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Forgiveness and Forgetting: Clinical Implications for Mental Health Counselors

Article excerpt

Although mental health professionals have attempted to specify the meaning of forgiveness, lack of consensus exists. Despite the lack of consensus over the meaning of forgiveness, there is agreement that forgiving is not forgetting or pardoning. However, the relationship between forgiving and forgetting has been undertheorized, and as a result, this relationship has not been empirically investigated In this paper, we suggest that it would be fruitful to assess the meaning systems individuals associate with the definition of forgiveness. Focusing on the lived experience of individuals may help researchers and counselors avoid unhelpful dichotomizations such as "authentic vs. inauthentic" forgiveness. Implications for both research and mental health counseling are discussed.

   In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness ...
   it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness:
   the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly
   fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its
   duration. (Nietzsche, 1876/1997, p. 62)

INTRODUCTION

Within the past three decades, social scientists and practitioners have become increasingly interested in forgiveness and its potential for improving personal well-being and interpersonal relationships (Enright & Fitgibbons, 2000; McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen, 2000; Wade, Bailey, & Shaffer, 2005; Wade & Worthington, 2005). The increase in interest is in part driven by data suggesting that forgiveness can be a helpful counseling tool with a wide range of populations, including substance abusers, cancer patients, and couples addressing moderate to severe relationship and communication issues (Flanigan, 1987; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Gordon, 1999; Phillips & Osborne, 1989; Reed & Enright, 2006). In fact, willingness to forgive and be forgiven was identified as one of the 10 most important characteristics of long-term relationships (Fenell, 1993). Mental health counselors overwhelmingly support the use of forgiveness interventions, because there is consensus that forgiveness is associated with the individual releasing him or herself from anger, resentment, and fear and not wishing to seek revenge (Denton & Martin, 1998; Konstam, et al. 2000). Most individuals writing in this area also believe that forgiveness is interpersonal and intra-psychic, and that it is a choice (Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone, & Lee, 1999).

Despite this consensus, ambiguity and disagreement exist with respect to a myriad of definitional issues related to forgiveness. Specifically, there exists a lack of clarity in the literature regarding what forgiveness is and what processes facilitate or impede the ability to forgive. For example, authors disagree on the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation, whether forgiveness is a necessary component of personal growth (Hargrave & Sells, 1997), and whether one has to feel love and compassion toward the offender in order to forgive (Davenport, 1991; Denton & Martin, 1998). Furthermore, Sandage, Hill and Vang (2003) assert that forgiveness may be expressed or defined differently in various cultural contexts and communities. How forgiveness is theorized and defined is critically important when developing psychological interventions to facilitate forgiveness. Both researchers and mental health professionals need to be sensitive to differences in lived experiences and in meaning systems associated with forgiveness.

Definitional Issues Related to Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a multidimensional construct, informed by a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political science, theology, and sociology (McCullough, Pargament, & Thoreson, 2000). Although the perceived gravity of a transgression must be taken into account, forgiveness has traditionally been viewed as a virtue or strength of character (Sandage et al. …