How Fad Forgiveness “Therapies” Can Have Devastating Results
"Bury and rebury those feelings of hurt""Have empathy for your abuser""Forgive your abuser"
These are just three of the potentially harmful demands imposed on trauma survivors by misguided practitioners employing forgiveness “therapies” inappropriately based on the Post Traumatic Growth Inventory.
The current upsurge in forgiveness “therapies” employed by practitioners inexperienced in trauma recovery is the result of fad-followers being sold a bill of goods by religious or spirituality-based promoters who cite the Post Traumatic Growth Inventory (PGI) as a root clinical foundation.
Founded in a “positive psychology” approach, forgiveness “therapies” follow the religious tenets of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islamic and Baha’i that believe that suffering can potentially yield a positive transformative experience for the person harmed.
The problem arises when practitioners who are rooted in a religious or spiritual approach present these fad theories as a one-size-fits-all “therapy” that aligns with their own bias and agenda.
Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun published “The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the Positive Legacy of Trauma” in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 9, No.3, 1996. Tedeschi and Calhoun never claimed that the PGI was a therapeutic modality, but rather was “an instrument for assessing positive outcomes reported by persons who have experienced traumatic events”.
The PGI is comprised of a 21 item scale that includes factors of; New Possibilities; Relating to Others; Personal Strength; Spiritual Change, and; Appreciation of Life. This PGI assessment scale can assist practitioners to gauge the resiliency and internal protective factors of their clients and indicate areas that may be strengthened by using therapeutic interventions that have proven efficacy and align with the client’s strengths, needs, abilities, and preferences.
Two of the fad forgiveness “therapies” were created by Everett Worthington - a Christian-based Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Robert Enright - a Roman Catholic Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both have based their approaches on the Christian ethos of forgiving those who have harmed us as the only way to truly heal from trauma. Enright even created the “Enright Forgiveness Inventory” - a direct hijacking of Tedeschi & Calhoun’s Posttraumatic Growth Inventory. Both Worthington and Enright promote anecdotal accounts as “the new science of forgiveness”, however, calling something “science” doesn’t make it so.
The trouble with Enright’s suggestion to “bury and rebury the pain” is that buried pain doesn’t stay buried
Doctor Alice Miller, a Swiss Psychologist/Therapist of Polish-Jewish origin who dedicated her life to studying the lingering damage of child abuse and helping its victims to recover, provided hundreds of case studies in her books that show that being compelled to forgive their abuser or rapist has a detrimental affect on the victim.
In her book, “The Body Never Lies - The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting”, Miller presents case after case of her own patients and those of prominent historic figures, such as Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietsche and others, that indicate the long-range consequences of childhood abuse on the adult body, including; depression; anorexia; cancer; and psychosis.
Miller lays the main cause of these maladies at the altar of the Christian-based tenets of forgiveness, beginning with “Thou Shalt Honour Thy Mother and Thy Father”. This institutionalized religious demand - “Poisonous Pedagogy” -prevents recovery and health by establishing a conflictual incongruity between demands to forgive and their own unresolved grief, hurt, and anger, plus inflicts crushing guilt on the victim for being unable or unwilling to forgive those who have harmed them.
For survivors of childhood abuse or sexual abuse, how can one “honour” the person who abused them in the first place, or failed to protect them from that abuse? Morals aside, one is a crime, the other is neglect of an innocent and vulnerable child. And when the perpetrator is the parent of that child, the pain and lingering damage is impacted so deeply it changes the way our brains form and function and how DNA is expressed.
In the numerous cases that Miller presents in her book, she cites dozens of instances of patients who had developed chronic or terminal illnesses because of this inner conflict, going into remission or having their disease disappear once they were released from the demand to forgive.
Neurobiologist Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading authority on trauma and its treatment stated; “Traumatic memories are the unassimilated scraps of overwhelming experiences, which need to be integrated with existing mental schemes, and be transformed into narrative language”.
This trauma narrative treatment modality has proven efficacy through dozens of peer reviewed studies of Trauma Focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (TF-CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR) and other approaches that employ a trauma narrative.
“If I didn’t have years of therapy behind me, this would have destroyed me”
~ JB, early childhood sexual abuse survivor
In my own practice working with survivors of child abuse, child sexual abuse, and rape, the topic of forgiveness often arises when they relate that friends, family, and/or religious/spiritual leaders were pressuring them to forgive their abuser. Their distress comes from not wanting to forgive and being told that they will never heal until they do. When I respond with the affirmation that forgiveness is a choice each person must make on their own, and that some actions are unforgivable, the physical relief is visibly apparent; tight shoulders and rigid postures relax, fists unclench, and in that moment, healing can begin.
The trouble with Enright’s suggestion to “bury and rebury the pain” is that buried pain doesn’t stay buried. As a colleague who pursued therapy for the lingering pain of her own early childhood abuse said; “The only way out, is through.”
When it comes to an individual’s choice to forgive or not forgive, practitioners need to make a distinction between “not willing to forgive” and “actively maintaining negative emotions”. Supporters of forgiveness “therapies” fail to make this distinction and view an unwillingness to forgive as evidence of persistent hatred and anger.
“JB”, a Dean’s List university student with a history of devastating child sexual abuse had this to say after sitting through Enright’s & Worthington’s forgiveness presentation;
“If I didn’t have years of therapy behind me, this would have destroyed me. Even with years of real therapy, hearing that I have to forgive him made me second-guess myself. Was it my fault? Am I bad for not wanting to forgive him? If I can’t forgive him, am I worthless like he always said? I had to hear from my therapist that no, I don’t have to forgive him.”
JB went on to say;
“What if in that class there was someone who heard that and believed it? She’s going to go home hating herself and feeling guilty that she can’t forgive.”
We all can choose to forgive or not forgive someone who has harmed us, and we can seek help to resolve guilt, shame, anger, hatred, or even the desire for revenge. In many cases, emotional health is achieved by understanding that our abuser or rapist is a flawed and dangerous person whose actions and choices do not define our identity. Forgiveness has its place in forgiveness of self, so we can erase the shame or guilt of being a victim - to reach an understanding that the abuse was not our fault, nor did we deserve it, nor did we bring it on ourselves through action or inaction.
Forgiving others has its place; when someone steps on your foot in crowded theatre for example. But requiring that an abuse survivor forgive their abuser for the torture they visited upon them and the years of torment that resulted is both irresponsible and harmful - as Miller put it; a “Poisonous Pedigogy” where those with the advantage in a power imbalance dominate those who do not, and demand they forgive all wrongs made against them.
My greatest fear is that an individual who is struggling daily with post-traumatic stress symptoms may be convinced by a misguided practitioner that forgiveness “therapy” is their only option, and will play a game they cannot win. And when healing does not take place, become convinced that it is they who failed - not the “therapy” - thereby losing hope, and seeking relief through suicide.
As mental health practitioners whose client’s very lives may be held in our care, it is incumbent on all of us to follow best practice by employing therapeutic modalities that have peer reviewed, proven efficacy and not jump on board the latest fad, fuelled by our own agendas and religious biases.