Forgiveness Therapies: Dangerous or Healing?

Forgiveness Therapies: Dangerous or Healing?Forgiveness is a new and growing target in therapies. Researchers typically define forgiveness as including two components: (1) choosing to treat someone who has wronged you as a valuable human (“decisional forgiveness”) and (2) translating negative emotions, such as resentment, into positive, other-oriented emotions, such as compassion (“emotional forgiveness”). Therapies designed to promote forgiveness typically devote a significant portion of time to first supporting clients in processing their emotions, and also include exercises, such as letter writing, designed to promote empathy and other positive emotions towards the offender in a safe atmosphere.

Forgiveness Is Not Reconciliation

Importantly, in this definition, forgiveness is distinct from reconciliation. Common understandings of forgiveness, on the other hand, may conflate the two concepts. Promoting a form of forgiveness that conflates forgiveness with reconciliation could be dangerous. For example, in a sample of 121 women in domestic violence shelters, forgiveness correlated with intentions to return to the abuser and with perceptions of the abuser’s actions as less malicious. Thus, if forgiveness is a target of therapy, clinicians must be careful to also help clients establish safe boundaries, and view forgiveness as a personal, rather than interpersonal, act.

Do Clients Seek Forgiveness-Promoting Therapies?

A significant portion of clients appear to want to work on forgiveness in therapy. In a study of 59 clients at university counseling centers, researchers found that a significant portion (75%) of those who had been hurt in the past wanted to forgive. Peoples’ willingness to work on forgiveness in therapy corresponded with the amount of time they had seen their therapist, suggesting that forgiveness is best to target later on in therapy.

Most of the research on therapies promoting forgiveness includes participants who decide to participate in an intervention explicitly designed to promote forgiveness. Peoples’ decision to participate in these forgiveness interventions does not appear to depend on the severity of the offense they experienced; for example, survivors of incest have participated in studies of forgiveness-promoting therapies.

Are Forgiveness Therapies Effective?

Therapies targeting forgiveness are consistently more effective than wait-list and attentional controls, and are successful at not only promoting more forgiveness, but also improvements in overall mental health outcomes, such as anxiety and depression.

In some cases, these therapies have outperformed standard treatments (e.g. here and here). For example, in one study, a treatment with an empathy component was more effective at promoting forgiveness than a similar treatment without an empathy component. In another study, inpatients randomly assigned to an individual therapy incorporating forgiveness experienced greater increases in forgiveness and self-esteem and greater decreases in depression, anxiety and anger than those assigned to a standard substance use treatment group.

However, these findings are not conclusive. It’s important to consider that the participants in these studies are people with a desire to forgive. Researchers partial to the therapy under investigation also typically conduct these studies in which the forgiveness-promoting therapy outperforms the standard therapy, leaving open the possibility that an allegiance to the therapy contributes to these findings.

Some researchers argue that common factors, such as social support, are more integral to therapies than are specific ingredients, such as forgiveness. For example, in one study comparing relaxation training, a forgiveness intervention based upon theoretical components (e.g. empathy building), and a forgiveness intervention not based upon theoretical components, researchers found that all were equivalently effective at changing participants’ levels of forgiveness. Other researchers have similarly found that, when compared to a standard treatment, interventions promoting forgiveness led to similar improvements in forgiveness and mental health measures. Studies in which forgiveness therapies do not outperform standard therapies are typically shorter in duration, and group-based, leaving open the possibility that duration and therapy modality are important factors.

Clinical Take-Away

The safest conclusion to draw from existing research is that forgiveness can be a useful target in therapy for those who are open to forgiveness. These clients are highly likely to benefit from evidence-based techniques that encourage forgiveness. The research is less extensive on those who are less open to forgiveness, but it’s possible that they are likely to benefit as well. For example, Christian clients in both religious and non-religious settings rated a moderate to high amount of comfort with forgiveness-promoting interventions, and surveys of clinicians indicate that clinicians tend to believe forgiveness can be brought up ethically and effectively within therapy. Forgiveness is correlated with a variety of physical and mental health benefits (e.g. here and here). In one study, amongst college women, forgiveness related to a specific offense predicted less psychological distress four months later. Therapies targeting forgiveness involve helping clients process their own emotions and are typically effective if the forgiveness-promoting component is incorporated into therapy later on. As with any therapy, therapists must empower clients to make choices that best align with their own unique set of values and acknowledge that forgiveness is but one way that a client can respond to a situation or a person.

Incorporating Forgiveness into Clinical Practice

Worthington’s REACH model of forgiveness is one example of a well-established model that outlines steps therapists can take to help clients forgive in therapy. Each letter in the acronym outlines a key step in the forgiveness process: R (Recall the event), E (Empathy for the transgressor), A (give forgiveness as an Altruistic gift), C (Commit to the forgiveness through a written and/or spoken statement) and H (Hold onto forgiveness in moments of doubt). Portland Psychotherapy is hosting a training workshop with Dr. Worthington September 28th, 2019 for those therapists interested in learning more. If you would like to sign-up or read more about this workshop, please go to Eventbrite.

Further Learning

Written by Christina Chwyl, B.A.

UPCOMING TRAINING EVENTS

How to be Experiential in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Jason Luoma, Ph.D.
April 23, 2021 from 12-1pm

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is, at its core, an experiential treatment, but is frequently delivered in a non-experiential way. Experiential learning involves going beyond verbal discussion, insight, and explanations of experience. But how do we do this in ACT and how do we know when we are spending too much time engaged in non-experiential modes of learning? This workshop will outline a simple model you can use to identify when you are in less or more experiential modes during therapy and easy methods to switch to more experiential modes. You will then have a chance to practice it in breakout groups and get feedback. Read More.


Ethical & Legal Considerations in Psychedelic Integration Therapy

Jason Luoma, Ph.D. and Brian Pilecki, Ph.D.
May 7, 2021 from 12-2pm

This workshop is based on extensive research and writing we have conducted into the legal and ethical issues of working with psychedelics in the current regulatory climate, as well as clinical practice doing harm reduction and integration therapy with psychedelics. It is informed by consultation with multiple experts on harm reduction, as well as attorneys knowledgeable about criminal and civil matters relating to drug use and professional practice. We will share with you all we know so that you can be more informed in the decisions you are making in your practice and be better able to decide whether to jump into this kind of work if you are considering it. Read More.


Case Conceptualization in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Jason Luoma, Ph.D. and Brian Pilecki, Ph.D.
May 21, 2021 from 12-2pm

This workshop provides a chance to learn concrete methods for conceptualizing cases from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Formulating a useful case conceptualization is a foundational clinical skill that is essential in delivering effective treatment, and one that can be often overlooked in the process of working with clients. Participants will learn several formats for doing formal case conceptualization outside of session as a means to further develop knowledge and skill with ACT theory, as well as to learn a means to enhance treatment planning. The importance of ongoing case conceptualization throughout a course of treatment will be emphasized, as well as common pitfalls in conceptualizing client problems. Participants will also have a chance to practice newly learned skills with a case in breakout groups. Read More.


ACT Precision Training: In-Session Case Conceptualization in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Help You be Focused and Strategic in Your Interventions

Jason Luoma, Ph.D. and Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D
June 18, 2021 from 12-2pm

This workshop provides a chance to learn and practice in-session, in-the-moment case conceptualization of cases from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This workshop focuses on helping you use ACT theory & in-session clinical markers to make more precise and strategic interventions. The main goal of this workshop is to help you become more adept at identifying in-session client behaviors that are indicators for particular ACT processes that are likely to be most relevant. The workshop uses a process we call ACT Circuit Training, which involves intensive analysis of a video of an ACT session and intentional practice in conceptualizing client behavior and generating possible ACT responses, followed by discussion and feedback. Read More.


ACT Agility Training: In-Session Case Conceptualization in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Increase Flexible Responding

Jason Luoma, Ph.D. and Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D
July 16, 2021 from 12-2pm

This workshop provides a chance to learn and practice in-session, in-the-moment case conceptualization of cases from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This workshop is intended to help therapists be more flexible and nimble in their use of ACT processes, strengthening their ability to fluidly shift as needed between processes within sessions. Therapist learning ACT often develop tunnel vision, focusing too much on particular processes or responding rigidly when more flexibility is needed. Read More.


Therapy and Research in Psychedelic Science (TRIPS) Seminar Series

Second Friday of each month from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (PT)

TRIPS is an online seminar series that hosts speakers discussing science-informed presentations and discussions about psychedelics to educate healthcare professionals. This series was created to guide healthcare providers and students preparing to be professionals towards the most relevant, pragmatic, and essential information about psychedelic-assisted therapy, changing legal statuses, and harm reduction approaches in order to better serve clients and communities. This seminar series is a fundraiser for our clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for social anxiety disorder that Portland Psychotherapy investigators are preparing for and starting in the Fall of 2021. All proceeds after presenter remuneration will go to fund this clinical trial. Read more.

April 9th, 2021 – Ketamine 101: An Introduction to Ketamine-Assisted Psychotherapy with Gregory Wells, Ph.D.
May 14th, 2021  Research on MDMA and Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy: An Overview of the Evidence for Clinicians with Jason Luoma, Ph.D.
June 11th, 2021 Becoming a Psychedelic-Informed Therapist: Toward Developing Your Own Practice with Nathan Gates, M.A., LCPC