Forgiving: What Mental Health Counselors Are Telling Us

Article excerpt

Forgiveness is a potentially significant modality for increasing well-being and improving interpersonal relationships. Results of a survey of 381 mental health counselors regarding attitudes and practices related to forgiveness revealed forgiveness issues to be highly salient in clinical practice. Counselors' religiosity and theoretical orientations were associated with attitudes toward forgiveness. Endorsed intervention activities by mental health counselors appeared to indicate a lack of understanding regarding key activities designed to facilitate forgiveness with a wide range of clients. There appears to be a need to address an existing gap between research advances in the area of forgiveness and current counseling practices.

Within the past decade, scientific studies have begun to document what religious leaders, theologians, and philosophers have long proposed. Forgiveness is a potentially significant modality for increasing well-being and improving interpersonal relations. Although the scientific literature is sparse, initial studies agree that forgiving is effective in resolving feelings of remorse, guilt, anger, anxiety, and fear (Cerney, 1988; Fitzgibbons, 1986). Benefits have been found in highly diverse populations such as incest survivors, substance abusers, and cancer patients (Flanigan, 1987; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Phillips & Osborne, 1989).

Current interest in forgiveness--what it is, how it works, and whether and how it can apply to the counseling process--follows years of neglect and avoidance of the topic by research scientists (McCullough, Exline, & Baumeister, 1998; McCullough & Worthingon, 1994). Despite the fact that for centuries forgiveness has been lauded by most societies and cultures as valuable and worthy of adoption, there has been a general reluctance to study it. Denton and Martin (1998) explain the hesitancy as the result of associating forgiving with religion, not science.

In general, current definitions of forgiveness lack clarity and consistency. As Hebl and Enright (1993) pointed out, this hampers further productive research and clinical application. There are, however, notable areas of emerging consensus. For example, Denton and Martin's (1998) definition of forgiveness is fairly representative. They state that forgiveness involves:

   two people, one of whom has received a deep and long-lasting injury that is
   either psychological, emotional, physical, or moral in nature. [Forgiveness
   is] an inner process by which the person who has been injured releases
   himself or herself from the anger, resentment, and fear that are felt and
   does not wish for revenge. (p. 284)

Similarly, Hargrave and Sells (1997) stated that forgiveness is a process that occurs over time, from which the individual who has been injured becomes less angry, resentful, fearful, and interested in revenge. Forgiving is not to be equated with forgetting, pardoning, condoning, excusing, or denying the offense (Enright & Zell, 1989). Areas of disagreement include 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).

Given the evidence pointing toward the beneficial effects of forgiveness and the dearth of research assessing attitudes by counselors toward forgiving, we developed a survey to assess if and how counselors were addressing forgiveness in their practice. Specifically, our research questions included:

1. Does forgiveness present as an issue in the counseling process and how likely are mental health counselors to raise the issue by themselves?

2. What do mental health counselors view as essential components of forgiveness?

3. What are the prevalent attitudes held by mental health counselors regarding forgiveness and what factors contribute to their attitudes? …