety of clients. They stated that there is a need to address a gap related to forgiveness between research progress and current counseling practice. Konstam et al. suggested that future professional training address this gap.
Denton and Martin (1998) surveyed a group of experienced clinicians about their perceptions of forgiveness and found that they defined forgiveness as an "inner process, central to psychotherapy, where the injured person, without the request of the other, releases those negative feelings and no longer seeks to return hurt, and this process has physical, psychological, and emotional benefits" (p. 288). This definition is accurate in illustrating the idea that negative feeling decreases when one forgives and that forgiveness is something one can do without needing anything from the offender. However, according to the authors, this definition was mainly used by clinicians who were favorable to forgiveness. Those with less positive views were more skeptical about the role of forgiveness in therapy, its benefits, and its very definition.
Denton and Martin (1998) also found no significant differences between clinicians of different religious orientations. Because research findings regarding forgiveness and religious orientation are controversial (Kearns & Fincham, 2004) there is a need for research examining basic understandings and definitions of forgiveness as they relate to religious beliefs and practices.
Studies of experts in the mental health profession and in academia suggest that they tend to view forgiveness positively as a way to heal after a deep, personal, and unfair injury. Clinicians with less favorable views about forgiveness may not have enough information about what forgiveness is and is not, or about what is specifically involved in the forgiveness process (Freedman et al., 2005). As Freedman et al. point out, forgiveness is not the only way to heal after being injured, but it is "one way to heal and effectively decrease anger and resentment" (p. 400).
Research on how the General Population Understands Forgiveness
Lay people may have just as varied understandings of forgiveness as experts (Worthington, Sandage, & Berry, 2000). Their understanding of forgiveness is not only diverse but also appears to be incomplete (Kearns & Fincham, 2004; Middleton, 1995; Younger, Piferi, Jobe, & Lawler, 2004). Because an individual's understanding and experience of forgiveness may be quite different from research and theoretical conceptualizations, Zechmeister and Romero (2002) suggest that researchers compare lay understandings of forgiveness to academic ones (Younger et al., 2004). Enright, Freedman, & Rique (1998) challenged Patton's (1985) belief that people in general can comprehend the idea of forgiveness by themselves. They argue that the general population needs to be taught about forgiveness to know that it is an option and to begin practicing it. For example, an injured individual may be reluctant to forgive an offender because of fear of putting him or herself at increased risk of future hurts. Realizing that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation may make it much more likely that he or she will forgive. A well-defined concept of forgiveness can reduce misconceptions and increase the will to forgive, and the injured party's will to forgive is an important motivating factor in forgiveness (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk., 1989; Kearns & Fincham, 2004).
Younger et al. (2004) and Kearns and Fincham (2004) both point out that many measures of forgiveness simply assess whether or not forgiveness has occurred by asking, "Have you forgiven?" The individual's response is greatly influenced by how he or she understands what it means to forgive. For example, if reconciliation is part of this understanding, someone who has forgiven but not reconciled may respond "no." Thus, in order for forgiveness measurement to be reliable and valid, it is necessary to explore lay conceptions of forgiveness. As Kearns and Fincham state, "An important step in forgiveness research and assessment is to describe what people mean when they say they 'forgive' or 'do not forgive' and to compare these meanings to expert definitions of forgiveness" (p. 839).
When measuring forgiveness, we need to do more than just ask whether the individual has forgiven. The Enright Forgiveness Inventory (EFI) is a well-developed measure based on Enright et al.'s definition (1991) that assesses in six subscales the absence of negative and the presence of positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The last question on the inventory does ask if the person has forgiven, but then the answer is compared to the individual's pattern of responses on the six subscales--the total EFI score (Subkoviak et al., 1995). The EFI has been examined in five different cultures and the results demonstrate that it has strong internal consistency and construct validity (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). Enright and Fitzgibbons acknowledged that different cultures may express forgiveness differently and to varying degrees. However, they state that all cultures showed strong correlations between the forgiveness question at the end of the EFI and the total EFI score. They concluded, "The words used in the EFI convey the concept of forgiveness to people in Eastern and Western cultures, in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, and across diverse religions" (p. 312). In addition to knowing what forgiveness is and how people go about forgiving, therapists need to be able to assess where a client is on the forgiveness journey. They need to use a good scale that accurately reflects the definition of forgiveness (Enright & Fitzgibbons). Simply asking whether a client has forgiven is not enough.
Younger et al. (2004) conducted two studies to examine how laypeople view forgiveness and motivation for forgiveness. Comparing samples of community members and of undergraduates, they found that for community members (older sample), "letting go of negative affect" was the most frequently mentioned definition of forgiveness. The authors referred to this understanding as a focus on the intrapsychic dimension, compared to a behavioral understanding such as "acceptance, dealing with the event, getting over it," which was mentioned most often by the college students and with second highest frequency by the community adults. Younger et al. also found that 25% of the young adults and 16% of the older adults defined forgiveness as reconciliation, which the authors interpret as a focus on the interpersonal domain. They also found that the reason for forgiving most frequently mentioned by the college students was that the "relationship was too important to give up," and the one most frequently mentioned by the community sample was personal health and happiness. In the community sample, too, forgiveness was highly correlated with both physical and psychological well-being, which fits with recent research illustrating that forgiveness correlates with positive physical and mental health (Berry & Worthington, 2001; Freedman & Enright, 1996; McCullough et al., 1997; Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander-Laan, 2001).
Younger et al. (2004) also highlighted how the primary motivation for forgiveness in their samples of community members and undergraduate students was self-focused, not altruistic or empathic: Individuals chose to forgive to maintain an important relationship or feel better emotionally, and forgiveness was also dependent on an apology and restitution. The authors concluded that the idea of forgiveness as a gift to the offender as well as oneself, as described by Enright (2001), was "noticeably lacking" (p. 866) in the two groups they studied.
Kanz (2000) asked a sample of 155 college students (primarily female and Christian) to respond to 23 yes or no questions designed to assess their beliefs about specific aspects of forgiveness. After examining the literature about forgiveness Kanz created questions on concepts that appeared frequently. He found that the participants in the study conceptualized forgiveness similar to the way forgiveness researchers did. Specifically, the majority of the sample agreed that anger decreases when there is forgiveness, that an apology is not necessary before someone would be forgiven, that it is not necessary to forget the hurt when you forgive someone, that it is possible to forgive someone without them being aware of it, and that forgiving is not a weakness. Areas of disagreement included participants' ideas that reconciliation was a necessary part of forgiveness and that forgiveness can cause emotional problems (Kanz, 2000). These inaccurate beliefs may result from a faulty view of forgiveness, which does not lead to true forgiveness and psychological well-being.
Forgiveness takes hard work and time, and often painful feelings arise from reliving the injury. Someone working through forgiveness but not yet having completed the process could feel as if he or she were experiencing emotional problems. One reason that forgiveness is so effective is that it allows individuals to work through their negative emotions and then move on after the injury, rather than trying to deny or numb themselves from feeling the pain.
Kearns and Fincham (2004) also examined the content and structure of the concept of forgiveness from the perspective of the layperson. Similar to Kanz's findings (2000), their results illustrated that in some ways participants conceptualized forgiveness like forgiveness researchers. Participants found not holding a grudge, not wanting or seeking revenge, and making peace between people to all be central features of forgiveness. These researchers also found that laypeople do conceptualize forgiveness as a multidimensional construct that has affective, behavioral, and cognitive components, similar to Enright et al.'s (1998) definition of forgiveness, which included a decrease in negative and perhaps a gradual increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (although this may take a while).
Kearns and Fincham (2004) found some differences in how experts and laypersons understand and define forgiveness. Specifically, 12% of their participants listed condoning or excusing as an attribute of forgiveness, with some rating these concepts as a central feature of forgiveness; 28% believed that forgetting about the injury was an important component of forgiveness, although it was not listed as a central feature; and 21% thought that reconciling was an important feature. Kearns and Fincham also discussed how some participants believed that there were some negative aspects associated with forgiving, such as feeling like a pushover or swallowing one's pride, and that forgiving leads to re-injury. All these ideas relate to misconceptions people have about forgiveness. Educating mental health counselors and individuals about what exactly forgiveness is and is not and what it involves will help address negative and erroneous conceptions people have about it.
Why Forgiveness Education Is Critical for Mental Health Counselors
According to Denton and Martin (1998), education about forgiveness is essential in helping clients see the power of individual choice and the benefits of forgiving. Forgiveness cannot occur if the forgiver does not know what it is and how to do it. Mental health counselors who ask their clients what they know about forgiveness make it possible for them to discuss any biases they may have. Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) stated that before using their forgiveness model with clients, it is necessary to articulate to the clients a clear definition of forgiveness. Similarly, Casarjian (1992) claimed that "the beliefs that you hold about forgiveness open or close possibilities for you, determine your willingness to forgive, and as a result profoundly influence the emotional tone of your life" (p. 12). Cosgrove and Konstam (2008) stated that mental health counselors support the use of forgiveness as a therapeutic tool because of the benefits associated with forgiving, such as decreases in anger and resentment and letting go of the desire for revenge. However, counselors themselves need to have accurate knowledge about forgiveness and how best to help people forgive before using it with their clients.
This paper represents an attempt to improve mental health counselors' knowledge of forgiveness by illustrating a sample of the general population's knowledge, understanding, experience, and practice of forgiveness, including obstacles that get in the way of more people being able to forgive.
Participants were selected by 16 honor students enrolled in an introductory course on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness in a small Midwestern university. Each student selected at least three individuals (one selected four) to interview and conducted the interviews personally. Thus there were 49 participants, 34 females and 15 males; most were Caucasian and Christian. The mean age of participants was 26.6 years. Of the 49 participants 34 were college students and 3 were high-school students. Four of the males were middle-aged: one was a Catholic priest, one a professor, one a self-employed carpenter, and for one the profession was not recorded. Eight of the females were post-college-age: one was 24 and working on her Master's degree, six were middle-aged, and one was about 60. One woman was a self-employed beautician, one a secretary, one a chemist, one a social worker, one a grandmother, and two were stay-at-home mothers.
The interviews were conducted as part of a class project. Sixteen students enrolled in the Honors class Introduction to the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness were asked to interview three people and analyze the responses. Allowing the students to choose their interviewees helped facilitate rapport between interviewer and interviewee, more easily elicit personal experiences in forgiveness, and facilitate a more in-depth interview. The students and the professor (one of the authors of this article) worked together to draft the interview protocol, which included 31 questions about participants' understanding of forgiveness and their sharing of personal views and experiences with forgiveness and forgiving. The students were instructed as a group on how best to conduct interviews and familiarized themselves with the questions before interviewing anyone. The participants chose the locations of the interviews.
A structured interview method was used. Kvale (1996) defined a structured research interview as "attempts to understand the world from the subjects' point of view, to unfold the meaning of peoples' experiences, and to uncover their lived world prior to scientific explanations" (p. 1). Although an interview protocol was generated, adaptations were made with each interview as necessary. Interviewers were instructed to not let the interview protocol dictate the direction of the interview.
Before beginning the interview, the students recorded the participant's age and sex. Relationship to the interviewer and occupation at the time of the interview were obtained for most participants. No pre-set definition of forgiveness was introduced in the interview; nor did the interviewers share their knowledge about forgiveness with interviewees.
Approximately 25 questions were asked in each interview and the answers were recorded and transcribed. Data were coded and analyzed into various categories for each question in order to develop profiles of how a sample of the general population defines and understands forgiveness, whether they view it as beneficial, their experiences forgiving, and how their definitions of understanding compare to the academic study of forgiveness. The researcher coded initial data for the questions of interest into categories; a graduate assistant then recoded them with 95% accuracy.
The questions chosen as the focus of the analysis were those that most directly pertain to definitional issues in the literature and those for which responses and patterns of responses will most directly contribute to mental health counselors' ideas and knowledge about forgiveness and to their use of forgiveness with clients. The questions included: How do you define forgiveness? Is there a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? How does forgiveness differ from condoning or forgetting? Have you ever experienced a deep hurt or situation in which you needed to forgive; if so, did you forgive the person for that hurt? If you have not forgiven, have you ever considered forgiving? Why can't you forgive? How does religion influence your understanding of forgiveness? and What are the reasons someone would (or should) forgive? Because participants could indicate multiple definitions and views about forgiveness, percentages of the categories for all questions may exceed 100%.
After doing the interviews, students analyzed the responses in terms of respondents' accuracy in understanding and defining forgiveness, comparison to expert views, and how similar and dissimilar their three interviewees' responses were. The data were analyzed and are reported to illustrate students' perspectives on their interviewees' knowledge and their conclusions about the importance of forgiveness and forgiveness education for the general population.
For the first question analyzed, "How do you define forgiveness?" responses were coded into seven categories. The most frequently mentioned definition, reported by 53% of the sample (26 of 49) was that forgiveness involved some type of letting go: "Letting go of negative feelings, letting go of anger, letting go of ideas of revenge." For example, a middle-aged priest reported that forgiveness was "the ability to let go of the effects of a deep hurt from another which arises from a decision. "Many participants simply stated that forgiveness involved letting go. One male college student, age 19, reported, "It means to let go of the things that hurt you." Another subject said, "Forgiveness is letting go of your pride," and another, "Letting go of a bad feeling or angry feeling toward someone for something they did to you." Another participant defined forgiveness as "acknowledging that someone wronged you and deciding to let it go." In this definition, a wrong is acknowledged and forgiveness is a decision people may make even though they still experience negative emotions.
Other responses focused more on letting go of anger and thoughts of revenge such as, "No longer feeling anger toward the person," "Forgiveness is the power not to hold anger inside," "Giving up the longing for revenge," "Forgiveness is when you remember something and it doesn't make you angry any more," and "Forgiveness is to relinquish harboring feelings of anger, spite, and vengeance over having been wronged." These responses are accurate in that they are similar to how researchers define the emotional aspect of forgiveness as involving letting go of negative feelings and thoughts.
The second most commonly mentioned definition (20%; 10 of 49 participants) involved some type of moving on: "Putting something negative that's happened behind you and moving on," "You move on with life," "Not forgetting, but putting it past you," "Realize problem and then dealing with it and putting it behind you so it doesn't come up in future arguments," and "Not necessarily forgetting but being okay with what happened. You've dealt with it, you understand what happened and maybe why it happened. You have reflected on how you reacted to it and you have a right feeling about it." The last quotation emphasizes that the hurt needs to be acknowledged and understood, which Enright et al. (1991) refer to as reframing. Reframing is to rethink a situation or to see it with a fresh outlook (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). The idea is to see the offender as a whole person, not just the source of the offensive act.
Eighteen percent of the sample (9 of 49) defined forgiveness as not holding a grudge, not blaming the person, or not reminding. Specific responses included "Not holding a grudge against someone any longer," "To not place fault on a person who has done harm or insult," "It's not forgetting because you can't do that. You will always remember but not hold a grudge against them," "It is not bringing up the situation again and again to remind the other person of what they did," and "Not holding anything against someone for some previous action or words that were said." These definitions hint at the idea that forgiveness includes reconciliation.
Another 18% (9 of 49) defined forgiveness as forgetting, overlooking, or excusing, with most mentioning forgetting. Specific responses included "Forgetting about what someone has done to you--or what you've done to yourself," "When you forgive, you forget about it, you let it slide," "Forgiveness is when you overlook something bad," and "Being able to forget conflicts and problems and being able to overcome things."
The fifth most common definition involved some mention of preserving the relationship or giving the offender a second chance, with 16% (8 of 49) mentioning the idea of reconciliation. Specific responses included "Allowing the person to become your friend again," "Working out a conflict with somebody else," "The act of giving somebody a second chance. It's not just saying it; you have to mean it in your heart as well," and "Two people working it out."
The definition of forgiveness given by 8% of the participants (4 of 49) fit the category of recognizing the humanity in the other. Specific statements included "Accepting that the other person can do wrong," "You learn to appreciate the person instead of holding a grudge," and "On the cosmic level one realizes their injurer as a fellow human and as an equal. We aren't perfect and neither are they. We all make mistakes."
These quotes all do a good job of reflecting the concepts of inherent equality and unconditional worth--Enright's (2001) foundational themes of forgiveness. Inherent equality centers on the insight that even if one person is taller or smarter or richer than another, both are equally worthy because they are human beings and part of the human community. The idea of inherent equality helps one understand that regardless of what someone does, he or she is still a human being worthy of respect (which may be hard to realize depending on the injury) (Enright, 2001). This category is noteworthy in that these responses illustrate the interpersonal and moral nature of forgiveness as the offender is taken into consideration as an important focus in the definition.
Additional definitions, mentioned by less than 2% of the sample, included apologizing, showing remorse with words, being freed from deserved consequences of what you did wrong, and not holding another person accountable. Most of these views are inaccurate: one does not need a verbal apology to be able to forgive, and forgiveness does not mean that the offender is not held accountable or responsible for the action (Freedman et al., 2005; Smedes, 1996).
The second question analyzed was "Is there a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation?" Of 46 participants who responded to this question, 89% (41) answered "yes" and 11% (5) did not see any difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Responses to the question "What are the differences between forgiveness and reconciliation?" were coded into six categories. Thirty-five percent (16 of 46) thought that the injured could choose to forgive the offender without getting back together, and 35% also responded that reconciliation was an ideal state following forgiveness. For example, one 19-year-old male stated that "if someone forgives a person, that does not mean that they need to reconcile with the person who hurt them, especially if you realize the person might hurt you again," and one 20-year-old female stated that "you can forgive without wanting them to be a part of your life." These examples pertained to the first pattern, in which the injured can forgive the offender without getting back together. In addition, one male college student, age 20, stated that "reconciliation is the ideal, ultimate outcome of true forgiveness," and one female college student, age 18, stated that "they are contingent upon one another because forgiveness is the beginning of reconciliation," which pertain to the second pattern, that reconciliation is an ideal state following forgiveness.
Another difference mentioned by 26% of the sample (12 of 46) was that forgiveness was internal or one-sided while reconciliation was interactive or two-sided, and 20% (9 of 46) mentioned the idea that the injured could reconcile the relationship without having to forgive. For instance, one male college student, age 20, stated that "reconciliation is an interactive process, while forgiveness can occur in the mind and/or the heart," and one female college student, age 21, stated that "forgiveness is a gift one to another and reconciliation is a joint effort." A 19-year-old male stated that "one can end their negative actions and reconcile their relationship without having forgiven the person," and a 54-year-old female stated that "even though you may still interact with a person, like in the work place, you really only reconcile with them and may still bring the hurtful issue up." Most of the research on forgiveness and reconciliation emphasizes that reconciliation does not automatically follow forgiveness, and thus it was interesting to see how many participants indicated that the two were different in that even if two people resumed their relationship after one had been deeply hurt, it is not always the case that forgiveness occurred. This area needs more attention. People who are in an abusive relationship may often reconcile without forgiving. For them, forgiving from a safe distance would be a wiser choice.
Three participants (6%) distinguished forgiveness from reconciliation by stating that reconciliation was more spiritual. The middle-aged priest reported, "Reconciliation calls for spiritual healing," and a 19-year-old female reported that "reconciliation takes on a religious aspect; reconciliation is forgiveness by God." A few participants made a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation according to descriptions that were the least mentioned in the interviews. For instance, one male college student, age 20, stated that "one could reconcile without truly being hurt, whereas forgiveness requires that a person suffers a deep wrong"; another, age 21, stated that "forgiveness is harder to do than reconciliation; it requires more thought and energy."
In contrast, a few participants considered forgiveness and reconciliation to be the same (11%). One middle-aged male thought that "they are so interrelated; when you forgive, you reconcile, but they don't always happen at the same time"; one female college student, age 20, thought that "reconciliation is immediate; if I really value a relationship, it's an automatic that comes with forgiveness"; and another, age 19, thought that "the two things are one and the same; the outcome of forgiveness should be reconciliation between the two parties." As forgiveness has often been confused with reconciliation by academics, mental health professionals, and other samples of the general population, it is good to see that most of this sample recognized the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation when asked about it directly.
The next question analyzed was "How does forgiveness differ from condoning or forgetting?" Of the 47 respondents who answered the question, 6% (3) thought that forgiveness was the same as condoning or forgetting. The responses included "You're still saying it is wrong, but you're willing to see the other person's side and give them a second chance. You get over the hurt by forgetting it" and "Forgiveness is not condoning but it could be forgetting." Another participant stated, "Condoning is kind of the same as forgiveness, but with forgiveness you let the person know the action wasn't okay but you have no resentment." The majority, 94% (44), responded that forgiving was different from forgetting or condoning. Examples of specific quotes include "Yes, people don't forget. Maybe forgetting is a deeper level of forgiveness, because if you have to dwell on it, you haven't given it up completely. I think forgiveness should just be what it is. Condoning is saying it is okay, which is different from forgiveness. Maybe forgetting applies to minor hurts instead," "Condoning denies something was done wrong and forgetting is like something never happened," "Forgetting is not forgiving and condoning doesn't resolve a conflict. Forgiving brings about resolution," "Condoning and forgetting are just surface dismissals of the problem," and "It is weak-minded to forget. I don't see how it's possible. Condoning is different from forgiving because if you were legitimately hurt and turn around and say, 'It was okay,' that undermines one's self-worth and value system." Another participant also responded, accurately, that, "They are nothing alike. It is impossible to forget and one should not condone wrong actions. Neither of these is part of forgiving. You always remember the bigger things. Sometimes you need to remember in order to forgive." These responses illustrate how individuals in the general population understand that with forgiveness a wrong is recognized and that one can forgive a deep hurt but will most likely not forget it.
In response to the question "Have you ever experienced a deep hurt or situation in which you needed to forgive?" 47 of the 49 respondents said yes. Hurts ranged from being teased because of one's religion in second grade to being hurt by boyfriends and girlfriends, parents and friends. Of the 28 participants who provided information about the offender, 16 (57%) were hurt by their boy- or girlfriends or other friends, 11 (39%) by their relatives, and 1 (4%) by a stranger. Specifically, one 24-year-old female graduate student responded, "My friend's brother killed my cat on purpose. He still doesn't understand how deep a hurt it was." Another 24-year-old female student stated that "My morn put the priority of being a woman before being a mother. For that reason I was forced to care for my younger siblings at age 15. That was a deep injury." The hurt for a middle-aged priest was that his father was an alcoholic.
A middle-aged male professor said that a member of the family's church molested his daughter as an adolescent for a number of years and the father only found out after the molestation ended. Enraged by this knowledge, he has fought for justice ever since and as a result "lost his church." He said, "the abuser has not experienced any repercussions and justice has not occurred." He feels that he would be giving up on justice if he were to forgive the man who molested his daughter. Confusing forgiveness and justice prevents this man from engaging in the healing act of forgiveness. Justice and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive: one can forgive and still seek public justice. For example, the pope forgave the man who tried to assassinate him, but the man remained in jail. It would also be interesting to know how the father's lack of forgiveness has affected his daughter's response to the molester. Can the daughter forgive if her father is still so angry?
This situation highlights another confusing issue in the literature: Can someone forgive who was not directly hurt? The father has a fight to forgive the offender for the way he was hurt when his daughter was molested. Although one cannot forgive on behalf of someone else, one can forgive for the way he or she was injured (Smedes, 1996). Thus, the father could not forgive the molester for the injury to his daughter but he could forgive for the hurt he himself experienced. It is also true that people often think that once justice occurs, they will feel much better. The sad reality is that the individual is still left with the loss and hurt. This is especially true where people have fought for the death penalty but do not feel the sense of relief they thought they would after the offender was put to death. Their loved one is still gone.
A 19-year-old female college student illustrates that one could be hurt but not need to forgive. This interviewee was hurt when her best friend, dying of cancer, would not talk to her about it. She said, "! don't this see as a forgiveness situation. I was hurt--but it wasn't about my feelings at that time anyway. Now I don't have the opportunity to talk to her about it." Her friend died just a week before the interview. It may be not that she did not need to forgive but that because she could understand her friend's behavior and had compassion and empathy for her friend, she was able to forgive immediately. Enright et al. (1991) explain that even if an act is justified, when a transgression results in deep, unfair, and personal hurt, one may choose and has the right to forgive. Understanding the offender's motives (reframing), as in this example, certainly makes forgiving easier.
The statements of a 20-year-old female sophomore about forgiveness being an ongoing struggle for her illustrates that forgiveness does not occur overnight:
I'm experiencing a really bad hurt right now, it's been an ongoing thing for over two years. It's a deep hurt because it involves my dad. That makes it deeper because I love and respect him. I have to pray about it a lot to not become bitter. I'm trying not to cause a situation where I need to ask for forgiveness myself.
This illustrates how sometimes the forgiveness process can become cyclical as the one hurt may become the offender and need forgiveness from the one who originally hurt him or her. As Worthington, Kurusu, Collins, Berry, Ripley and Baiere (2000) observed, "Anything done to promote forgiveness has little impact unless substantial time is spent at helping participants think through and emotionally experience their forgiveness" (p. 18).
Of the 47 respondents who stated that they had experienced a deep hurt that they needed to forgive, 26 (55%) stated that they had forgiven the offender, 14 (30%) said they had not, and 7 (15%) were in the process of doing so. People in the process of forgiving stated the following, "It's taking time," "I still have a long way to go and I know that," and "It is a continuous process as I bury it a lot and don't want to remember it." One person did not know if she had forgiven. Participants who had not forgiven gave the following responses: "I haven't forgiven her because I'm still feeling the effects of what she's done and every time I run into something that's related to what she's done, it just makes me more mad." Another said, "No, it has been four years and I still have not forgiven them. I essentially broke off all contact with her. It was my decision but eventually it seemed to become mutual." Respondents who had forgiven illustrate important points noted in the literature. For example, even after forgiveness, some anger may remain, as Smedes (1996) discusses. One, asked whether he had forgiven, said, "You betcha, but the anger comes back once in a while." Another person's response illustrates her reliance on God to be able to forgive:
Yeah, I don't think 1 have a problem dealing with bitterness on a day-to-day basis. My belief in God's plan plays into the fact that I can be forgiving. It's all a lesson it depends on how you take it and what you want to learn. Sometimes the situation is hard and discouraging but 1 know God put the situation in my life for a reason. This is an ongoing relationship that I have to deal with everyday. When the conflict does finally get resolved, I think it will be very easy for me to forgive because we have both learned and grown from it.
This response shows that it is hard to forgive when one is still being hurt and in the midst of conflict. It is easier when one is removed from contact with the offender. This distance is a necessity in cases of abuse because forgiveness while the person is still being hurt can lead to more abuse. It is necessary to forgive from a situation of safety. If people cannot or choose not to remove themselves, for whatever reason, it may be necessary to limit contact with the offender as much as possible and put forgiveness on hold until the victim is no longer being hurt, or to forgive one specific situation at a time.
Asked "If you haven't forgiven, have you ever considered forgiving? Or why can't you forgive?" 13 people responded. Responses were coded into four categories. Six of the participants (46%) indicated that they believed that forgiveness was the same as reconciliation. Examples of specific responses are, "I tried but the guy's a jerk about it. Sometimes I feel like I've forgiven, sometimes I don't," "Yes, I've considered forgiving but I never see her around any more and I don't know how to contact her. After this long, it doesn't seem like it would really matter any more." Three (23%) had trouble forgiving because they were still experiencing pain. For example, one responded, "Yes, I have considered but have not forgiven because I still feel resentment." Another said, "It is still bothering me, it's still there." A daughter hurt by her father stated,
I haven't forgiven him for what I missed out on. l see what other kids have with their dad. I don't have a really heavy grudge toward him but it is still ongoing. I don't know if I ever will forgive him. It's part of what happened.
Another three (23%) did not forgive because they expected something from the offender before forgiving: "She'd have to come to me first, and then we could talk about it." "The person who hurt me never admitted wrong, nor did they show they were sorry. They asked what was needed for me to forgive them but they weren't willing to do it." What's true about these responses is that the person is choosing not to forgive or is unable to forgive because of a lack of knowledge of forgiveness and how to go about forgiving or because of a misconception about forgiveness. For example, individuals who are still angry could benefit by working through their anger and going through the steps in Enright et al.'s (1991) 20-unit model of forgiveness. Those who believe that forgiveness cannot occur unless they are in contact with the offender or until they receive an apology or admission of wrongdoing, or that forgiveness and justice are mutually exclusive, are trapping themselves in an unforgiving state and are unable to heal and move on because of mistaken beliefs.
As an illustration of how religion influenced this sample of the general population's understanding of forgiveness, of the 33 interviewees who responded to the question about religion, 26 (79%) stated that religion was influential in their willingness and ability to forgive and 7 (21%)) did not see any necessary connection between forgiving and religion or spirituality. The responses from the 33 who indicated that they were influenced by religion were coded into four categories: Christianity-based, God-based, Religion-based, and Morality-based forgiveness. For example, 11 (33%) gave responses fitting Christianity-based forgiveness. One said that, "Christianity is based on forgiveness. There is no reason to hold onto anger. You should let yourself begin healing." Another stated, "Religion colors my views on everything in life. To go to heaven, I believe we must strive to be like Jesus ... try not to sin, try to forgive, and turn the other cheek instead of seeking revenge." Another stated that "I strongly believe in forgiveness because Christ forgave me: religion is huge." One last response illustrating Christianity-based forgiveness is, "I was taught in Sunday school from a young age that we should follow Jesus's example. He forgave on the cross. I try to forgive, too, but I'm only human."
Of 33 responding to this question, 7 (21%) based their forgiveness on God's help and on using God as a model. For example, one woman stated, "Forgiveness isn't something humans came up with; humans are naturally sinful and unforgiving. Only by the grace of God can someone forgive another person. You can't forgive completely without God's help." Another stated, "God shows me how."
Another 7 (21%) talked about how religion in general influenced their understanding of forgiveness, saying, "Yes, religion is necessary. You can't forgive if you don't have a religious foundation," "It is the root of my forgiveness. Everything I know about it comes from religion," and "All religions preach forgiveness. You can't listen to a sermon without hearing a little bit about forgiveness. Religion helps you understand forgiveness."
One person (6%) responded that her morals influenced her understanding of forgiveness: "The only way it is related is through the morals that I was raised with. I was taught to do unto others as I would have them do unto me."
Individuals who responded that religion did not influence their understanding of forgiveness stated that "I don't believe in religion, so I guess it doesn't," and "Not really. Well, I guess it depends on the religion. You don't have to be religious to forgive."
The last question asked, "What are the reasons someone would (or should) forgive?" Responses were coded into four categories: Well-being of the injured, Sake of the relationship, Right thing to do/Moral or religious reasons, and Miscellaneous. Forty-three percent of the sample (23 of 53--respondents could give more than one response) felt it was important to forgive for the well-being of the injured, stating, "To make internal peace with yourself, .... Physical benefits for yourself--lower blood pressure and lower stress," "Self-healing and empowerment," "For your own sanity," "It makes people feel better about themselves, other people, and life in general," "So that your heart is no longer angry. When you don't [forgive], you can't trust any more."
Clearly, these responses illustrate that individuals in this sample of the general population believe that forgiving leads to improved physical and mental health. Twelve of the 53 respondents (23%) thought forgiveness should occur for the sake of the relationship, saying, "To re-establish the friendship," "Realizing a relationship is too important to let go of. Realizing the other person is sorry and deserves forgiveness." Two of these 12 mentioned the offender's remorse as a reason to preserve the relationship.
Forgiving because it is the right thing to do, out of love, or for moral or religious reasons was mentioned by 11 people (21%), who said things like "People forgive to do the right thing," "Out of love is the biggest thing. It's how I am supposed to live. We all need forgiveness, and we need to be forgiving to be forgiven," "To help the other person become better and feel worthwhile," "Most people want to do the right thing and forgiveness has inner feelings of doing the right thing." These responses illustrate that some individuals in this sample do realize that when you forgive you take the offender into consideration and that it is an interpersonal process that involves recognizing that we all make mistakes. Some may also be forgiving out of obligation, and mental health professionals need to explore the differences between forgiveness that results because one chooses to forgive and forgiveness that results because one thinks he or she has to forgive. The latter type may not result in the desired outcome of improved physical and psychological well-being for the injured and a more positive attitude toward the offender.
Seven responses (13%) fit into the miscellaneous category. They included ideas that people should forgive because of the offender's actions, to feel superior, as a response to being asked to forgive, and for family reasons. These reasons are similar to reasons mentioned in the literature--because of the potential physical, mental, and interpersonal health benefits (Malcolm, 2008).
The 16 students' analyses of their own interviewees' responses were also examined to determine whether they thought their subjects had accurate views about forgiveness or held misconceptions, whether their respondents had similar or different views about forgiveness, and what factors influenced their interviewees' views. Of the 12 students who commented on their subjects' knowledge of forgiveness, 67% (8) thought their subjects held misconceptions about forgiveness and 33% (4) thought their interviewees held accurate views. One student stated, "Obviously, the interviewees all have an inaccurate view of forgiveness. The major problem lies in the fact that they all mistake forgiveness and reconciliation as the same thing." Another said, "On the whole I realized that most people don't truly understand true forgiveness. Even after people sit down and contemplate forgiveness, as I feel the people I interviewed have, many misconceptions linger. I did, however, realize that people see a need for forgiveness." Another stated, "Forgiveness can be a misunderstood subject. The emotional, cognitive, and spiritual pains involved in the situation are so strong that at times it is difficult to truly understand what forgiveness has to offer." The following statement illustrates that college students might not be thinking a lot about forgiveness unless it comes up in their life: "In general, I found that my peers don't seem to know much about forgiveness. It seems like they haven't given the topic much thought, other than recognizing past experiences."
Other students interviewed individuals who had a better understanding of forgiveness: "Overall, they seemed to understand forgiveness pretty well--not the same as condoning or forgetting, a process that takes time, beneficial to both victim and wrongdoer," and
In general, all three people whom I interviewed had an accurate or fairly accurate concept of forgiveness. They all incorporated releasing or letting go of negative emotions into their definition. Each of the subjects was able to recognize the difference between reconciling and forgiving and distinguish between condoning, forgetting, and forgiving. They all also agreed that the time it takes to forgive varies and has no statue of limitations.
Students commented on the fact that life experiences, religious background, and upbringing play an extremely large role in determining how a person views forgiveness and what the important steps in the process are. One student stated that difference in interviewee responses could be credited to "different religious backgrounds, maturity levels, relationship with offender, and the number of deep hurts one has experienced." According to Mullet, Neto, and Riviere (2005), personality, relationship history, severity of the injury, and the importance of the relationship with the offender all affect willingness to forgive and ease in forgiving. Several students also mentioned dealing with forgiveness firsthand as being influential in understanding forgiveness. This makes sense: hypothesizing about forgiveness might be very different from being put in a situation where there is a need for forgiveness. One student stated, "Not all have forgiven, but they have all considered forgiving. This firsthand experience most likely greatly shaped their views of forgiveness as a whole." Another said that "The biggest difference between the people I interviewed was simply experiences and where they're at in life in the forgiveness process." One student thought that individual differences in personality affect willingness to forgive.
Students also commented on what their interviewees said about the benefits of forgiving. One student reported that "All three people thought that forgiveness was important for similar reasons. They said it brings a sense of peace, makes you stronger, and enables you to learn about yourself and others." Another student summed up the power of forgiveness for her three female subjects, who had lived through very trying times:
Without their strength as individuals and their ability to forgive properly throughout the hardship they've experienced, it's doubtful that they would be as happy and successful as they are today. While the intricacies of what forgiveness is and what it entails are bound to vary from person to person and group to group, most would agree that it is an overall beneficial practice that promotes both intrapersonal and interpersonal harmony.
Enright et al. (1998) acknowledged that Enright's 20-unit model is not a "rigid, step-like sequence" and that the process of forgiveness is unique for each person and situation. The students concluded that individuals in the general population could benefit from forgiveness education. One said, "It might help if people have some kind of instruction on the basic information; like Smedes (1996) writes--the who, what, where, why and how we forgive. That way people would understand the process so that perhaps some of these difficult aspects could become easier." Another said, "! think that the more people understand forgiveness, the more likely it is to be used." One student felt that the interview sessions helped her three interviewees' further develop their understanding of forgiveness. Thus, sometimes just having the opportunity to reflect on the topic and to communicate and clarify one's thoughts can be helpful to an individual's understanding of forgiveness.
The purpose of this paper was to analyze how a sample of the general population understands forgiveness--their experiences in forgiving, obstacles to forgiving, and beliefs about the value of forgiveness--and to use the results to draw implications for mental health counselors. It is important for research to illustrate how forgiveness is understood and practiced in real life. The increased interest in the study of forgiveness as a healing process has greatly expanded knowledge within the forgiveness field. The academic world has a tendency, however, to focus more on the ideals of forgiveness than on how the general public actually understands this complicated and multilayered topic. The use of interviews and case studies creates a way to understand how real people view and define forgiveness. What is evident from these interviews is that misunderstandings are likely hindering the complete forgiveness process. By analyzing specific questions from these interviews, the main misconceptions people have about forgiveness became apparent.
Interviewees' responses differed according to how completely the individual understands forgiveness: what it is, what it is not, experiences in forgiving, influence of religion on one's understanding of forgiveness, and reasons to forgive. The responses generally agreed on the difficulty of forgiving and its benefits to the self and potentially the relationship.
How this sample defined forgiveness illustrates that some people do not truly understand what it means and how it differs from other concepts. The three most common definitions of forgiveness mentioned were letting go, moving on, and not holding a grudge. These definitions are accurate to the extent that the person forgiving does let go of anger and other negative feelings and thoughts, does move on, and does not hold a grudge. However, they do not mention the interpersonal aspect of forgiveness, which distinguishes it from a simple self-help form of healing (Enright et al., 1991). Forgiveness is more than simply an absence of negative feelings toward an offender, although for the layperson this view may be realistic for daily life. Although this sample of the general population has a basic understanding of what forgiveness is and is not, most subjects did not truly understand its moral aspect and what was really involved in the process of forgiving after being deeply hurt.
This is not surprising. Most of the mental health counselors in Konstam et al.'s survey (2000) indicated that forgiving was a process that only involves the self, ignoring the interpersonal quality of forgiving. Most of their respondents saw forgiveness as a gift to the self, not to the offender. They did not place forgiveness in the interpersonal realm or focus on how forgiveness included generosity or moral love. According to Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000), when engaging in the forgiveness process the injured has a shift in understanding, feels empathetic and compassionate toward the offender, and if possible develops constructive behavior toward him or her. North (1987) stated that the most significant concept of forgiveness is that it is viewed as a gift to the offender. Although 8 percent of our sample of the general population did mention the offender and viewing him or her as a human being in their definition of forgiveness, without serious study or education on the topic it may be difficult for the general population to identify this aspect of the forgiveness process.
It seems that lack of knowledge and current misconceptions about forgiveness are the main reasons for criticism of forgiveness. In their definitions of forgiveness 18% of this sample included forgetting or overlooking and 18% also mentioned some aspect of reconciliation. Thus, almost 40% confused forgiveness with other concepts. A survey by Doblmeier, Juday, and Schmidt (2008) asked, "How do you rate your ability to forgive?"; 80% of the 147 respondents indicated that they can usually forgive and 20% found it hard to forgive. The 20% may be finding forgiveness difficult because of inaccurate understandings of what it is and is not.
It must be pointed out that although 18 percent of our study population mentioned reconciliation in defining forgiveness, when asked specifically whether there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, 89% recognized that there is. Similarly, asked whether there is a difference between forgetting and condoning and forgiving, 94% (44 of 47) responded that there was. These results highlight the importance of fully exploring how clients understand forgiveness and questioning them about the choice of words in their definitions. If the question is asked in a different way, a more accurate definition may emerge.
Measurement of forgiveness must also be discussed because it relates to definitional issues. Forgiveness, again, cannot be determined by asking if one has forgiven or not. Valid measures of forgiveness are based on the construct of forgiveness, as the EFI is (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). The EFI assesses the degree of forgiveness in the areas of affect, behavior, and cognition; uses a Likert scale; and asks the respondent to focus on one person only. On this basis a majority of participants in this sample had accurate knowledge that forgiveness involves decreasing negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender. However, they did not view forgiveness as a gift for the offender, and some of their definitions did reflect common misconceptions about forgiveness.
Of the 49 participants in this sample, 47 had experienced a deep hurt. However, of these only 55% had forgiven and 15% reported they were in the process of doing so. Thus, 30% had not forgiven, and it appears that 46% of this group did not forgive because they believed that forgiveness was linked to reconciliation, and 23% believed they needed something from the offender before forgiving. Thus, even if participants could verbally distinguish between forgiveness and other concepts, misconceptions may still be affecting their ability to forgive. The results illustrated that life experience deeply affects how people view forgiveness and what they believe the important steps in the process are. Specifically, respondents' understandings of forgiveness were related to whether they had at some point experienced a deep hurt.
Those in this sample proved to rely on religion for understanding forgiveness; 79% stated that Christianity, God, or religion influenced their understanding. A Christian view stresses unconditional forgiveness based on divine forgiveness. One student stated that all her interviewees were taught about the concept of forgiveness at young ages in Sunday school. This may be why forgiveness did not seem to be difficult for most of this study's participants: if they are following Christ's example, there is more encouragement of forgiveness. Having a role model who forgives can make the whole process easier.
The early introduction of forgiveness in most religions is also something mental health counselors and educators can mimic. We do need to talk to clients and students about forgiveness. Education about forgiveness offers the opportunity to choose forgiveness as a strategy for healing. However, Christianity also uses forgiveness as a means to mend a relationship between a sinful person and a divine being (Enright et al., 1991). Thus, individuals who are influenced by their faith to forgive may automatically link forgiveness and reconciliation. They may struggle with forgiveness if they think they have to reconcile with an unrepentant offender, or they may engage in pseudo-forgiveness.
It is also true that the psychological process of forgiveness is not illustrated in Christ's immediate forgiveness, nor is a great deal of effort or pain. A psychological perspective differs from a religious perspective in that the psychological emphasizes that forgiveness is a process, does not occur overnight, and is seen as a choice the injured makes on his or her own. Mental health counselors working with clients may find that clients influenced by religion are more motivated to forgive but may also need more permission to get angry and work through the negative feelings related to being hurt before forgiving. They may also hold more misconceptions about forgiveness and be more reluctant to forgive if their understanding comes solely from a religious perspective.
For 21% of this sample of the general population, however, religion did not influence their understanding of forgiveness. As Freedman et al. (2005) stated, "To say that all of forgiveness centers only on Christianity is to neglect the fact that many who study and practice forgiveness come from other perspectives" (p. 401). People of different religious faiths should be given the freedom to apply, for example, Enright's process model of forgiveness to their particular worldview. Of course, it is the counselor's role to correct any misconceptions a client with a religious orientation may hold about forgiveness. Religious leaders would also benefit from learning more about the psychological perspective so they can more effectively help members of their congregations forgive.
Interestingly, most of the participants in this sample viewed forgiveness positively, as something good to do for oneself, for the relationship, or for religious and moral reasons. Thus, even though 30% of this sample had not forgiven, almost all viewed forgiveness as valuable. As one student said, "I find it uplifting that people my age want to forgive others for the pain they have inflicted." The lack of negative views may reflect the fact that the interviewees knew that the interviewers were taking a course on forgiveness and did not want to say anything negative about it. It is also true that this mainly a Caucasian and Christian sample; future studies may want to cover a more diverse ethnic and religious sample to obtain different perspectives on forgiveness.
Limitations of the Study
A primary limitation, already noted, is that all participants were from a small Midwestern town and might not be representative of the larger society. Results must be generalized with caution because of the relative small sample and its relative homogeneity in terms of mean age, ethnicity, religion, and geographic location. Furthermore, twice as many females as males were interviewed. Thus, results may be more representative of female views of forgiveness than male.
A second limitation concerns the fact that most of the participants were hurt by people they know, which may affect their understanding of forgiveness. Individuals hurt by strangers, for example, might not confuse forgiveness with reconciliation as much.
A third limitation is that students selected people to interview, so participants were not randomly selected. Students may have selected friends or individuals with similar views, further limiting the range and diversity of responses.
The last limitation is related to interviewer and researcher biases in gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data. Perceptions and interpretations may impact the course of interviews and analysis. Although possessing much knowledge of forgiveness could help interviewers and researchers gain insight into the general population's understanding of forgiveness, their subjective opinions and judgments may have subtle and unintentional influence on the analysis and interpretation.
Implications for Mental Health Counselors
Asked how effective forgiveness therapy has been, Robert Enright (2005) responded that it has been mixed: some studies have found excellent scientific results and others have not. His explanation is related to the "time and care that the therapist gives to the client" (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2001). Recognizing that forgiving someone for a deep hurt takes time and considerable effort, Enright referred to brief therapy and explained how managed care facilities often allow only a limited number of sessions for each client, which "does not give enough time to walk the painful and therapeutic path of forgiveness."
Forgiveness that is incomplete or rushed may not lead to complete healing. For example, Luskin (1999) conducted six 90-minute weekly forgiveness training sessions with 259 adults (average age 41) who felt hurt by a boss, spouse, or parent. After six weeks, 75% were more willing to forgive in a future situation, 70% experienced a decrease in hurt feelings, 34% had an increase in forgiveness for the offender, 27% experienced a reduction in physical symptoms of stress, 15% experienced a decrease in emotional stress, and 13% had a reduction in long-term anger.
What is interesting about these results is that the actual physical and emotional symptoms changed the least. This is most likely because the intervention was short. Mental health counselors need to help clients recognize the interpersonal aspect of forgiveness, which begins with refraining and trying to gain more understanding about the offender and the context of the injury. Reframing allows one to see the real person behind the act. It also allows one to move beyond the injury to see the injurer as a worthy human being who deserves respect regardless of his or her actions (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). The counselor's work is to help the client understand that the gist of forgiveness is to understand that the offender is an equal in terms of inherent worth (Enright & Fitzgibbons). Helping clients to expand their perceptions of the offender may help foster a sense of inherent equality. One can help the client identify positive personality traits of the offender (if known) rather than just continue to view the offender as the monster who committed the horrible and hurtful act.
Luskin (1999) offered three reasons why people do not forgive others more often if it is so healthy. People, he said, get psychologically stuck; they find it easier to blame others; and because of uncontrolled anger. According to Denton and Martin (1999), counselors need to realize that anger can be empowering for the injured and be used to maintain distance and a new identity. The following quote from the novel What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg (1998) illustrates how powerful anger can be and how easily anger and an unforgiving attitude can make up one's identity. The main character was hurt by her mother and explains how she did not pursue a profession having to do with psychology because she did not want to understand her mother:
If I understood her, I might have to forgive her. And at some critical time I became very much invested in not forgiving her--we all did. It became an underpinning in our reduced family, a need even; just as there seems to be a terrible need for family feuds to continue. In a way, it is as if your refusal to forgive is too much a part of you to lose it. Who would you be without it? Not yourself. Lost, somehow. Think of how people tend to pick the same chair to sit in over and over again. We are always trying to make sure we know where we are. Though we may long for adventure, we also cherish the familiar. We just do (pp. 56-57).
Thus, mental health counselors working with clients who seem reluctant to give up their anger need to help their clients explore the advantages and disadvantages of holding onto it.
It also seems to be true today that individuals in the general population seem to be unable to stay with negative feelings and experience. According to Pema Chodron (2008), "We have so little tolerance for uncomfortable feelings" (p. 198). When things fall apart, she advised staying with the feeling and the pain rather than running away from it. In fact, many people mistakenly believe that anger is not part of the forgiveness process. In Enright et al.'s (1991) process model of forgiveness, anger is the second unit. It is necessary to recognize the anger and one's right to feel angry after being hurt before forgiveness is possible. There are many facets to the process of forgiveness. In trying to rush the steps, many people do not discover the peace that comes with forgiveness and instead become frustrated with the entire concept. Perhaps this is due to our society's increasing infatuation with instant gratification; in other words, people are increasingly wanting to feel good, right now.
When dealing with deep hurts, forgiveness can be very emotionally draining. As Malcolm (2008) states, "Premature efforts to facilitate forgiveness may be a sign of our reluctance to witness our client's pain and suffering and may unwittingly reinforce the client's belief that the pain and suffering is too much to bear and must be suppressed or avoided" (p. 278-279). Mental health counselors need to be willing to help their clients work through their emotions after being hurt, so the forgiveness process cannot be rushed.
Based on our research, a fourth reason why people do not forgive more often is that they do not think about forgiveness as a way to decrease anger; they need more education about forgiveness and what it involves, and they need more actual help in forgiving. In a recent sermon on "Testimony as Spiritual Practice" a Unitarian Universalist minister stated that there should be no one in the town or community who does not know about the Unitarian church and what it stands for (Owen-O'Quill, July, 2008). The same is true for the concept of interpersonal forgiveness. Mental health counselors are in direct contact with individuals who could benefit by learning about forgiveness and how to go about forgiving as a way to heal after being deeply hurt. Thus, every counselor should have a thorough understanding of what forgiveness involves and how to effectively help clients in their forgiveness journey. Even if clinicians recognize a need to do research about forgiveness when working with a specific client, the important point is that they know that forgiveness is a valid option, they know where to find more information about the process, and they can share the information with their clients.
Clearly, because forgiveness is so complex (Malcolm et al., 2007) it is critical that mental health counselors understand factors like readiness, the importance of expressing one's hurt completely, that one needs to be safe before forgiveness is possible, that no client should be forced into forgiving, that forgiveness takes time and requires emotional energy and investment by both client and counselor, and that certain issues may need to be addressed before efforts to facilitate forgiveness can begin. It would be inadvisable to bring up the idea of forgiveness right after an individual experiences a deep hurt. People need time to experience the pain and process their feelings (Malcolm, 2007). Most people have not been raised in a culture like the Amish in which forgiveness can be offered quickly and automatically. It is also important that a clear distinction be made between the process of forgiving and the idea of reconciliation (Enright et al., 1992; Freedman, 1999; Denton & Martin, 1998; Malcolm, 2008).
According to Kanz (2000), understanding how people outside of academia understand forgiveness may help clinicians and researchers to develop improved interventions, both therapeutic and psycho-educational. The data and real-life experiences gathered in these interviews have been used to elicit implications for forgiveness therapy and counseling that will help counselors best meet their clients' needs. Konstam et al. (2002) in their research with mental health counselors found that "90% of respondents indicated that forgiving is an important clinical issue and would be interested in pursuing professional training focusing on forgiveness-related issues in clinical practice" (p. 69). If not understood correctly, forgiveness can be experienced as maladaptive, leading individuals to return to unhealthy relationships, deny their anger, forgive too quickly, not hold offenders responsible for their actions, and automatically link forgiveness with reconciliation and forgetting.
The unique position of mental health counselors allows them to communicate that the process of forgiveness may be an effective way to recover from interpersonal hurtfulness. As Exline and Zell (2007) point out, a strong, accepting therapeutic relationship is very important in encouraging people to engage in the difficult, courageous, and sometimes painful work of forgiving. Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) also suggest that counselors may need to rethink their role:
Forgiveness therapy challenges us to be not only an advocate, a sympathetic listener who offers unconditional positive regard, but also an educator who helps the client understand as clearly as possible the difficult concept of forgiveness before moving further into the healing process (p. 64).
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Sazanne Freedman is affiliated with the University of Northern Iowa and Wen-Chuan Rita Chang is affiliated with the University, of North Texas. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Prof. Suzanne Freedman. University of Northern Iowa. 603 Schindler Education Center: Cedar Falls. IA 50614-0607. E-mail: Freedman@uni.edu.