Forgiveness and Psychotherapy: The Prepersonal, the Personal, and the Transpersonal

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Forgiveness involves a sense of felt unity with one who has hurt us. From the point of view of development, a sense of unity can be regressive or progressive. It is argued that healthy forgiveness is transpersonal. Healthy and unhealthy forms of forgiveness can be understood by examining the prepersonal, personal, and transpersonal motivations for forgiveness. The central paradox in forgiving is defined as the other needing to be recognized as a different person before there can be a healthy sense of unity. The effects of trauma on the forgiveness process are discussed, as is the role of anger. The ''many shores'' within psychotherapy for getting to healthy (transpersonal) forgiveness are described.

(God and Job meet after Job has died.)

God . . . I'm going to tell Job why I tortured him

And I trust it won't be adding to the torture.

I was just showing off to the Devil, Job . . .

(Job takes a few steps pacing.) Do you mind?

(God eyes him anxiously.)

Job No, no I mustn't.

'Twas human of You. I expected more

Than I could understand and what I get

Is almost less than I can understand . . .

-From Robert Frost's, A Masque of Reason1


With the rise of the positive psychology movement and a greater attention toward spiritual issues within medicine and psychology, a discussion about forgiveness is gaining ground in the psychological and medical literature. A review of Ovid's psycinfo and medline databases reveals a striking increase in articles, dissertations, and books about forgiveness. When six year periods are examined, from 2000 through 2005, there are 108 publications with a keyword of forgiveness in the medline database and 634 in the psycinfo database. From 1994 through 1999, there were 27 and 234 such publications and from 1988 through 1993, there were 17 and 128 such publications, respectively.

Forgiveness has of course many contexts. Spiritually, one could feel forgiven or not forgiven by God, or could be forgiving or not forgiving of God. One can also be forgiving or not forgiving of oneself. Forgiveness can be collectively sought or granted by groups. An individual can seek forgiveness or not from another person, can feel forgiven or not forgiven by another person, or can be forgiving or not forgiving of another person. It is this last context of forgiveness, whether one does or does not forgive another person, which is receiving the most attention in current psychological and medical literature.

Of interest to psychotherapists and to the general public, is the extent to which forgiveness may or may not promote health. There are four reported outcome studies of unilateral forgiveness after interpersonal injury using individual psychotherapy. Freedman and Enright (1996) studied individual psychotherapy with incest survivors using forgiveness as a treatment goal. The study had a waitlist control and an average length of intervention of 14.3 months. The intervention resulted in increased self esteem and hope and forgiveness, and decreased depression and anxiety. Coyle and Enright (1997) in studying a 12 week forgiveness intervention for men hurt by a partner's abortion, found decreased anxiety, anger, and grief and increased forgiveness after treatment and at 3 month follow up as compared to waitlist controls. Lin, Mack, Enright, Kahn, and Baskin (2004) studied patients with substance dependence and found greater improvement in measures of anger, depression, anxiety, self esteem, and forgiveness as a result of 12 twice weekly individual sessions of forgiveness therapy versus a routine individual drug and alcohol treatment control. Most benefits remained at 4 months follow up. The York Forgiveness Project (Malcolm, Warwar, & Greenberg, 2005) examined patients who suffered distressing feelings related to a specific interpersonal emotional injury. Most patients were dealing with injuries caused by parents. …