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


De-Mystifying Self-As-Context in ACT: Practical Strategies for Clients

Brian Pilecki, PhD and Kati Lear, PhD
December 3rd, 2021 from 12pm-1:30pm

This workshop will outline how self-as-context can be used to conceptualize commonly discussed topics in therapy such as self-esteem, confidence, identity, and inner conflict. Participants will learn how to flexibly practice practical self-as-context interventions that can be used with clients, as well as have a chance to practice newly learned skills through structured role-play exercises in breakout groups. Read More.


Values in Therapy: An Intro to Working with Values from an ACT Perspective

Jenna LeJeune, PhD
January 21, 2022 from 12pm-2:00pm

This workshop will provide a theoretical and conceptual overview of values from a contextual behavioral science perspective. We will cover the “what”, “why”, “when”, and “how” of values within ACT. While we will also provide an overview of various values exercises and measures that can be used with clients, the emphasis in this workshop will be on providing a foundational framework that will help clinicians approach values work from a functional perspective rather than a primarily technique-focused approach. Read More.



Culturally Responsive Therapy: How to Apply Anti-Racist Values in Session

Christy Tadros, LPCC and RaQuel Neal, LCSW
February 4th, 2022 from 1:30pm-4:45pm
and February 5th from 9:00am-12:00pm

This 2 day 6-hour training will help therapists develop their ability to support clients from a different racial background than them, with a particular focus on Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Through a multicultural social justice framework, it will integrate research and clinical experience to teach a therapeutic model for rapport building, assessment, and treatment. This model is not a rigid therapeutic modality, but provides a contextual lens to build a strong, culturally grounded therapeutic relationship. It is a flexible model and can align with many therapeutic modalities, including a contextual behavioral approach to therapy. Read More.


Truffle Hunting: Bringing Values to Life in the Therapy Room

Jenna LeJeune, PhD
February 25, 2022 from 12pm-2:00pm

This brief workshop is designed to help clinicians deepen their values work with clients by shifting the focus from the content of values conversations to the quality of those conversation. By listening for and deepening the qualities of effective values conversations participants will get a taste for how more experiential and relationally-based values work can supercharge therapy. Participants will have opportunities to both observe demonstrations and practice in small groups with the benefit of feedback. Read More.


Values Prototyping: Using Action to Help Clients Explore Their Values

Jenna LeJeune, PhD
March 11, 2022 from 12pm-2:00pm

This workshop will focus on one specific experiential tool called “values prototyping” that helps clients learn more about their values through engaging in intentional valuing. As participants will hopefully already have a solid foundation of some of the core concepts of the values process in ACT, this workshop will dive right in on how to use values prototyping to help clients learn more about what they would choose to value in their life. You will have the chance to practice developing a values prototype in small groups with the benefit of feedback, so that by the end of the workshop you will be able to use this tool in your work with clients. Read More.


The Invitation to Change Approach: Helping Families Affected by Addiction

Jeff Foote, PhD and Cordelia Kraus, LPC, CADC 1, certified CRAFT clinician
May 13th and 14th, 2022 from 9:00am-5:00pm
at University of Portland, Terrace Room
This two-day in-person workshop will provide skills training for professionals focused on the process of working with clients who have a loved one struggling with substance use issues. The Invitation to Change Approach draws on CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), MI (Motivational Interviewing), and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to provide a compassionate and collaborative way of working with the families and concerned significant others of people who struggle with substance use. 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.

January 14th, 2022Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy of Major Depressive Disorder using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a Therapeutic Frame with Jordan Sloshower, MD, MSc

February 11th, 2022 – Drug-Drug Interactions Between Psychiatric Medications and MDMA or Psilocybin with Aryan Sarparast, MD

May 13th, 2022Implementing Culturally-Attuned & Anti-Racist Psychedelic Therapy: Impact over Intention with Jamilah R. George, M.Div, M.S.