Counseling Today, Features

The self ish act of forgiving

By Lindsey Phillips April 26, 2017

A rabbi, returning home on a train, sat near a group of salesmen who were playing cards. Absorbed as he was in meditation, the rabbi refused to join the card game. One of the salesmen, annoyed by the rabbi’s aloofness but unaware of who he was, pushed the rabbi out of the compartment.

Upon reaching their destination, the men discovered that their companion on the train was a revered rabbi. This revelation prompted the salesman to ask for the rabbi’s forgiveness, but the rabbi refused. People then questioned the rabbi about how he could be so unforgiving. The rabbi explained that because the salesman had assumed he was offending a “common man” on the train, only that man, not the rabbi, could grant forgiveness.

This parable by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel illustrates the complexities and power of forgiving and teaches that only people who have been wronged have the power to forgive. It also reveals the way that people’s thoughts about forgiveness shape their view of its utility.

There is also one perspective of forgiveness that might surprise many people: Forgiving is not a kind, selfless act. Rather, it is about self-healing, self-empowerment and self-liberation. As Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s former Anglican archbishop and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.”

According to a survey by the Fetzer Institute, 62 percent of Americans think that they need more forgiveness in their personal lives.

“We spend a lot of negative energy ruminating on parts of our lives that have been harmful,” observes Richard Balkin, assistant chair in the Department of Counseling and Human Development at the University of Louisville. “We have nightmares over this, we have flashbacks, we have memories that disrupt our lives.” Many people hold on to these negative or hurtful memories for years, he says.

The pressing question for counselors is how they can help clients move past the anger or hurt that is tied to these past events. And that leads to examining the potential role that forgiveness can play in the process.

Defining forgiveness 

Susan Stuntzner, the director of disability support services and a retention specialist at Southwestern Oregon Community College, describes forgiveness as “the ability to uncover [and] address any hurt and pain that one has.”

Through the process of forgiving, people usually “find that they hold feelings such as anger, anxiety, depression, some sort of betrayal or hurt,” adds Stuntzner, a member of the American Counseling Association. “It’s a process where as people uncover how they are feeling and thinking, they realize that they no longer want … the hurt or pain to control their life.”

Jan Lemon, a professor of counseling at Mississippi College, views forgiveness as a transformational approach in which clients correct their attitudes, beliefs and energy. For her, forgiveness is “an unconscious attitude or release of a toxic emotion. … It’s both letting go of the resentment [and] replacing the resentment with mindful awareness and empathy.”

Balkin, editor of ACA’s Journal of Counseling & Development, notes two different types of forgiveness. Interpersonal forgiveness is a relational process that involves forgiveness and reconciliation between the aggrieved person and the perpetrator, Balkin explains. He points out, however, that forgiveness doesn’t have to be relational, and this is where the second type of forgiveness comes into play. Intrapersonal forgiveness is an independent process in which the aggrieved person forgives by letting go of the hurt or pain caused by the perpetrator, or the perpetrator forgives by granting self-forgiveness for the pain he or she has caused others, Balkin says.

For Bryce Hagedorn, program director of counselor education and school psychology at the University of Central Florida, forgiveness is “a personal choice to release anger, the right for revenge [and] retribution for a wrongdoing. It can be both releasing that toward others who have wronged you as well as releasing yourself.”

There is growing evidence that the act of forgiveness is both physically and mentally empowering. In 2005, Harvard Medical School published an e-newsletter citing research suggesting that forgiveness reduced stress, lowered the risk of heart disease, strengthened relationships, helped lessen pain and instances of chronic illness, and led to greater happiness. A decade later, the scientific research on the topic had increased so much that Loren Toussaint, Everett Worthington Jr. and David Williams edited a book, Forgiveness and Health, that focused specifically on the health and well-being benefits of forgiving.

According to Stuntzner, forgiving improves a person’s coping and adaptation, reduces negative feelings and creates an overall better quality of life. Part of the power of forgiveness is that “there are multiple directions in which forgiveness can be applied,” she says. Counselors can use forgiveness as a tool to help clients with different situations, such as working toward self-forgiveness or working to forgive an abusive partner, she says. By coming to a new understanding of the past and how it affects a situation in their present, clients “are freed up emotionally and mentally to focus on more positive things,” Stuntzner says.

Overcoming resistance

When giving presentations to counseling audiences, Hagedorn often asks how many attendees have clients whose anger, depression, substance use, anxiety, relational discord or other issues are grounded in resentment or regret. Typically, 90 to 100 percent of the audience members answer in the affirmative, he says. Even though these two areas are central to forgiveness work, not many counselors are doing anything systemically with resentment and regret, adds Hagedorn, an ACA member and past president of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling.

Furthermore, counselors can actually be resistant to using forgiveness strategies in their practices, Hagedorn says. In fact, he argues that assessing client-based and clinician-based resistance is one area that doesn’t get enough attention. Counselors may be resistant because they do not feel competent and do not know where to start or because they have not done their own work and would feel hypocritical using forgiveness techniques in session with clients, he says.

Another reason that some counselors hesitate to engage in forgiveness work in session is because they consider it to be a religious intervention, Hagedorn says. Many people — clients and counselors alike — view the topic of forgiveness as something that falls under the auspices of religious leaders, not counselors.

Stuntzner says that people’s beliefs about forgiveness, or even their beliefs about religion and spirituality, may hinder their ability to forgive. Yet she finds that the concept of forgiveness can be incorporated into multiple beliefs. She often asks clients what forgiveness looks like to them as a means of connecting forgiveness to their belief systems.

Other clients are resistant to forgiving for reasons that have little to do with religion or spirituality. Because clients often believe that forgiveness is relational, they may assume that forgiving someone is equivalent to pardoning the offender or condoning the offense that injured them, Hagedorn says. In addition, they may not recognize the connection between these old wounds and the presenting concern that brought them to counseling, he notes.

Counselors may assume that this resistance signifies that a client does not want to forgive. Instead, Stuntzner advises, counselors should interpret resistance as meaning simply that more work needs to be done before the client is ready to forgive.

At the same time, counselors should take care not to push clients before they are ready. Clients must initiate the process of forgiving. Both Stuntzner and Balkin emphasize the importance of counselors asking questions to understand clients’ thoughts on forgiveness. For example, Balkin asks questions such as “In a perfect world, what would you like to see happen?” and “What do you believe should happen?”

Because forgiveness is not universally defined, counselors need to be open to clients’ values and beliefs surrounding the concept. Sometimes this means “letting them come up with their own terms,” Stuntzner notes.

Readiness to forgive 

Hagedorn says one area that is missing in the practice of forgiveness is the assessment of client readiness. “We [counselors] tend to throw action-oriented interventions at clients across the board because we assume that when they come in for help, they are ready to make an active change,” he says. But that is not always the case.

Unfortunately, Stuntzner points out, there is no scale or objective measure that says clients are ready to forgive. “It’s a … subjective process,” she says. “That’s where a counselor’s clinical skills come into play.”

Stuntzner looks for possible indications that a client might be ready to work on forgiving. For example, does a particular event or person seem to rule the client’s life? Does the client spend a significant amount of mental and emotional energy rehashing the offense? Is it getting in the way of the client’s present life? Is the client in enough pain that he or she no longer wants to feel that way?

Lemon, an ACA member who frequently works on forgiveness with her clients, also looks for signs. In terms of needing to be forgiven, clients will typically show remorse, a desire to make it right or a desire to move on, she says.

To better understand his clients’ readiness to forgive, Hagedorn, the former editor of the Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, applies the transtheoretical model, which assesses individuals’ readiness to change their behaviors on the basis of the following six stages:

  • Precontemplation (denying there is a problem and only wanting to change others’ behaviors)
  • Contemplation (acknowledging the problem and the need to change but only thinking about it)
  • Preparation (planning how to change)
  • Action (modifying one’s behavior and environment)
  • Maintenance (maintaining the action)
  • Termination (coping without fear of relapse)

Counselors can assess client readiness by looking at how their behaviors match those stages of change (e.g., engaging in “other” talk, blaming others for their pain), Hagedorn explains.

But, ultimately, the decision to forgive lies with the client. Balkin stresses the importance of forgiveness being initiated by the client. Clients need to say that they are struggling with a situation and that they want to change it. Counselors must be careful not to impose forgiveness on clients before they are ready to forgive because the clients’ beliefs about forgiveness may hinder the process, he adds.

Learning to forgive 

People often assume that forgiveness is something that just naturally happens in the counseling process, Stuntzner says. However, forgiveness is not necessarily an intrinsic process. Forgiveness scholars, including Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, and Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, argue that forgiveness is a teachable skill that requires practice.

Hagedorn, an addictions counselor in Orlando, Florida, points out that one-third of the steps in 12-step recovery programs deal with forgiveness. He refers to Step 4 and Step 5 as “practice forgiveness” because they involve individuals taking inventory of the harm they have caused others and themselves and then seeking forgiveness from someone whom they have not harmed (e.g., a higher power, a counselor, a sponsor). In Step 8 and Step 9, individuals make a list of everyone they have harmed and seek forgiveness from them. Hagedorn has found that practicing forgiveness is also a good therapeutic technique for clients who need to learn how to be forgiven by others.

Stuntzner agrees that practicing forgiveness is a helpful technique. If a client cannot forgive a hurt because it is too painful, she advises counselors to restructure the session and ask the client if there is someone else he or she can forgive. Forgiving someone else can help clients experience the benefits of forgiveness and build confidence in the process, Stuntzner says, which might encourage them to readdress the previous hurt they were initially resistant to or at least apply forgiveness to other situations in their lives.

Clients must continue to develop the skill of forgiving because, as with any skill, it can get rusty without practice. Therefore, Stuntzner suggests that it might be beneficial for counselors to check in or have booster sessions with clients to see how they are doing with applying forgiveness in their daily lives.

Another common misconception is that forgiveness is relational. “Often people believe that reconciliation [has to be] part of forgiveness … and that is simply not the case. Reconciliation may or may not be part of the process,” says Balkin, an ACA member and past president of the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling. In fact, sometimes, reconciliation is not possible.

Balkin offers an example from his own practice: A client is processing pain from the emotional neglect she experienced from her father growing up. He becomes terminally ill after she is an adult. While taking care of him, she tells him that she loves him, but he dies without ever returning the gesture. In this case, reconciliation is not possible, and the client must come to terms with the fact that she will never get what she wanted. In situations such as these, intrapersonal forgiveness is key, Balkin says.

The Jewish conceptualization of mechila, which means to wipe away debt, can serve as a helpful tool for teaching intrapersonal forgiveness, says Balkin, who finds this concept of forgiveness particularly empowering. By acknowledging that the person who hurt them no longer owes them anything or that they don’t expect anything from the person, clients stop spending time or negative energy on the hurt, thereby regaining control of their lives, he explains.

Because intrapersonal forgiveness does not require reconciliation and can be done on a personal level, people may assume incorrectly that it is easier, Balkin says. Admittedly, interpersonal forgiveness is difficult because a client must set aside the hurt and work on trusting the other person again, but intrapersonal forgiveness comes with its own set of challenges.

“Abandoning resentment toward someone who has not demonstrated remorse or change is hard to do,” Balkin points out. However, he adds, “Abandoning resentment doesn’t mean trusting that person. Abandoning resentment simply means, ‘I don’t wish the person any ill will, and I’m not going to allow this person’s actions and behaviors toward me to impact my
life anymore.’”

Integrating other approaches 

When Stuntzner initially started out, she viewed forgiveness work as atheoretical, but she quickly realized that counseling journals often wanted it tied to a specific approach. Even though she still believes forgiveness is a process in and of itself, she finds that it also works well with other counseling approaches. In fact, she views resilience, self-compassion and forgiveness as “a three-legged stool” because one can lead to another. “As people learn to forgive, they can experience more compassion and self-compassion and vice versa,” Stuntzner says.

Lemon believes that forgiveness work can be integrated into any type of therapy. After all, she points out, clients typically do not come to counseling just to work on forgiveness, so adjunct therapies are required. For example, she thinks there is a cognitive behavioral aspect to forgiveness. “Any type of spiritual approach works well with CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] because it is about changing thought patterns,” Lemon says. She adds that Adlerian therapy and solution-focused brief therapy (because it is goal-oriented) also work well with forgiveness. In addition, forgiveness meshes well with acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) because of the aspects of self-acceptance and commitment to change, Lemon says.

Even so, Hagedorn cautions counselors against using ACT initially unless they are already familiar with it. ACT is not a stage-based or linear theory, so it requires counselors to possess a significant amount of experience with clients and the change process, he explains. Instead, he suggests that counselors begin with mindfulness-based interventions, which are an easy entryway to forgiveness work because they focus on getting people grounded and in the moment.

“Forgiveness is one of those things that we want to do but sometimes we don’t know how to do,” says Lemon, who has presented on the mind-body approach to forgiveness. Clients often resist cognitive approaches to forgiveness, she adds, which is why mindful forgiveness is so important. Mind-body techniques allow clients to “bypass the cognitive thinking and go to the unconscious” so they don’t have to focus on questions such as if they need to let the hurt or betrayal go or if the other person deserves forgiveness, she explains.

Approaching forgiveness from an energetic standpoint, Lemon aims to help clients rid themselves of toxic emotions such as anger and resentment by using forgiveness meditation. This method combines mindful breathing, affirmations (e.g., “I forgive you for all wrongdoing”) and positive visualization (having clients visualize someone they care for and then applying those same feelings to the offender and themselves).

Hagedorn refers to a mindfulness technique he uses as “the breakaway.” In this technique, a client recounts the story of his or her trauma or hurt. Partway through, the counselor has the client stop (or break away) to notice five things in the room. Afterward, the client picks up where the story left off. Through this technique, clients learn to “go in and out of the story and thereby gain some control and power back,” Hagedorn explains.

Lemon recommends another helpful mindfulness technique connected to forgiveness work that asks clients to imagine their situation from four perspectives: their own, a bystander’s, the offender’s and the client’s highest spiritual self. The technique involves more than just asking clients how they think the other person would feel, which often creates resentment, Lemon says. Instead, clients role-play and step into that other person’s perspective.

Forgiveness inventories and models 

In 2014-2015, Stuntzner conducted two pilot studies on a 10-module resilience intervention that taught people with disabilities about resilience and how to cultivate resilience-based skills. Throughout these pilot studies, participants reported that the module on spirituality and forgiveness was helpful and meaningful, but because of the difficulty of being able to forgive, they indicated that it would be useful to have more time to work on forgiveness. This finding, coupled with the fact that there was not a specific forgiveness intervention tailored to meet the needs and unique experiences of people with disabilities, led her to develop a seven-module intervention: “Stuntzner’s Forgiveness Intervention: Learning to Forgive Yourself and Others.”

Balkin and other researchers have developed a Forgiveness Reconciliation Model (FRM) that contains four stages:

  • Collaborative exploration (the counselor helps the client identify what his or her beliefs are about forgiveness)
  • Processing the role of reconciliation
  • Evaluating remorse/change from the offender
  • Determining an outcome (interpersonal vs. intrapersonal forgiveness)

Balkin urges counselors not to assume that reconciliation is a necessary part of forgiveness just because the word is in the model’s title. “[The FRM] is a process-oriented model, not one that eventually leads to a single conclusion,” Balkin says. Therefore, the model is a way to process forgiveness and helps counselors and clients decide if clients should reconcile or take a more intrapersonal route, he explains.

To aid in the process of choosing between interpersonal and intrapersonal forgiveness, Balkin, along with other researchers, also created a Forgiveness Reconciliation Inventory (FRI). The inventory contains four scales that measure each stage in the FRM.

With this inventory, clients can “see the conflict illustrated on paper,” Balkin notes. For example, when working with women in a domestic abuse shelter, Balkin found that some of the women wanted to reconcile with their partners even though the partners had not shown any remorse or changed their behaviors. The FRI helped the clients visualize the process and realize that in their situations, reconciliation would do more harm than good.

Balkin warns counselors not to think of assessments such as the FRI as labeling or diagnostic tools. No model or inventory will allow counselors to label someone as a “forgiving person.” Rather than being generalized to all issues, these tools are unique to each experience, he explains. In fact, similar situations can have very different outcomes. Therefore, the FRI “is not a labeling instrument, not a diagnostic instrument. It is a process instrument. It is designed to be used to enrich the session with the client,” Balkin says.

Scattering seeds of forgiveness

Forgiveness is often discussed in terms of difference. We talk about how religious, spiritual and cultural views or gender differences affect forgiving. But Balkin points out that it is more helpful to look at the commonalities of forgiveness. For example, we have all been hurt and we all have to figure out how to release that pain and not remain in the victim role, he notes. In addition, we all seek ways to find strength from what we encounter.

Another commonality is that “forgiveness is a freely chosen act,” Balkin says. Regardless of cultural views on whether someone should or should not forgive, we all choose to give or not give forgiveness — just as the rabbi on the train chose not to forgive the salesman because the rabbi was not the one who had been truly wronged.

Rabbi Heschel’s parable also reminds us that forgiveness does not have to be relational and that there are multiple ways of thinking about it. In addition, counselors should keep in mind that the act of choosing to forgive — being ready to forgive — can be a long process. “A lot of people live their lives in unforgiveness,” Hagedorn observes.

This means counselors may encounter clients who never reach a stage when they are ready to begin the work of forgiveness, and that can be frustrating. “Sometimes I’m just scattering seeds, and I’m hoping that someone else will come along and water [them],” Hagedorn says.

Counselors can play an important role in demystifying the process of forgiving and helping clients turn their anger, pain and shame into something empowering. Even if counselors never hear their clients utter the difficult words “I forgive,” they will have planted the seeds that might one day bring new life.




Moral injury and forgiveness

In some cases, clients must learn to live with certain hurts and wounds rather than simply releasing them. Military service members often deal with moral injury, which results in shame and hurt, whereas people with addictions often can’t forget the pain they have caused others and themselves.

In such cases, Bryce Hagedorn of the University of Central Florida advises counselors to shift from cognitive behavior therapy to acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), thus changing the emphasis from eradicating the hurt to learning to live with the hurt. These clients must learn to “live in the ‘and,’” he says. This means learning to live with what has happened and still be a productive member of society, explains Hagedorn, who has conducted webinar training on
self-forgiveness, ACT and moral injury for the National Board for Certified Counselors.

With moral injury and addictions, clients often need to forgive themselves. But self-forgiveness can be particularly challenging. Susan Stuntzner of Southwestern Oregon Community College has found that “it’s easier for people to express and feel compassion toward others than [it is] to give themselves permission to be self-compassionate.”




Disability and forgiveness

Individuals with disabilities must often learn how to manage a whole range of factors, including changes in their life and relationships, unemployment or underemployment, bias, stigma and negative attitudes from society, says Susan Stuntzner, a counseling professional who has presented on disability and forgiveness interventions. In fact, she says, “Only one piece of forgiveness may be tied to the disability itself.”

There are other life experiences and new hurts or offenses that typically happen after the fact, and often people are not prepared to deal with them, Stuntzner explains. For example, these clients may be faced with a partner who is having a hard time adjusting to the person’s disability or has even decided to leave the relationship, or they might encounter barriers to finding a job, all of which can increase their anxiety or fear.

Stuntzner has found that forgiveness work offers an effective way to help these clients cope. For individuals with disabilities, rehabilitation is often thought of as physical, but there is an emotional component as well, especially for people with a traumatic injury that suddenly changes their lives, such as a spinal injury or stroke, says Stuntzner, a member of the American Counseling Association and the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association. Forgiveness provides these clients with an alternative to letting other people or situations control their view of themselves or their lives, she explains. The process helps them let go of their negative feelings and allows them to find a way to move forward toward a better quality of life, she says.




Lindsey Phillips is a freelance writer and content developer living in Northern Virginia. She has 10 years of experience writing on topics of race, immigration and health. Contact her at or through her website

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