Toward Forgiveness: The Role of Shame, Guilt, Anger, and Empathy

By Konstam, Varda; Chernoff, Miriam et al. | Counseling and Values, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Toward Forgiveness: The Role of Shame, Guilt, Anger, and Empathy


Konstam, Varda, Chernoff, Miriam, Deveney, Sara, Counseling and Values


This research explored forgiving and its relationship to adaptive moral emotional processes: proneness to shame, guilt, anger, and empathic responsiveness. Gender differences associated with forgiving were analyzed. Participants were 138 graduate students in a large northeastern urban university. Results revealed that guilt-proneness was positively related to Total Forgiveness, as were Empathetic Concern and Perspective Taking. A positive relationship between anger reduction and Overall Forgiveness was found. Guilt-proneness, anger reduction, and detachment informed the process of forgiveness for women. For men, age, shame-proneness, and pride in behavior informed the process of forgiveness. Implications and possible research are discussed.

Forgiveness has only recently been subjected to scientific study (DiBlasio & Proctor, 1993; McCullough et al., 1998). Studies suggest that forgiving is effective in resolving feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear (Cerney, 1988; Fitzgibbons, 1986; Freedman & Enright, 1996). Intervention studies suggest that forgiveness can be helpful as a counseling tool with a wide range of populations, including incest survivors, substance abusers, and cancer patients (Flanigan, 1987; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Phillips & Osborne, 1989). Researchers and counselors are increasingly interested in the topic--what forgiveness is, how the process unfolds, and how forgiveness can be used in the counseling process (Denton & Martin, 1998; Romig & Veenstra, 1998).

Enright and the Human Development Study Group (1991) defined forgiveness as a willingness to abandon one's right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior. Forgiveness also includes fostering undeserved compassion, generosity, and, perhaps, love toward the perpetrator. Forgiveness is interpersonal and intrapsychic. It takes place over time and involves choice. 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 (Freedman, 1998), whether forgiveness is a necessary component of personal growth (Hargrave & Sells, 1997), and whether one must feel love and compassion toward the offender in order to forgive (Denton & Martin, 1998).

According to Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone, and Lee (1999), an individual's ability to forgive is dependent on contextual variables related to the specific transgression and to a more enduring general propensity to forgive. Propensity to forgive is dependent, in part, on cognitive and affective characteristics, such as an individual's moral emotional style. Shame, guilt, and empathy have been identified as moral emotions that may inform forgiveness (Tangney et al., 1999). Studies have consistently suggested that empathy facilitates the process of forgiving (Enright and the Human Development Study Group, 1996; Enright, Eastin, Golden, Sarinopoulos, & Freedman, 1992; McCullough & Worthington, 1994; McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997; Rhode, 1990).

The role of shame and guilt in the process of forgiving has been relatively unexplored. To our knowledge, only Tangney et al. (1999) have addressed the relationship between forgiving, shame, and guilt and the distinction between the two constructs of shame and guilt. When shamed, an individual's focal concern is with the entire self. A negative behavior or failure is experienced as a reflection of a more global and enduring defect of the self. The shamed person feels worthless and powerless. In contrast, when an individual feels guilty, the focal concern is the behavior. According to Leith and Baumeister (1998) and Tangney (1994), guilt is associated with increased understanding of perspective taking, a trait that strengthens and maintains close relationships and serves adaptive functions.

Guilt depends on empathic awareness and response to someone's distress, as well as on awareness of being the cause of that distress (Tangney, 1991; Tangney et al. …

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