Empathy, Selfism, and Coping as Elements of the Psychology of Forgiveness: A Preliminary Study. (Research and Theory)

By Konstam, Varda; Holmes, William et al. | Counseling and Values, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Empathy, Selfism, and Coping as Elements of the Psychology of Forgiveness: A Preliminary Study. (Research and Theory)


Konstam, Varda, Holmes, William, Levine, Bethany, Counseling and Values


This research expanded understanding of forgiveness by (a) distinguishing forgiveness from unforgiveness and their respective correlates (empathy and selfism) and (b) examining coping style and its impact on the process of forgiveness and unforgiveness. Participants were 92 students in a large northeastern urban public university. Correlates of forgiveness and unforgiveness were distinctly different. With respect to forgiveness, 42% of the variance was explained by the variables under study. Emotion-focused coping was associated with forgiving. Clinically relevant issues were raised, specifically regarding the role of selfism and emotion-focused coping and contextual variables such as financial resources, age, gender, and religiosity.

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Within the past decade, social scientists and practitioners have become increasingly interested in forgiveness and its potential for improving personal well-being and improving interpersonal relationships (McCullough, Pargament, & Thoreson, 2000; Worthington & Wade, 1999). Forgiveness can be a helpful counseling tool with a wide range of populations, including incest survivors, substance abusers, and cancer patients (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Flanigan, 1987; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Phillips & Osborne, 1989). To date, however, the social literature and the clinical psychological literature that are related to forgiveness have not been integrated, leaving many questions unanswered (Worthington & Wade, 1999).

Currently, ambiguity exists with respect to a myriad of issues related to forgiveness, including definitional issues, measurement issues, how the process of forgiveness unfolds, and optimal intervention models for differing populations. Regarding the definition of forgiveness, areas of convergence include the beliefs that forgiveness is interpersonal and intrapsychic and that it is a choice. Forgiveness is not equated with forgetting, pardoning, condoning, excusing, conflict resolution, or denying the offense (Enright & Zell, 1989; Worthington & Wade, 1999). Areas of disagreement include the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation, whether forgiveness is a necessary component of personal growth and development, and whether one must feel love and compassion toward the offender in order to forgive (Denton & Martin, 1998; Hargrave & Sells, 1997; Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone, & Lee, 1999).

Worthington and Wade (1999) have presented a model, grounded in social psychological theory, that incorporates personal, relationship, and environmental factors that lead individuals toward unforgiveness or forgiveness. They discussed the importance of distinguishing between the psychology of unforgiveness and forgiveness, noting that researchers have tended to view forgiveness as the opposite of unforgiveness, measured typically by a reduction in anger, bitterness, avoidance, and need for revenge (McCullough et al., 1998; McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997).

There are a myriad of ways to reduce unforgiveness, only one of which is forgiveness. Worthington and Wade (1999) viewed unforgiveness as a "cold" emotion characterized by "resentment, bitterness, and perhaps hatred, along with the motivated avoidance or retaliation against a transgressor" (p. 386). An individual may reduce or avoid unforgiveness by retaliating, seeking revenge, and/or seeking justice. Forgiveness is a process that results in a choice to relinquish unforgiveness and to seek reconciliation with the perpetrator if "safe, prudent, and possible" (Worthington & Wade, 1999, p. 386). Forgiveness is facilitated by empathy, humor, and/or love that compete with the emotion of unforgiveness.

The focus of this research was to expand the current understanding of forgiveness by distinguishing the correlates of forgiveness and unforgiveness, specifically empathy and selfism (i.e., a self-orientation that leads one to view situations from a self-serving in contrast to an other-oriented perspective). …

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