Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Psychological impact of self-forgiveness

Authored by Rebecca Schichtel,  who is an undergraduate student here at Trinity Christian College.
When a cognitive process is disrupted, it can cause an abundance of problems. As sinful human beings, it is important for us to learn to forgive ourselves. We are imperfect and flawed. Without the ability to forgive ourselves, we can fall into an unhealthy pattern of negativity and self-depreciation. Two psychologists, J. H. Hall and F. D. Fincham studied some factors that could affect people’s likeliness to forgive themselves (as cited in McConnell & Dixon, 2012).. This article focuses on how perceived forgiveness from God affects self-forgiveness (McConnell & Dixon, 2012).
Before focusing on how perceived forgiveness affects self-forgiveness, this article began by briefly analyzing a few other factors. In comparing guilt and shame in this context, shame appeared to have a more negative effect on self-forgiveness than guilt. This could be because guilt seems to center around other people, whereas shame tends to center around the person feeling guilty. This focus on oneself could lead to self-disapproval and evasion, which could lead to a damaging cognitive pattern. Hall and Finchman (as cited in McConnell & Dixon, 2012) also compared empathy and conciliatory behavior. Empathy was found to be only slightly related to self-forgiveness. Surprisingly, when attributions were studied, they were found to be completely separate from self-forgiveness. Hall and Fincham had thought that inner attributions would have inhibited true self-forgiveness because the person would place a great amount of responsibility on him- or herself. Moreover, Hall and Finchman studied how the severity of transgressions affected people’s ability to forgive themselves. They found that altering the perception of the severity of transgressions did have an effect on self-forgiveness because the offenders may have seen more severe wrongdoings as too terrible to allow self-forgiveness (as cited in McConnell & Dixon, 2012). Finally, the authors dove into the idea of perceived forgiveness, particularly perceived forgiveness from God, as increasing people’s likelihood of forgiving themselves.
When people experience guilt and shame, they “can experience guilt and/or shame ‘internally’ in relation to their selves and ‘horizontally’ in relation to other persons, but also ‘vertically’ in relation to God” (McConnell & Dixon, 2012, p. 32). It has been shown through studies that people who feel guilt and shame will be more likely to forgive themselves if they receive forgiveness from other people, such as the person who had wrong done to them. Spinning off of that idea, Hall and Finchman tested “the hypothesis that self-forgiveness is a possible antecedent variable of perceived forgiveness from God in personal instances” (as cited in McConnell & Dixon, 2012, p. 33). They did this by presenting three questionnaires to “evenly distributed” (McConnell & Dixon, 2012, p. 33) groups of participants. The participants also received the questionnaires in varying order to eliminate order as a variable. One questionnaire asked about adjective ratings (ARG), one asked about God image inventory (GII), and the other was about self-forgiveness. In the end, they found that personal “perceived forgiveness from God is significantly correlated with self-forgiveness” (McConnell & Dixon, 2012p. 36).
If people are forgiven by those they hurt, by other people around them, and by God, would it not make sense that they would have an easier time forgiving themselves? If people hurt others around them, and those who were hurt will not forgive them, it would be more difficult to forgive themselves. The good news is that we do have a forgiving God, a God who will forgive all our sins no matter what we have done. Seeing God in this light can help people forgive themselves because if the Creator of the universe is willing to forgive them, why should they not forgive themselves? Unfortunately, many people do not see God this way, and many have a contradictory belief that even though we have a forgiving God, God would not be willing to forgive them personally.
Perhaps the knowledge that perceived forgiveness from God can help people forgive themselves, ultimately allowing them to live a more comfortable and more joyful life, can be used in therapy. People who cannot forgive themselves may have illogical thinking processes involving thoughts about how terrible they are, that there is nothing that they can do to change that, and because they are so dreadful, God would not possibly be able to forgive them. Perchance this type of faulty thought process could be stopped through cognitive therapy. If people could see the areas that do not match up, maybe they could come to see they are forgiven and then eventually be able to forgive themselves.
Thought stopping could also break the chain of actions that can come from this type of thinking. If people think they are terrible, they do not think they deserve to be forgiven. That could lead to them feeling there is no point in trying so they do more things that make them feel worse. Stopping those thoughts would also stop that chain of disagreeable actions (McConnell & Dixon, 2012).
This article helped me understand more about the cognitive side of therapy. It made me think about how people think and how those thoughts can be changed. It made me think about why certain processes of thought should be changed and how just faulty patterns of thinking can change your whole life. I can completely see how this would be related to depression or possibly post-traumatic stress disorder. How we think and what we focus on can have such a greater impact than I thought.
All in all, it seems the forgiveness of self might be closely connected with perceived forgiveness from God. If this is the case, it could be very beneficial to bring people’s spiritual and religious views into the light of conversation in therapy. If people are able to work through the difficult feelings of shame and guilt vertically, they might have an easier time doing the same internally. I wonder whether those who have not been forgiven by those they hurt would be able to forgive themselves without the knowledge that God forgives them. This makes me wonder what is the best way to help people through situations where they might never be forgiven entirely by those they hurt. They still need to learn to forgive themselves.  
McConnell, J. M., & Dixon, D.N. (2012). "Perceived Forgiveness from God and Self- Forgiveness." Journal of Psychology and Christianity 31 (1), 31-39.