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Forgiveness interventions and the promotion of resilience following interpersonal stress and trauma

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One common form of stress and trauma is the pain associated with interpersonal offenses, betrayals, and hurts. Forgiveness in the face of significant interpersonal injuries is not easy, but forgiveness is an adaptive and resilient response to such trauma. A growing research literature on interventions to promote forgiveness for past hurts indicates that people can be assisted in the process of forgiving and that the development of forgiveness is associated with numerous positive outcomes. In this chapter, a review of the forgiveness intervention research is provided with a specific focus on how these interventions promote resiliency in the face of stress and trauma. In general, forgiveness interventions help individuals and couples achieve greater hope and personal well-being as well as reduce anger, rumination, and psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.
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Forgiveness Interventions and the Promotion of Resilience Following Interpersonal Stress and
Trauma
Nathaniel G. Wade, Jeritt R. Tucker, and Marilyn A. Cornish
Many people experience some form of interpersonal stress and trauma in their lives.
These traumatic events often lead to sustained posttraumatic emotional states that can overwhelm
affect regulation capacities (Briere, Hodges, & Godbout, 2010). There are various strategies
people use to cope with such posttraumatic emotions, many of which may not lead to successful
outcomes. One strategy is to blame oneself for the interpersonal offense (Janoff-Bulman, 1979).
Another is to blame an external party for the transgression (Lazarus, 1991). While these reactions
may confer initial benefits to victims (e.g. control, setting appropriate boundaries, etc.), when
these reactions are perpetuated, victims of interpersonal trauma often continue down paths
toward outcomes including psychological symptoms, physical health problems, and relational
problems (Znoj, 2011; Worthington & Scherer, 2004; Gordon, Burton, & Porter, 2004). An
alternative outcome of interpersonal trauma is forgiveness. In cases of interpersonal trauma,
forgiveness may be a highly resilient response that leads down a path toward more beneficial
secondary (long-term) outcomes.
Definitions of Resiliency and Forgiveness
Zautra, Hall, and Murray (2010) broadly define resilience as “an outcome of successful
adaptation to adversity” (p. 4). Resiliency necessarily implies exposure to an adverse event or
threat and includes two major definitions: recovery and sustainability (Zautra et al., 2010).
Recovery is a gradual return to pre-event levels of functioning. Sustainability is the capacity to
quickly regain equilibrium following a potentially traumatic event with little to no disruption in
functioning (Bonanno, 2004). Whereas some researchers suggest that resilience is different from
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recovery (e.g., Bonanno 2004), others suggest that recovery should be considered a domain of
resiliency (e.g., Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000). Based on this latter definition, resilience is
not a single spectrum with risk factors at one end and protective factors on the other. Instead,
people can be motivated by both the need to defend against harm (recovery) and the need to
move toward goals (sustainability).
We conceptualize forgiveness as a prosocially-motivated reduction of negative emotions
and an increase in positive emotions toward an offender following an interpersonal trauma
(Worthington & Wade, 1999). We argue that the promotion of forgiveness after interpersonal
transgressions can result in recovery from trauma, and that the promotion of forgivingness (i.e.
the disposition to forgive) can result in sustained growth responses in the face of potentially-
traumatic events. Thus, interventions to promote forgiveness are one promising method of
encouraging resilient responses in those affected by interpersonal trauma.
Model to Understand Forgiveness-Related Psychological Responses to Trauma
Although there is much conceptual overlap between the resiliency and forgiveness
literatures, there is little work combining the two. In the absence of such literature, the present
chapter is organized around a conceptual model relating forgiveness to nonresilient and resilient
response patterns. This model, illustrated in Figure 1, is based on two core principles: (a)
emotion and its regulation are central to understanding the diverse responses to trauma (Briere et
al., 2010; Lazarus & Folkman,1984), and (b) forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping effort
following interpersonal stress (Worthington & Scherer, 2004; Worthington & Wade, 1999).
Understanding the responses to interpersonal trauma provides one avenue for understanding
forgiveness as a potentially resilient response. Figure 1 provides the theoretical temporal
relationships among the forgiveness-related variables that we review in this chapter. Some of
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these are hypothesized to be causally related (e.g., secondary outcomes such as embitterment are
thought to cause long-term outcomes such as relationship difficulties) others are only expected to
be related through other mediating variables (e.g., unforgiveness does not cause forgiveness, but
does come prior to it and may give way to forgiveness as a result of variables that are not
included in the model, such as an offender’s apology). We use the text to differentiate between
the two. Finally, we highlight areas where interventions might be used to prevent negative long-
term outcomes from developing.
Traumatic Event
Our model is based on the assumption that an interpersonal trauma has occurred and that
the individual perceives it as a hurtful or offensive action. Berry and Worthington (2001) have
conceptualized unforgiveness and forgiveness as occurring in response to perceived interpersonal
transgressions such as betrayals, offenses, and wrongs. This is consistent with definitions of
resilience, which necessarily imply exposure to some adverse event or threat.
Trauma. Broadly speaking, trauma involves exposure to a non-normative event that
disrupts one’s self-concept and, at least temporarily, overwhelms one’s ability to cope (Briere &
Scott, 2006). The DSM-IV-TR defines trauma as directly experiencing or witnessing a threat to
one’s physical integrity (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000), although this
definition may be limited. Many events can overwhelm one’s internal resources even if injury or
a threat to one’s life is not imminent (Briere & Scott, 2006). For example, the death of a loved
one can be quite disruptive and possibly traumatic, even if there is no perceived threat of injury
or death to oneself.
Interpersonal trauma. As a subset of both the larger classes of trauma and interpersonal
transgressions, interpersonal trauma can be defined as traumatic acts of sexual, physical, or
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psychological violence perpetrated against a person by others. Interpersonal trauma may be
viewed by victims as more intentional, malignant, and intrusive than other forms of trauma
(Briere et al., 2010), and thus has been associated with more negative outcomes (Briere & Scott,
2006). Traumatic events of an interpersonal nature, as opposed to other forms of trauma, may
result in negative emotional reactions that increase more drastically over time (Amstadter &
Vernon, 2008). Accordingly, research suggests that psychological responses to interpersonal
trauma may result as people attempt to cope with posttraumatic emotions that might otherwise
overwhelm internal affect regulation capacities (Briere et al., 2010). !
Initial Emotional Responses to Trauma
We have organized potential initial reactions to interpersonal trauma into two broad
categories, self-deprecating and self-protective emotions. This distinction is based on
evolutionary theories of emotion, which differentiate between shame as a feeling associated with
defeat and anger as a feeling associated with counterattack and survival (Gilbert, 1997). It is also
consistent with emotion theory, which posits a distinction between inward-focused and outward-
focused negative emotions. Inward-focused negative emotions are often reflections of internal
attributions of responsibility, whereas outward-focused negative emotions occur when
individuals assess others to be responsible for a perceived injustice (Barclay, Skarlick, & Pugh,
2005). Although these are not the only ways in which an individual might respond to an
interpersonal trauma, they include the primary, initial emotional responses that are related to the
forgiveness process.
Self-deprecating emotions. The first category of responses is self-deprecating emotional
reactions. These include shame, guilt, sadness, worthlessness, and powerlessness. They are
emotional reactions that motivate people to respond in ways that do not necessarily protect the
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self, but instead help people cope with the event by reducing its stressfulness, perceived
consequences, or by mitigating the trauma in the moment (Janoff-Bulman, 1979). For example,
responding to physical abuse in a self-deprecating, submissive, or passive way can help to
mitigate the violence in the moment and allow the victim to feel responsible for, and thus in
control of, the event. Although self-blame can be an adaptive response to trauma if it accurately
reflects one’s behavioral contribution to the event, it frequently involves blame of some
unmodifiable aspect of oneself (Littleton et al., 2007). These responses come at a psychological
cost to the victim beyond the impact associated with the interpersonal trauma. Such costs include
the emotional pain associated with shame and worthlessness as well as the perpetuation of cycles
of retraumatization (Janoff-Bulman, 1979). These responses begin a path related to forgiveness
that is unique from the path for those responding in more obviously self-protective ways (see
Figure 1).
Self-protective emotions. The category of self-protective responses includes emotions
that motivate individuals to protect themselves. These include responses such as anger, outrage,
indignation, and vengefulness. These emotional responses typically motivate people to seek
revenge against or avoid offenders (McCullough et al., 1998), to set boundaries that keep the
person from harming them again, or to respond with aggression or even violence (Lazarus,
1991).
Although feeling angry when appropriate may be an indication of self-respect and a
concern for one’s rights and dignity (Lamb, 2002), role-socialization and unequal distributions of
power between victim and offender may make it exceedingly difficult or dangerous for some
victims to express anger. Women often have particular difficulty expressing self-protective
emotions due to cultural socialization to suppress anger and resentment (Becker, 1997).
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Additionally, when a victim is without power to exert direct control over the situation, as is the
case when systemic inequalities are present, attempts to protect the self may activate systems of
oppression and discrimination against the victim. It is thus important that, in seeking to foster
forgiveness, we not overlook the roles of power and privilege in both one’s ability to feel angry
and the appropriateness of such anger in all contexts. Still, in working through anger, we argue
that empowerment is possible. Feeling appropriate outrage and replacing those feelings with
more positive emotions toward the offender is itself an expression of power, the power of
forgiveness.
Primary Forgiveness-Related Outcomes to Trauma
Depending on the initial emotional responses to trauma, one of two forgiveness-related
primary outcomes is likely to occur. Those who respond with self-deprecating emotions will
likely experience self-blame, whereas those who respond with self-protective emotions will
likely transition to an experience of unforgiveness.
Self-blame. Self-deprecating emotional reactions of shame, sadness, and worthlessness
are more likely to lead to responses of self-blame. Control theory asserts that, because one
cannot have control over the wealth of possible environmental events, people can gain a sense of
control over environmental stressors by attributing the cause of events to the people involved
(Walster, 1966). In the case of interpersonal trauma, in which the cause of the trauma is another,
self-attributions may be a means for victims to feel they have power over the recurrence of the
trauma and regain a sense of control of their lives. Self-blame is not an uncommon response of
those who have been victims of interpersonal trauma (Littleton et al., 2007).
Subtypes of self-blame have been described as either characterological or behavioral
(Janoff-Bullman, 1979). Janoff-Bulman describes characterological self-blame as the process of
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blaming core attributes of the self for something that has occurred. Characterological self-blame
is a self-deprecating form of self-blame that attributes hurtful events to something wrong with
oneself. It has been related to poorer outcomes following traumatic events, such as greater
psychological distress, depression (Janoff-Bullman, 1979), and maladaptive coping (e.g., using
drugs/alcohol; Filipas & Ullman, 2006). Behavioral self-blame, in contrast, is self-blame that
focuses on one’s behaviors that may have contributed to the events. This form of self-blame is
theoretically more adaptive, in that it provides a sense of control and a target that is changeable.
Behavioral self-blame has been associated with better outcomes in some studies (Startup,
Makgekgenene, & Webster, 2007) but not others (Frazier, Tashiro, Berman, Steger, & Long,
2004). With this distinction in mind, the type of self-blame we are describing in the model is
more akin to Janoff-Bulman’s (1979) self-deprecating characterological self-blame.
Unforgiveness. In contrast, for those responding with the self-protective emotions of
anger or outrage, a typical outcome is unforgiveness. Unforgiveness is a complex emotional state
comprised of feelings of resentment, hatred, bitterness, and/or vengefulness. Unforgiveness
develops over time from initial reactions of anger and develops into a “cold” emotional state,
often through the process of ruminating about the event (Worthington & Wade, 1999, p. 386). In
previous research, unforgiveness for a specific offense has been measured by the degree to which
victims are motivated toward desires of revenge against and avoidance of the offender
(McCullough et al., 1998).
Secondary Forgiveness-Related Outcomes to Trauma
These primary forgiveness-related outcomes, self-blame and unforgiveness, give way to
important and unique secondary outcomes. Pseudo-forgiveness is likely to follow from self-
blame. In contrast, embitterment and true forgiveness are two distinct outcomes that can follow
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from unforgiveness.
Pseudo-forgiveness. Self-blame by definition cannot lead to genuine forgiveness, which
will be described below. Instead, self-blame is likely to lead to pseudo-forgiveness. Pseudo-
forgiveness is an outcome that cuts short the experiences of both unforgiveness and forgiveness.
Victims of trauma who engage in pseudo-forgiveness do not experience either the anger and
potential empowerment of unforgiveness or the freedom and peace associated with forgiveness.
Instead, they experience a false forgiveness that tends to condone, excuse, pardon, or minimize
the traumatic experience. This pseudo-forgiveness does not hold the perpetrator accountable and
does not embrace the healthy aspects of anger, rage, or bitterness that result when acknowledging
a true offense. Victims who engage in pseudo-forgiveness often deprecate themselves and take
on blame and responsibility that should be directed elsewhere. As a result, they may stay
connected to people who hurt them but avoid establishing healthy boundaries, setting themselves
up for future hurt and victimization. Pseudo-forgiveness has negative interpersonal and
psychological consequences, as discussed in the final step of the model.
Embitterment. In contrast, the primary outcome of unforgiveness has two likely
secondary forgiveness-related outcomes. The first is embitterment. Embitterment is primarily an
emotional state comprised of hatred, resentment, and feelings of being treated unfairly or
unjustly that might also include hopelessness and helplessness (Linden, Rotter, Baumann, &
Lieberei, 2007). Emotionally, embitterment is not much different than unforgiveness. The one
distinction that we make in our model is that embitterment is the perpetuation and solidification
of unforgiveness. As such, embitterment has a more global quality, in which the anger and
resentment generalize from the specifics of the traumatic event to the broader experiences of the
person. Instead of just feeling resentful about the specific event, the individual takes on a more
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resentful disposition. Embitterment also has the element of hopelessness that is not central to
unforgiveness. This hopelessness may develop over time as a result of seeing no positive change
or no justice or revenge. The bitterness remains because it has not been dealt with or dissipated
in some way (Linden et al., 2007).
Forgiveness. Another potential secondary outcome to unforgiveness is forgiveness.
Forgiveness involves both a reduction of negative emotions and an increase in positive emotions
toward the offender (Worthington & Wade, 1999). Many definitions of forgiveness have been
offered. For example, Enright and the Human Development Study Group (1991) defined
forgiveness as “the overcoming of negative affect and judgment toward the offender… by
endeavoring to view the offender with compassion, benevolence, and love while recognizing that
[the offender] abandoned the right to them” (p. 126). Similarly, Wade, Bailey, and Shaffer
(2005) defined forgiveness as the process of “replacing the bitter, angry feelings of vengefulness
often resulting from a hurt with positive feelings of goodwill toward the offender” (p. 634).
In forgiveness, individuals acknowledge that a significant transgression has occurred and
they place an appropriate level of responsibility on the offender. Rather than holding onto the
negative feelings of unforgiveness associated with this acknowledgement, however, those who
forgive release those negative feelings, and replace them with positive feelings toward the
offender (Worthington & Scherer, 2004; Worthington & Wade, 1999). These positive feelings
might involve compassion toward the offender or empathy that comes from perspective-taking.
Following an interpersonal trauma, positive affect does not necessarily increase as a function of
decreasing affect; the two processes are seen as independent (Wade & Worthington, 2003).
However, if only negative feelings specifically about the offense and offender are reduced and
nothing positive is increased, then forgiveness has not occurred. We might call such a state
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tolerance or indifference or forgetting, but not forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness is a special case
following an interpersonal hurt where a person experiences a reduction in negative feelings and
an increase in positive feelings (e.g., empathy, compassion, love). Even in cases of extreme
interpersonal trauma (e.g., murder), forgiveness can still involve an increase in positive
reactions, such as pity that someone could be so disturbed as to carry out such terrible actions
(Wade, Johnson, & Meyer, 2008).
Importantly, with true forgiveness the transformation of emotional responses to the
offender occurs without giving up appropriate boundaries that provide emotional and/or physical
safety from hurtful people (Wade et al., 2005). Forgiveness occurs at an intrapersonal, rather
than an interpersonal, level. Therefore, although the intrapersonal process of forgiveness can lead
to later reconciliation with one’s offender, such reconciliation is considered distinct from
forgiveness. Someone who experiences interpersonal trauma may forgive the offending person
but make the decision to cut off contact with that person to prevent further hurt or victimization
(Wade et al., 2008). In addition, because forgiveness is internal rather than interpersonal,
individuals whose offenders are no longer living can still work toward and achieve forgiveness.
Long-Term Forgiveness-Related Outcomes to Trauma
The final part of our model describes the potential long-term outcomes to trauma and the
way people respond to it. These long-term outcomes are likely to be in proportion to the degree,
severity, and frequency of pseudo-forgiveness, embitterment, and forgiveness. On one side, those
who respond more frequently to interpersonal hurts and trauma with embitterment are more
likely to experience most or all of these long-term outcomes than someone who has developed
embitterment based on one event. On the other, persons who respond more frequently to
interpersonal trauma with forgiveness can be said to exhibit forgivingness, or the disposition to
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forgive others across time and situations, and are more likely to experience the positive outcomes
associated with forgiveness (Berry, Worthington, Parrot, O’Connor & Wade, 2005).
Outcomes of pseudo-forgiveness. The potential long-term outcomes associated with
pseudo-forgiveness include relationship problems, chronically poor boundaries with others,
psychological distress, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and greater susceptibility to
revictimization. The process by which pseudo-forgiveness develops encourages these outcomes.
By directing blame and anger at oneself for a traumatic event, victims are less likely to stand up
for themselves, hold perpetrators accountable, and have strong boundaries against future hurts.
Thus, people are more likely to hurt them in the future. In addition, without appropriate, self-
protective boundaries, these individuals are more likely to experience poorer relationship quality
and greater psychological distress. Although very little research exists on pseudo-forgiveness,
one study of 121 women residents of domestic violence shelters may be instructive. In that study,
Gordon and colleagues (2004) found that “forgiveness” of abuse by a partner was related to the
intent to return.
Although this research might indicate that forgiveness is related to returning to an
abusive relationship, we would argue that more likely Gordon and colleagues (2004) were
assessing pseudo-forgiveness. Their assessment of forgiveness included statements that could be
either true of forgiveness or pseudo-forgiveness (e.g., “reporting that they were more forgiving,
less bitter and resentful, … more willing…to put the abuse behind them” p. 336). For example,
participants who agreed with the statement that they were not bitter or resentful could have been
experiencing either true forgiveness or pseudo-forgiveness; both processes would lead to a report
of minimal bitterness. True forgiveness would reduce bitterness as the victim came to terms with
the event, processed the negative feelings and reactions, and developed more positive feelings
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toward the offender (e.g., compassion, love). In pseudo-forgiveness the victim experiences very
little anger or bitterness in the first place, circumventing those emotions by condoning, excusing,
or otherwise minimizing the offense. Although it is impossible to know the true experience of
participants in Gordon and colleagues’ study, we would argue that to the degree that the victims
were willing to make excuses for the offender, see themselves as culpable, and return to the
relationship without explicit and strong boundaries against further violence, they were
experiencing pseudo-forgiveness rather than true forgiveness.
Outcomes of embitterment. The long-term outcomes of embitterment also are not
positive. Research directly related to embitterment indicates that those who harbor grudges and
bitterness report greater psychological disturbance. In a comparison of adults in an inpatient
hospital setting, those diagnosed with embitterment reported greater symptom distress (e.g.,
greater paranoia, depression, and hostility; Linden et al., 2007). In addition, embittered patients
reported more intrusive thoughts about, hyperarousal related to, and avoidance of the traumatic
event compared to control patients (Linden et al., 2007). Other research on embitterment shows
that greater degrees of embitterment are related to paranoid ideation, hopelessness, and hostility
(Znoj, 2011). In general, the longer an individual stays embittered, the more dramatic and
psychologically (and perhaps physically) debilitating the long-term outcomes will be.
Outcomes of forgiveness. The potential long-term outcomes related to forgiveness are
generally more positive and demonstrate that forgiveness may be a resilient response to
interpersonal trauma. Based on our definition of forgiveness, we theorize that several beneficial
long-term outcomes could result. For example, due to internal resolution of anger and bitterness,
we expect people who have forgiven to have greater emotional well-being and to be able to recall
the traumatic event without a strong or overwhelming emotional or physiological response. In
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addition, those who have forgiven should experience greater relationship satisfaction both in
general and with those whom they forgave (if they choose to maintain a relationship with that
person). Longer-term outcomes might also include better physical health, particularly lower
blood pressure and fewer chronic illnesses that are typically associated with stress.
These beneficial outcomes have been supported in the empirical literature on forgiveness.
Related to emotional well-being, increased forgiveness of a transgression has been associated
with decreased anger, depression, anxiety, revenge motivations, and rumination about the
offense, as well as increased self-esteem, environmental mastery, and the ability to find meaning
after suffering (Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004; Reed & Enright, 2006; Wade &
Meyer, 2009). Forgiveness has also been shown to be related to positive physical health
outcomes. For example, Witvliet, Ludwig, and Bauer (2001) found that when recalling and
imagining a person they had forgiven, participants had lower mean arterial pressure, heart rate,
and skin conductance than when thinking about a person for whom they were unforgiving. In an
examination of the association between forgiveness and health in a national sample, a
relationship was found between greater trait forgivingness (i.e., the disposition to forgive) and
fewer health symptoms among the elderly (Toussaint, Williams, Musick, & Everson, 2001). This
suggests that consistent forgiveness over time may have positive physical health implications or
that forgiveness is a health-protective factor among those vulnerable to declining health (i.e., the
elderly). Taken together, these outcomes demonstrate that forgiveness can indeed be understood
as a resilient response to interpersonal trauma.
Summary of the Model
One way of understanding responses to traumatic events in terms of forgiveness is to see
the typical responses and the potential short and long term outcomes of these responses. We
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believe that forgiveness comes from a place of strength and power that is typically marked by
strong feelings of initial anger, outrage, or indignation. “Forgiveness” that comes as a response
that is associated with characterological self-blame, shame, and low self-regard is pseudo-
forgiveness. We theorize that both pseudo-forgiveness and embitterment will lead to primarily
negative outcomes in the long term whereas true forgiveness will lead to more positive
outcomes. Following an interpersonal hurt, one of the most resilient outcomes might be
forgiveness. As a result, helping people who have been traumatized by others might include
assisting them with the forgiveness process. There is now a substantial research literature on
interventions designed to explicitly promote forgiveness. We review that literature below.
Psychological Interventions to Promote Forgiveness
Of the responses to interpersonal, traumatic events outlined in our model, the most
resilient response is forgiving the hurt. However, true forgiveness as we have described is not an
easy process. Some people have trouble allowing themselves to experience anger and
resentment, even following severe offenses, and instead move toward pseudo-forgiveness.
Others can become angry and resentful quickly, but struggle to move beyond those feelings.
Such people might continue to punish the offending person or stay stuck in their embitterment.
With the potential benefit and difficulty of the forgiveness process in mind, several clinical
researchers have developed and tested interventions to promote forgiveness.
Overview of Interventions to Promote Forgiveness
Although clinically-oriented discussions of forgiveness periodically emerged in the
scholarly literature (e.g., Close, 1970), it was not until the 1990’s that clinical researchers began
to create and empirically examine interventions specifically designed to promote forgiveness.
The two pioneers in this area are Robert Enright and Everett Worthington.
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Enright and his research group (e.g., Enright, 2001) created an intervention that evolves
over four phases: Uncovering (negative reactions about the event), Decision (to work toward
forgiveness for a specific event), Work (including understanding the offender and accepting the
pain of the offense), and Discovery (of unanticipated positive outcomes). Each of the phases has
several steps associated with them that help the client move from a place of hurt, anger, or even
denial about the offense to a place of peace and resolution. This model has been expanded over
time and described for a clinical audience (e.g., Enright, 2001).
Worthington and his research group have also developed an intervention to promote
forgiveness (e.g., Worthington, 2001). In their model, clients experience a five step program
called REACH. Each letter represents one of the five steps of the program. ‘R’ is recalling the
hurt, wherein clients focus on the traumatic event and discuss their experiences, feelings, and
thoughts associated with the event. ‘E’ is building empathy for the offender. After clients have
explored their reactions to the hurt, they are encouraged to develop appropriate empathy for the
offender, based on seeing the offender as a whole person, not just a perpetrator. ‘A’ stands for
altruistic gift. In this step, clients work toward understanding forgiveness as an altruistic gift and
deciding whether they want to give such a gift to the offender. ‘C’ is for committing to
forgiveness, wherein clients acknowledge the progress they have made toward forgiveness.
Finally, ‘H’ stands for holding onto forgiveness. In this step, clients work on skills and strategies
to keep from relapsing into the anger and bitterness and to maintain their forgiveness.
Other clinical researchers have also created programs to help people promote forgiveness,
although these methods have not been tested as frequently nor disseminated as widely as
Enright’s and Worthington’s. Other interventions include Rye’s model (e.g., Rye & Pargament,
2002) which combines elements from Enright’s and Worthington’s models, with interventions
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specific to offenses among romantic partners. Luskin’s (2002) model incorporates cognitive-
behavioral theory and techniques with relaxation training and meditation. Most forgiveness
intervention strategies, however, include three primary steps; (a) discussing the hurt and
exploring emotions associated with the event, (b) increasing understanding and empathy for the
perpetrator, and (c) making a personal commitment to the forgiveness process (Wade &
Worthington, 2005).
Effectiveness of Interventions to Promote Forgiveness
The intervention strategies mentioned above have all been tested empirically and found to
be generally effective for promoting forgiveness. Wade, Hoyt, Kidwell, and Worthington (2012)
have recently meta-analyzed and summarized the efficacy data on existing forgiveness
interventions. The meta-analysis included 57 unique studies of forgiveness interventions in
individual, couples, and group modalities. Overall, the forgiveness interventions were more
effective for promoting forgiveness than no treatments and alternative treatments (e.g., social
skills building, relaxation). Amount of time intervening and severity of the interpersonal offense
significantly moderated intervention efficacy. Greater time and greater severity were associated
with greater changes in forgiveness from pre- to post-treatment.
Although the meta-analysis included forgiveness interventions for a wide range of
offenses from mild to more severe, there are several specific intervention studies that might more
directly address interpersonal trauma. One such study examined the efficacy of the Enright
intervention with 12 adult women who had been sexually abused as children (Freedman &
Enright, 1996). Compared to participants on the waiting list, those in the treatment condition
reported significantly more increases in forgiveness and decreases in depression and anxiety. A
similar study examined the Enright program with twenty women who had been emotionally
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abused in romantic relationships (Reed & Enright, 2006). Compared with a typical treatment for
survivors of emotional abuse, the Enright intervention resulted in significantly more forgiveness
and less symptoms of posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. These studies indicate that
interventions can be effectively applied to promote forgiveness even for some of the most
traumatic interpersonal injuries.
Tailoring Interventions to Promote Forgiveness
Based on our model (see Figure 1), those responding in self-deprecating versus self-
protective ways will have different needs and different paths to genuine forgiveness. This means
that different interventions might be necessary for different people depending on their reactions.
For those already responding in angry and vengeful ways, an intervention might target managing
and resolving feelings of anger and helping people to avoid embitterment. For example, some
who have been traumatized experience waves of intense rage and desires for revenge that can
feel overwhelming. Interventions can be used to help such individuals recognize such waves
(e.g., identifying emotional, physical, and situational cues) and minimize the impact on their
daily functioning (e.g., responding with a relaxation or meditation exercise). Ultimately, such
individuals would likely benefit from explorations that help to promote empathy for the person
who hurt them. By developing an understanding of the background and situations that may have
led the offending person to hurt them, many people are able to manage their rage and move
toward resolving their bitterness.
In contrast, interventions designed to help people develop empathy for their offenders
may not be indicated for those with more self-deprecating responses. Those who respond more
from self-blame may be identifying too much with their offenders already. In such situations,
developing empathy may only intensify their feelings of shame and self-condemnation and
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encourage them to excuse or minimize the offense against them. Instead, our model would
suggest that such individuals should be given time and assistance in developing their anger,
outrage, and indignation. They should be encouraged to see these emotions as positive, self-
protective responses and given the tools and support to experience and act upon those feelings.
Integrating Resiliency with Interventions to Promote Forgiveness
Resilience is a frequent response to traumatic events. In fact, resiliency may be the most
common response to trauma, with estimates of a resilient trajectory following trauma ranging
from 35% to 65% (Bonanno, Westphal, & Mancini,, 2011). Forgiveness interventions can be
built on this knowledge. One way is to offer forgiveness interventions that interface with the
natural proclivity toward resilience most individuals demonstrate. Reich (2006) offers three core
principles that are important in this regard: control, coherence, and connectedness.
Control refers to regaining a sense of personal control after a traumatic event.
Forgiveness interventions may help enhance the experience of control and empowerment. The
decision to forgive, even when a victim of interpersonal trauma has the right to remain angry at
their transgressor, represents a position of inner-strength and self-determination. This decision is
a step toward greater personal freedom and control over one’s emotional, relational, and
psychological wellbeing. Coherence refers to the epistemological need for people to find
meaning and direction in their lives following trauma (Reich, 2006). Forgiveness may well be a
meaning-focused coping technique, as it is a method of modifying one’s appraisal of the
meaning of situations to be more consistent with one’s goals (be they relationship satisfaction,
psychological wellbeing, or physical health; Worthington & Scherer, 2004). Connectedness
refers to the need to seek out others for informational, instrumental, and emotional support
following trauma (Reich, 2006). Forgiveness, although it does not necessitate a renewed
Forgiveness Interventions
19
relationship with transgressors, often precedes reconciliation and can enable offended individuals
to build new relationships.
Although forgiveness interventions may serve to address all three of these components,
we offer that forgiveness is primarily an emotion-focused coping effort. Forgiveness is linked
with positive and pro-social emotions (e.g. empathic concern, perspective taking) and negatively
correlated with negative interpersonal emotions (e.g. hostility, fear; Berry et al., 2005).
Additionally, forgiveness reduces rumination and negative emotions and cognitions surrounding
the interpersonal trauma (Berry et al., 2005). Forgiveness allows a victim of interpersonal trauma
to “let go” of the offense and thereby experience psychological freedom. Forgiveness may thus
be one way for victims of interpersonal trauma to cope with triggered and sustained
posttraumatic emotions that might otherwise overwhelm internal affect regulation capacities. !
Summary and Conclusion
One alternative to self-blame or hostility in coping with posttraumatic emotions
following interpersonal trauma is forgiving. Increased forgiveness of a transgression has been
associated with numerous emotional and psychological benefits. As such, interventions designed
to promote forgiveness after interpersonal transgressions are indicated to enhance recovery and
sustained growth in the face of potentially-traumatic interpersonal events. Forgiveness
interventions, when framed as growth-oriented mechanisms to enhance control, coherence,
connectedness, and emotional regulation following interpersonal trauma, can prevent persons
from traveling down paths that solidify self-deprecating emotions or lead to prolonged
embitterment and interpersonal dissatisfaction. Although not universal prophylactics, forgiveness
interventions can help people recover from and promote intrapersonal growth in the face of
otherwise psychologically-overwhelming events.
Forgiveness Interventions
20
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25
Self-Protective
Emotions
(e.g., Anger,
Indignation,
Vengefulness)
Interpersonal
Trauma
Unforgiveness
Forgiveness
Self-Deprecating
Emotions
(e.g., Shame, Sadness,
Powerlessness)
Premature
reconciliation
Poor boundaries
Relationship
problems
Psychological
symptoms
Pseudo-
Forgiveness
Healthy boundaries
Resolution of the past
Effective
reconciliation
Resiliency
Embitterment
Depression
Hostility
Physical health
problems
Characterological
Self-blame
Note: Solid arrows indicate the theoretical temporal flow of forgiveness-related experiences following interpersonal trauma.
These arrows may or may not indicate causation (e.g., secondary outcomes are theorized to cause long-term outcomes,
however, unforgiveness is not theorized to cause forgiveness, but is seen as occurring before forgiveness). Dashed arrows
indicate places where intervention can keep secondary outcomes from developing into long-term problems.
... Similar research results were also shown in adolescent samples (Mary & Patra, 2015), adult samples (Broyles, 2005), or samples from special populations (Abid & Sultan, 2015;Hee & Mihyoung, 2014;Waldron et al., 2018). Forgiveness facilitates stronger resilience in facing adversities, which also beneficial for overcoming the stress, trauma, or even fostering interpersonal capability (B. S. Thompson & Korsgaard, 2019;Wade, Tucker, & Cornish, 2014). ...
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