Forgiveness is in the air -- public figures making public apologies, movies depicting loving kindness offered to murderers, and psychotherapy programs promoting forgiveness in individuals as well as in marital couples. It is a gift, an offering, a blessing, a cleansing event. Professionally speaking, within the field of psychology the literature on forgiveness has arisen with little criticism and developed without the generally accepted process of hypothesis testing in a neutral context. Rather than neutrality, there has been an almost wholesale acceptance of forgiveness as a virtue and, because of this, little concern about advocating forgiveness in psychotherapy.
Indeed, this trend is in line with other trends in psychology that have been promoted by American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on "positive psychology." In a recent article, the two define the field of "positive psychology at the subjective level" as being about valued experiences such as "well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present)." ("Flow" is a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe the feeling of well-being a person derives from mindful engagement in an activity she or he loves to do.) They go on to describe what positive psychology means for the individual: "The capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom."
I believe forgiveness has become a popular notion among therapists today (see chapter 10) because of this new "positive psychology," which is indeed an extension of the three-decade long growth of cognitive-behavioral methods. The step or stage process toward forgiveness, the encouragement of benevolent attitudes, and the reframing of negative thoughts that are a part of many forgiveness counseling goals today have their roots in the cognitive-behavioral methods originated by Albert Ellis, Albert Bandura, Aaron Beck, and Martin Seligman. These men all researched and advocated a form of therapy that asked patients to change the way they think about their problems in order to change the way they feel and behave toward them. In a sense they overthrew the humanistic psychology movement of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow in the 1960s, which emphasized acceptance of feelings and self-discovery, and replaced it with a more directive approach to therapy, with homework assignments and sometimes even argumentative therapists whose goal is to show clients the errors in their thinking. Although, like all therapies, cognitive-behavioral therapy originated in the clinical setting, it aspires to be a more scientifically based practice and positions itself in opposition to "softer" (less scientifically based) practices like humanism and psychoanalysis . Indeed, cognitive-behavioral theorists like Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) frequently belittle humanistic psychology in particular, saying it spawned a "myriad of self-help movements," a psychology of "victimology," a legacy of "crystal healing, aromatherapy," and books that help one find one's inner child.
Many forms of forgiveness therapy follow this cognitive-behavioral track in psychology. Advocates believe that if one changes the way one thinks about one's pain, one's perpetrator, and one's injury a person can forgive and that this act, this change of heart, this new way of thinking about one's injuries can bring about happiness and contentment. The belief is that a person has the freedom to choose to forgive, to think differently, and to feel differently. �s in Beck's therapy for depression, Ellis's therapy for life's problems, or Seligman's optimism, through challenging old thinking patterns and old ways of responding, a person can free him or herself from responding to the past.
While current practices of forgiveness in therapy follow this model, recent forgiveness theorists and researchers have not ignored the philosophical history and the religious underpinnings of the concept of forgiveness. And there is now an extensive literature in the field.... In spite of these extensive reviews of the philosophical, religious, and scientific dimensions of forgiveness, few have challenged the idea that forgiveness is a virtue to be endorsed and taught in a variety of circumstances. This volume is borne of two curmudgeonly but different responses to this literature: one from a philosopher concerned that psychologists were not taking seriously the philosophical questions that arose in their promotion of forgiveness, and the other from a feminist psychologist who saw problems specific to women as well as problems for psychologists whose goals ought to be the exploration, understanding, and accepting of negative emotions as well as positive ones.