Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Empathy and forgiveness

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Empathy and forgiveness:
What role does empathy play in forgiveness?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
Mark Twain

Figure 1. Does empathy help us to forgive?

Forgiveness is a theme that is seen across all religions and teachings. For many the commitment to forgive occurs because God has asked them to. For others who are not religious or spiritual they work toward forgiveness because it is seen as a moral act that benefits the individual, the community and society. Forgiving others or oneself is freedom from anger, bitterness and resentment. The path to forgiveness can take time and many are unwilling to take it.

Focus Questions:

Does possessing or developing empathy help facilitate forgiveness?

How can forgiveness process models can facilitate forgiveness?

What is forgiveness?[edit | edit source]

Forgiveness is something that most humans will strive to achieve from those they have hurt or to work towards forgiving others who have caused harm and distress to them. According to Enright and the Human Development Study (1991), forgiveness is "a willingness to abandons one's right to resentment, negative judgement and indifferent behaviour" (Konston, Chernoff & Deveny 2001). Forgiveness is interpersonal, intrapsychic and is a conscious choice that takes place over time (Konston et al., 2001). Forgiveness does not excuse, pardon, forget or condone wrongdoing (Kinston et al,.2001). Empathy has been shown in numerous studies to make it easier for individuals to forgive people who have harmed them (Konston et al., 2001; Macgaskill, Maltby & Day, 2002).

There are two types of forgiveness - decisional forgiveness which is an intentional decision to put aside anger and vengeance an see the transgressor as a person of value - and emotional forgiveness which seeks to replace negative emotions with positive ones such as compassion, empathy and love(Marigoudar, Savitri B; Kamble & Shanmukh, 2014).

In 2006, in Pennsylvania America, an Amish community quickly forgave a man who killed five Amish girls and wounded five others before killing himself. They also offered compassion to the killers family. Some wondered if it was possible to forgive so quickly.[factual?]

Why should we forgive?[edit | edit source]

There are many good reasons to forgive. From a psychological point of view there are many benefits to individuals and to society when forgiveness is cultivated and practiced. Forgiveness can reduce chronic pain, violent behaviour and cardio vascular disorders (McCulloch & Worthington, 1994). It can reduce negative emotions such as anger and anxiety (McCulloch & Worthington, 1994). It could be empowering to those who have been hurt and it can have emotional and cognitive benefits to those who forgive (McCulloch & Worthington, 1994). Forgiveness could also facilitate a reconciliation between the offender and the offended (McCulloch & Worthington, 1994).

Why do some people forgive more easily than others?[edit | edit source]

People who have a higher level of empathy towards the transgressor and transgression are more likely to forgive[factual?]. They will make attributions toward the transgressor that are favourable and less severe that those with lower levels of empathy. Emotionally secure people find it easier to forgive, as they see a situation in a less negative way[factual?]. People who ruminate on the transgression are more likely to have feelings of revenge and intrusive negative thoughts and find it difficult to move beyond these feelings (McCullough, 2001).

Self-forgiveness and forgiving others[edit | edit source]

Self-forgiveness is an act when an individual develops self-compassion and love toward themselves after engaging in a behaviour that goes against their principles. This can result in guilt and shame.Self forgiveness can release these negative emotions (Wohl & McLaughlin, 2014).

What is empathy?[edit | edit source]

Empathy has been described as accurately perceiving the internal frame of another (Toussaint & Webb, 2005).Empathy allows people to see other views in an objective way and is a determinant of the ability to forgive (Toussaint & Webb, 2005). There are two types of empathy, which is the vicarious sharing of emotion and cognitive empathy which is a mental perspective taking but does not take on the emotion that is observed.

What is the role does empathy play in forgiveness?[edit | edit source]

Empathy plays a vital role in forgiveness. If the offended person is be drawn understand the psychological state of the offender (their history, situation, and behaviour of the the offender) and the antecedents to the transgression, they may find it easier to forgive. Individuals that have low levels of empathy find it hard to forgive (Murray, 2002).

Alternatives to empathy[edit | edit source]

Paul Bloom a psychologist believes that empathy can be detrimental to society and individuals.He states that individuals act on the sensations that they feel when empathising with people and that they are often without bias and reason. Also that we respond greater to those that we identify with and can ignore the suffering of those we do not identify with. Bloom suggests that rational compassion can be more useful in responding to suffering and pain (Thompson, 2018)[Provide more detail].

Forgiveness process models[edit | edit source]

Forgiveness process models are designed to guide people toward the pathway to forgiveness. The Enright forgiveness process model was devised by Richard D. Enright - a researcher and university professor - in 1985. It has 20 processes within 4 phases. Below is a brief overview of the process.

Uncovering Phase: This can be challenging as it uncovers the impact that the transgression had on an individual and could cause distress. Strong emotions such as anger and resentment and could make the individual feel uncomfortable or even out of control. Questions such as "How did the situation make you feel" and "What impact did this have on your emotional and physical well being?" could be asked to discover the true impact of the transgression.

Decision Phase: The individual recognises that how they have been dealing with the transgression is not helpful. While they are not ready to forgive, there is an awareness that forgiveness may reduce the mental and emotional distress that is caused by holding onto the anger and resentment. Releasing strong emotions and forgiving is seen as a sign of moving forward.

Work Phase: The first part of this can be the recognition that work is required to bring about emotional healing. Empathy is used for the offended person to look beyond the behaviour and see the person and try to understand what factors may have lead to the transgression occurring. Empathy helps to reduce the negative emotions and to feel more positively toward the offender. Pain is acknowledged and seen as an important part of the process. Reconciliation may never happen between the offender and offended person, but if a relationship does continue building trust is necessary to move beyond the pain.

Deepening Phase: Recognising that forgiveness brings an emotional release and that forgiveness is necessary. An individual may decide that personal growth that came about has been beneficial. The negative emotions may have gone or reduced greatly and find meaning in the process and how it relates to ones life.

In two interventions using the Enright forgiveness process model both were shown to have beneficial outcomes for the experimental groups. In the first intervention by Helb and Enright (1993), elderly women participated in an eight week group therapy. Using a control and an experimental group met weekly for an hour. The control group discussed general topics and the experimental group used the forgiveness process model.The experimental group had significantly higher forgiveness profile than the control group (Freedman, Enright, & Knutson, 2005).

In the second intervention by Freedman and Enright(1996), women surviving incest were separated into a control or an experimental group.The experimental group used the Enright forgiveness process model and after the intervention had higher levels of hope and forgiveness and lower levels of anxiety and depression than the control group. After the control group completed the forgiveness process model, they too had similar levels of hope and self esteem as the experimental group (Freedman, Enright, & Knutson, 2005).

Twelve months later it was shown that the experimental group still had beneficial changes from the intervention (Freedman, Enright, & Knutson, 2005). The Enright forgiveness model incorporates empathy into its processes and has shown to be successful in guiding individuals toward forgiveness.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Every person at some stage in their life will forgive or desire to be forgiven. Forgiveness can be difficult because of the strong emotions connected to the transgressions. Forgiveness is a choice and an act to let go of the negative emotions and have a better understanding of the transgression. Empathy helps by identifying with the act or the transgressor. While empathy and forgiveness do not condone harmful acts they are tools and skills that help on the pathway to letting go and moving forward.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Freedman,S.,Enright,R.D.,& Knutson,J.(2005).Progress Report On The Process Model Of Forgiveness.Everett.Worthington Jr[Ed]Handbook of Forgiveness. New York.Taylor & Francis Group

Konstam, V., Chernoff, M., & Deveney, S. (2001). Toward Forgiveness: The Role of Shame, Guilt Anger, and Empathy. Counseling And Values, 46(1), 26-39. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-007x.2001.tb00204.x

Marigoudar, S. B., & Kamble, S. V. (2014). A study of forgiveness and empathy: A gender difference. Indian Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(2), 173-177. Retrieved from

McCullough, M. (2001). Forgiveness: Who Does It and How Do They Do It?. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 10(6), 194-197. doi: 10.1111/1467-8721.00147

Mccullough, M. E., & Worthington, E. L. (1994). Encouraging Clients to Forgive People who have Hurt Them: Review, Critique, and Research Prospectus. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 22(1), 3–20.

Moody-Adams, M. (2014). The Enigma of Forgiveness. The Journal Of Value Inquiry, 49(1-2), 161-180. doi: 10.1007/s10790-014-9467-4

Murray, R. (2002). Forgiveness as a Therapeutic Option. The Family Journal, 10(3), 315-321. doi: 10.1177/10680702010003008

Thompson, T. (2018). Against Empathy?. Mededpublish, 7(3). doi: 10.15694/mep.2018.0000213.1

Toussaint, L., & Webb, J. (2005). Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Empathy and Forgiveness. The Journal Of Social Psychology, 145(6), 673-685. doi: 10.3200/socp.145.6.673-68

Wohl, M., & McLaughlin, K. (2014). Self-forgiveness: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Social And Personality Psychology Compass, 8(8), 422-435. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12119

External links[edit | edit source]