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Psychology Rediscovers the Power of Forgiveness

9/13/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Robert Enright on a Means of Healing

MADISON, Wisconsin, SEPT. 13, 2005 (Zenit) - Forgiveness was a key message of the Gospel. It has also led to the foundation of a psychological institute.

Dr. Robert Enright, a psychologist, began the International Forgiveness Institute in 1994 as a way to apply years of research on the practice of forgiveness. He is co-author of "Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope" (American Psychological Association Books.

He shared with us his research and experience on the effectiveness of forgiveness for personal healing and world peace.

Q: Why has psychology taken a new interest in forgiveness?

Enright: The origins of therapeutic psychology centered on the amelioration of emotional distress. As we all know, one can find peace through embracing God, the sacraments, and the Church. Those who founded therapeutic psychology did not have this particular worldview and in some cases outright rejected it.

Thus, psychology traditionally went down a path that made no room for grace. While this has not changed, what has changed is the notion that people can and should embrace what is positive and good. Philosophers and theologians not only would be unsurprised by this, but also they would tell us that such ideas are nothing new, but ancient.

To psychologists, this is a revelation. Part of this "new discovery" of the good is forgiveness.

Q: How effective has forgiveness been as a therapy?

Enright: It has been very mixed. Some research groups find excellent scientific results with forgiveness therapy whereas others do not.

As Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons and I argued in our book, "Helping Clients Forgive," one reason for the mixed success is the time and care that the therapist gives to the client.

Forgiving another person for a deep injustice takes time. Managed-care facilities too often insist on "brief" therapy, which just will not give a client enough time to walk the painful and therapeutic path of forgiveness.

One of our research projects, with Suzanne Freedman of the University of Northern Iowa, was with incest survivors. It took most of these courageous women about a year to forgive their perpetrators. It was worth the effort.

When we compared the experimental group, that had forgiveness therapy, with a control group that did not, the former reduced significantly in anxiety and depression. After the control group commenced and completed forgiveness therapy, they too showed significant improvement in their symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Although a year seems like a long time, we should realize that some of the women were struggling with emotional disruption for 20 or 30 years prior to forgiving.

We found similar results with many other populations: men and women in a residential drug rehabilitation facility, terminally ill cancer patients, married couples nearing divorce, incarcerated adolescents, cardiac patients, and others.

Q: What steps are required for a person seeking healing through forgiveness?

Enright: Following the proper path in forgiving is another reason for observed success in forgiveness therapy. Again, Dr. Fitzgibbons and I lay out a scientifically supported pathway to forgiveness in our book. This pathway is further described in my book "Forgiveness Is a Choice," for the general public.

The gist of the pathway is this: First, people need to acknowledge that they have been treated unjustly, humbly acknowledge that they have been emotionally hurt by this, and that they are indeed angry.

Next, if they wish to commence forgiveness therapy, they need to explore what forgiveness is and is not. For instance, when people forgive another, they are not condoning, excusing, or forgetting the wrong against them. They may or may not reconcile.

To forgive is to reduce resentment and increase benevolence and love toward someone who was unjust. This is an individual choice, an act of the will. To reconcile is for two people to come together again in mutual trust. This requires the cooperation of both parties. One can forgive the bully and then watch one's back.

Next, we recommend that people engage in what Dr. Fitzgibbons calls "cognitive forgiveness." These are forgiving thoughts and statements toward the one who was unfair. The person at this point need not approach the offender, but do this cognitive forgiveness within oneself.

Part of cognitive forgiveness is to think of the person as a whole person, without defining him or her by their sinful actions alone. We are all more than our actions. We are vulnerable people. We are children of God.

Following cognitive forgiveness is emotional forgiveness, the opening of oneself to compassion and love toward this child of God who hurt ...

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