What Is Forgiveness Therapy, And Does It Work?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 31, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Forgiveness therapy

Moving forward may feel challenging when others harm you, especially if you have experienced trauma. Forgiveness therapy may help some individuals who have experienced harm at the hands of someone else release anger, heal relationships, and work towards positive outcomes such as self-healing, self-compassion, self-empowerment, and self-liberation.

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Forgiveness therapy can help you move forward from trauma

What is forgiveness therapy?

Forgiveness therapy is a term that was coined by Dr. Robert D. Enright in his book, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (previously called Helping Clients Forgive). The book describes the Enright model of helping clients resolve anger through forgiveness. The model breaks the forgiveness process down into four phases. 

The first phase is the uncovering phase, where the patient learns more about the emotional pain related to their traumatic experience. In the second phase, also known as the decision phase, the patient makes the choice to change their mindset around the experience. The third phase, the work phase, involves the actual process of learning to forgive the person who has wronged them. In the final phase, the outcome phase, the patient reflects on the positive changes they have experienced through the process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness therapy often focuses on helping an injured person let go of the past and learn to move forward. Practicing and seeking forgiveness may not be about absolving those who hurt you from their past actions. The purpose of this therapy instead typically focuses on helping you heal from traumatic or harmful feelings.

Forgiveness therapy often focuses on helping an injured person let go of the past and learn to move forward. Practicing and seeking forgiveness may not be about absolving those who hurt you from their past actions. The purpose of this therapy instead typically focuses on helping you heal from traumatic or harmful feelings.

When someone physically or emotionally wounds you, it may impact your mental health, physical capabilities, and life decisions. For instance, if the person who hurt you was someone close to you, you may find it challenging to trust others again.

Receiving support through forgiveness therapy may help you feel more compassion and empathy for the person who wronged you, as well as for your wounded self. It may also help you focus on the positive aspects of life instead of the traumatic incident.

Why should I try forgiveness counseling?

There are several benefits of forgiveness counseling. Forgiveness counseling may help you move past traumatic events, such as abuse or violence. While these events may always be a part of your past, forgiveness work can help them become one page in your life story instead of a defining moment. 

It may feel unjust to work to forgive those who have wronged you but forgiving others can have tangible benefits for your well-being. Research published in the journal Trauma, Violence, & Abuse shows that forgiveness interventions can reduce depression, anger, hostility, and stress while increasing positive emotions. Forgiveness can also help reduce the adverse physical effects of living with chronic anger, resentment, or stress that often manifests when you hold grudges. According to the Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, forgiveness therapy may also be useful when treating bipolar disorder, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and child and developmental disorders. 

How it works

Counselors practicing this type of therapy may try to help clients discuss their history to move forward from it. Forgiveness therapists may have a background in educational psychology. They often work with clients affected by trauma to explore the traumatic event and come to terms with the experience. Depending on the severity of the client’s trauma, it may take some time before they feel comfortable discussing it thoroughly enough to develop an appropriate client goal for their treatment process. 

The process 

Throughout your sessions, your therapist may provide a safe environment to help you feel comfortable discussing your personal history. It could feel challenging to discuss your history of trauma. However, communicating your feelings can help you heal. Your therapist may listen to your story, or they may ask questions to help guide the conversation.

Coping with shame and acceptance 

After a trauma, many people may find it difficult to stop thinking of ways they could have prevented the traumatic event from happening. They may come to blame themselves for the event, even though they were survivors of something complex. In these instances, self forgiveness can be a challenge. 

Fortunately, learning to forgive yourself is a teachable skill. After you tell your story, your therapist might work to help you understand that what happened to you was not your fault. They may also work to help you accept that you cannot change the past and to develop a more balanced view of the situation, as opposed to blaming yourself for making mistakes that likely are not your fault. 

Healing emotional responses 

If you are experiencing anger or upset towards the person or people who have harmed you, your therapist may also help you explore the root of your emotions. By coming to understand the depth of your emotion, you could be able to start the healing process. 

Rebuilding safety 

Next, you may begin to rebuild your sense of safety. Your therapist may recommend coping mechanisms to help you focus on the positive things in your life. They may recommend you spend time doing activities that bring joy to help restore self-esteem. 

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Learning to forgive 

Your therapist can work with you on increasing your ability to forgive others, known as interpersonal forgiveness. They may also help you find meaning in the traumatic experience and develop your life purpose apart from your traumatic history. 

Some individuals think that forgiveness means forgetting what happened. However, forgiveness therapy is not about minimizing your experience, but helping you understand it and potentially also develop empathy for the person who wounded you. According to the Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, understanding the true definition of forgiveness is a vital component of this form of therapy. 

Moving forward 

With support from your forgiveness therapist and time, you may reach a point where the problematic event you experienced lives in your past instead of your present. You may gain compassion for yourself and feel able to forgive those who wronged you in the past. 

Depending on the severity of your experience, your healing may not result in complete forgiveness. However, you might experience reduced anxiety, stress, or fewer thoughts of trauma. 

Forgiveness counseling is often about learning to let go. It may not consist of feeling empathy for the individuals that wronged you. Forgiveness is a component of this type of therapy, but it is often a tool to ensure that you can move on from what has been holding you back. In some cases, your therapist may guide you to radical forgiveness techniques to help you move forward. 

A positive mindset 

If you have been holding onto emotions like stress, anxiety, or distrust for a long time, you may have found it challenging to experience everyday peace and happiness. Challenging emotions can take a toll on you emotionally and physically. Working on thinking positivity in and out of therapy may help you heal. 

Even with therapy, it can be unrealistic to believe that there will not be bad days or that you will never have sad feelings related to your past. However, you can learn to combat negative emotions with positive ones.

Positive activities can be an essential facet of forgiveness counseling. Spending time adding value to your life may help you view your life more positively. For example, research from the American Psychological Association indicates that expressive writing might help you focus your mental energy on something positive that leads to creatively satisfying results. 

Studies show that utilizing positive affirmations (through writing or speaking) can benefit your mental health and increase optimism in your daily life. You could try repeating the following phrases: 

  • “I am worthy of love.”

  • “My past does not define me.”

  • “I want to keep trying to forgive myself and others for the past.” 

  • “I will not give up on my well-being.”

  • “I am important.”

  • “I am proud of myself.”

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Forgiveness therapy can help you move forward from trauma

Finding a forgiveness therapist 

Millions of people seek therapy to help them with depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental health concerns. Of those millions, 21% have used online therapy in the last year. Because online therapy is convenient and cost-effective, it can make getting the support you need more available.

When you’ve experienced a challenging event, you may struggle to trust traditional therapy. Online therapy may allow you to obtain support from a safe, comfortable place. 

Studies show that online therapy is effective in treating long-term exposure to stress or traumatic stress. Additionally, a recent study found that 71% of participants found it preferable to traditional in-person counseling. If you want to try therapy online, consider reaching out to a professional on a therapy platform such as BetterHelp and speak to your therapist about forgiveness therapy as an option. 

Takeaway

A history of trauma or distressing events may impact your life negatively. These occurrences may make you feel unsafe, anxious, isolated, or depressed. Forgiving those who wounded you may help you move forward. 

Forgiveness therapy may help you with exploring your feelings, rebuilding your sense of safety, resolving anger, restoring hope, and finding meaning in your life. While you may choose not to forget those who have hurt you, learning to live with a positive, forgiving mindset might release you from any negative emotions you have. Consider reaching out to a counselor to discuss if this treatment method is suitable for you.

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