An Analysis of a Sample of the General Population's Understanding of Forgiveness: Implications for Mental Health Counselors

By Freedman, Suzanne; Chang, Wen-Chuan Rita | Journal of Mental Health Counseling, January 2010 | Go to article overview

An Analysis of a Sample of the General Population's Understanding of Forgiveness: Implications for Mental Health Counselors


Freedman, Suzanne, Chang, Wen-Chuan Rita, Journal of Mental Health Counseling


Forgiveness can be a long and treacherous process, but it can eventually lead to a better understanding of ourselves, as well as a deeper understanding of the person who hurt us. These interviews have shown the impact of forgiveness in real life. They have reinforced the importance of including forgiveness, or at least parts of the forgiveness process, into our recovery from a deep hurt. By recognizing the opportunity to forgive, [we] may already have a greater understanding of [our] pain and may have the potential to offer forgiveness in a seemingly unhopeful situation.

--Honors student who conducted three interviews on the general population's understanding of forgiveness

Although forgiveness has been an important part of religion and philosophy for as long as we can remember, it has become a popular topic for empirical investigation by social scientists only during the last 25 years (Enright & The Human Development Study Group, 1991; Enright & Coyle, 1998; McCullough, Sandage, & Worthington, 1997; Freedman, Enright, & Knutson, 2005). Psychological inquiry about forgiveness has greatly increased over the past 15 years, with clinical and educational intervention studies being conducted, as well as developmental research and examination of the associations between forgiveness and enhanced physical, mental, and spiritual health (Al-Mabuk, Enright, & Cardis, 1995; Coyle & Enright, 1998; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Freedman et al., 2005; Lawler-Row & Reed, 2007; Malcolm, DeCourville, & Belecki, 2008; McCullough & Worthington, 1995). The use of forgiveness with a variety of populations who have experienced deep hurts, such as incest survivors (Freedman & Enright, 1996); parentally love-deprived college students (A1-Mabuk et al., 1995); elderly women (Hebl & Enright, 1993); men hurt by their partner's abortion (Coyle & Enright, 1998); victims of spousal abuse (Reed & Enright, 2006); terminally ill cancer patients (Hansen, 2002); at-risk adolescents (Freedman, 2008; Gambaro, 2002); and substance abusers (Lin, Mack, Enright, Kahn, & Baskin, 2004) has illustrated that forgiveness can be a powerful counseling tool for a variety of clients. Cosgrove and Konstam (2008), citing Fenell (1993), state that willingness to forgive and be forgiven was identified as one of the 10 most important characteristics of long-term relationships.

Considering the backgrounds of those examining the topic--mental health counselors, philosophers, developmental psychologists, religious leaders, and social psychologists--it is not surprising that there is debate about the definition of forgiveness and how best to forgive (Cosgove & Konstam, 2008; Enright, Eastin, Golden, Sarinopoulos, & Freedman, 1992; Kearns & Fincham, 2004). Definitions vary when individuals describe what forgiveness is and is not, whether one has to feel love and compassion toward the offender, whether forgiveness includes reconciliation, what facilitates or impedes the process, whether an apology is necessary before forgiving, and the primary focus of forgiveness (Cosgrove & Konstam, 2008; Freedman, 1999; Kearns & Fincham, 2004; Malcolm et al., 2007). Some consider the role of the offender to be the defining feature of forgiveness (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997); others look more broadly at cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of forgiveness (Enright et al., 1992). Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) define forgiveness as the following:

   People, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly
   treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related
   responses (to which they have a right) and endeavor to respond to
   the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which
   may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral
   love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts,
   has no right) (p. … 

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