Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Validating the Developmental Pathway of Forgiveness

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Validating the Developmental Pathway of Forgiveness

Article excerpt

Within the past decade, forgiveness as both a developmental construct and a counseling model has emerged in books, journal articles, and print media coverage (e.g., see Worthington, 1998). Dozens of self-help books in psychology and related disciplines are now available on the topic (e.g., see Enright, 2001; Luskin, 2003; McCullough, Worthington, & Sandage, 1997; Smedes, 1984; Worthington, 2001). Empirical evidence is mounting that forgiving someone for substantial injustices can regulate negative emotions and restore psychological health (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Coyle & Enright, 1997; Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Hansen, 2002; Ripley & Worthington, 2002).

* Forgiveness Defined

In the psychological literature, forgiveness is not condoning, excusing, or forgetting what happened to the client. Instead, it is a response to unfairness that includes the diminution of resentment or anger toward an offender and the institution of more positive feelings, thoughts, and behaviors toward that person (Enright, 2001; Worthington, 2001). Most researchers and counselors distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. It is possible to forgive and yet not reconcile with an abusive spouse, for example. One can forgive and still seek justice. In other words, forgiveness, properly understood, occurs from a position of strength, not weakness, because the forgiver recognizes an injustice and labels it for what it is.

* Forgiveness Within Counseling

Fitzgibbons (1986), as a practicing psychiatrist, was one of the first to see the toxic effects of deep and abiding anger on the emotional health of clients. The expression of anger in the short term is seen as important for catharsis, but without a process for actually reducing or ridding the client of the deep anger, psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety can continue or increase (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Fitzgibbons, 1986). Fitzgibbons and other practitioners (e.g., Hope, 1987) have reasoned that because one role of forgiving is the reduction in resentment or deep anger toward another person, then perhaps forgiveness may be an efficacious means of going beyond expressing anger to reducing or eliminating it within a counseling context. People engaged in forgiveness counseling need to realize that as they forgive, they do not give up their right to a fair solution. They can have mercy on an offender and still ask for justice from that same person.

In counseling, forgiveness is considered a process that takes time (Enright, 2001; Fitzgibbons, 1986). Research findings demonstrate that longer programs, taking 12 weeks or more, tend to show statistically stronger outcomes for clients than programs that are brief, taking a few sessions (Baskin & Enright, 2004). Luskin (2003), Worthington (2001), and Enright (2001), all of whom have written manuals for people who are trying to forgive, are clear that forgiveness is the client's choice. The client should be free to explore what forgiveness is and what it is not before she or he makes the informed decision to begin the process of forgiveness in counseling.

* Pathways to Forgiveness

Despite the plethora of studies that have been conducted and books that have been written over the past decade, there has yet to be a study charting the process of or pathway to a forgiveness response. To date, that pathway has been assumed within all models that try to describe the client's movement toward recovery from emotional difficulty through forgiveness.

For example, Luskin (2003) posited a four-stage model in which the clients recognize rage, realize that abiding anger is unhealthy, reframe the unfair situation to see that it is not nearly as problematic as supposed, and resolve not to let anger dominate their emotional well-being.

Worthington's (2001) pyramid model includes points that are similar to those in Luskin's (2003) model as the clients recall the hurt and experience anger; begin to empathize with the offender; offer a prosocial response to the person; commit to forgiving by a concrete act of telling the offender or a confidant of this choice to forgive; and resolve, as in Luskin's model, to use forgiveness in future situations. …

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