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How Can Forgiveness Help Our Clients Get 'Unstuck'?

Joan Normandy–Dolberg, LPC, Director, Family Counseling of Springfield, Va.

We all have them … clients who are stuck in the past, who refuse to forgive old injuries and move on with their lives. Perhaps they were the victim of a crime or have been abused, perhaps a spouse has been unfaithful, or they are struggling to accept the actions or words of a family member, a neighbor, a coworker, or boss. Each situation is unique, but the underlying issue is the same … how can we help them learn to forgive so they can move on? How do we help our clients get “unstuck”?

Providing our clients with knowledge about the positive benefits of forgiveness is often the first step. The Campaign for Forgiveness Research has funded 46 different research projects throughout the world that focus on thepositive emotional and physical effects of forgiveness, which include feelings of peace, hope, gratitude, and joy, and greater physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Research conducted by Robert Enright, PhD, and Gayle Reed, RN, PhD, LLC at the University of Wisconsin has led to the development of a Forgiveness Inventory and a helpful process model for teaching forgiveness. This model has 20 steps that are organized into four phases.

During the first phase, which they call the Uncovering Phase, the therapist validates and normalizes an individual’s feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, and hurt that result when someone we love or trust hurts us, and begins to explore the possibilities and benefits of forgiveness. I never suggest that my client deny or forget what has happened, and I do not encourage them to excuse or condone what occurred. I just help them realize that forgiveness is possible and can lead to healthier relationships; greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic pain; and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse. 

The second, or Decision Phase, focuses on helping our clients understand that forgiveness does not just happen … it is a choice they make as a strategy to improve their lives through healing. During this phase I help my clients decide if they are ready to let go of past resentments and thoughts of revenge. I encourage them to define their life in a different way … no longer willing to be victims and no longer allowing the person who hurt them to have power over their feelings and view of the world. 

The active work of increasing understanding, empathy, and compassion toward the injurer begins during the third phase, or Work Phase. I use journaling, meditation, and imagery work to help calm and ground my clients as they recall and explore the pain that occurred. I find that this can be the most difficult part of the process and I often rely on the Serenity Prayer to help a client accept the things they cannot change. I often broach the possibility of making amends and the possibility of a reconciliation during this stage if the health and safety of both parties would not be jeopardized.


During the final or Deepening Phase, the forgiving individual begins to experience peace and relief from the suffering that he or she has faced. I find the book, Forgiveness: The Healing Gift We Give Ourselves by Cheryl Carson, can be very helpful. She reminds us, “Forgiveness is truly an act of self-love, the healing gift we give ourselves. To hate is easy—it takes no moral strength—but it is healthier to love. Forgiveness is the pathway to love, and love is always the answer to healing of any sort. Blame keeps wounds open; forgiveness heals.”