FORGIVENESS, PSYCHOTHERAPY, and SPIRITUALITY
Winter, 2015
Online article for Association of Spirituality and Psychotherapy
Michael S. Isaacs,
LCSW, NCPSYA, JD, Berkeley and San Francisco, Ca. 


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This article is about forgiveness in general and its applications in psychotherapy.

My view is that there are three aspects in the role of forgiveness in therapy.

First, there is the possibility that our client will consider forgiving others. Forgiveness can be a significant tool to help overcome such intractable emotions as hurt, disappointment, and anger.
Second, forgiveness can help our client forgive himself for words, deeds, or thoughts that she feels hurt or damaged others.

Third, we therapists can forgive ourselves quicker when we make mistakes or what we perceive to be mistakes and learn from the experience.

Self- forgiveness and self-love, in my experience, is even harder to forgive than forgiving others. That is because often underneath the lack of self- love is unconscious shame, guilt, and anger. It takes humility and courage to be vulnerable and authentic about our inner selves.

The mental anguish of guilt and shame has led to the large function of forgiveness in confession in Catholicism. Similarly, the most important day in Judaism is the high holy day of Yom Kippur for forgiveness of sins.

Psychotherapy can be a great modality in making the possibility of forgiveness of self and others possible. The more we can move towards higher self- worth and self-acceptance through therapy the more we can overcome the slings and arrows of the hurt and rejection.  A good book about self- acceptance is RADICAL ACCEPTANCE by Tara Brach,PHD.

Recently I read an obituary in a newspaper. I was amazed to see in the column a statement the deceased had requested his family to write in his obituary column. In the statement he apologized to all those he had hurt or let down in his life! How's that for the need and humility to ask others to forgive him and to assuage his guilt!

Why is forgiveness so hard to do? We all know that from our own experience. We often don’t want the one who let us down think we condone her actions. We want to punish the culprit. We want revenge. We hope things in her life go wrong.  We want the other to suffer. Bitterness feels good.

The problem with this attitude is this. If such negativity is held too long it becomes toxic. One is swallowing and wallowing in blame, condemnation, criticism, and often hatred. You are in victim mode. Your own power and energy is drained. This is indeed not good for body, mind, or soul.  Holding   grudges is bad karma. As it is said, what goes around comes around to hit you like a boomerang. Those that live by the sword will eventually die by the sword.

We need to realize that in forgiving we are not approving or condoning the other’s behavior. You can use some cognitive techniques.   I often say to clients that they do not need to like or see that person again.  But I do say that it is in your self- interest to develop empathy and acceptance feelings toward the person letting you down.  You can think about memories of good times together and the person’s good qualities. You can follow the old American Indian adage not to criticize or judge others until you have stepped into his moccasins. You can send good vibrations, prayers, and best wishes to the one that offended you.

You might come to realize that it was the person who rejected you had big problems. It was basically about her, not you. Yet, when appropriate, I often ask my client if there might be some truth, even so small, in what the rejecting one did or said about you. If so, you can learn and grow.  And, you know what? It may even open up the possibility of someday communicating the hurts to the one that spurned you, with a chance of reconciling!  A book about how to deal with rejection and conflict from a communication standpoint is NON-VIOLENT COMMUNICATION by Marshall Rosenberg,PHD.

Sometimes I have clients ponder a quote from Shakespeare’s play KING LEAR. That is, it is better to be the one sinned against than the sinner.

So most of us would agree that forgiving is a good thing and in our self- interest.  But wait. There is another step that must be considered. That is, as we know, emotions often trump reason. It is a question of readiness. One needs to allow time to deal with hurt feelings before working on forgiveness. Encouraging one to bury these feelings is a mistake. This is the same principle as with  grief over a loved one. Mourning feelings need to be worked through. Time and verbalization with the right people can facilitate and make forgiveness occur but this takes time.

One client of mine who I saw for many years in a successful therapy was never ready to forgive his father. I never mentioned the possibility because his hatred of his father was so entrenched that his whole purpose in life was to be unlike his narcissist, detached, and financially dead-beat father. He completely cut off contact with the father despite his father’s many apologies and attempts to renew a relationship with him. This spurred my client to be a highly motivated, empathic and loving husband and father, prominent educator, and secure financially. He needed to prove and show on his own that he would be totally unlike his father.  After the treatment ended, I hoped in my heart that in his future his intense stored up anger would not backfire and bring on suffering.

How can we bring spirituality on the scene to encourage forgiveness?  One need not be religious or spiritual to open up to the possibility of forgiveness.  My definition of spirituality is very broad. One can be an atheist or agnostic to be spiritual. The important factor is to display spiritual virtues and values. I refer to such attributes as compassion, empathy, integrity, honesty, love, and humility. One who has an innate capacity of kindness, unselfishness, and empathy is off to a head start to open up the possibilities of forgiveness.

It is interesting that the word “forgive” has in it the word “give”. In order to move towards forgiveness one needs to give and love more.   To forgive is to move in the opposite direction from hurt to gradations of love.

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