Iowa State researchers study self-forgiveness

AMES, Iowa (AP) — A military veteran still carries the weight of war. A wife who had an affair struggles to be free of guilt. A driver laments killing a teenager in an accident caused by stormy weather.

Why can't we all eventually, as the saying goes, forgive and forget?

That question and many others are being examined by two researchers at Iowa State University conducting scientific research on self-forgiveness and, in the process, developing an innovative therapy for people dealing with regret.

They don't wear lab coats or use high-tech equipment. And their basement laboratory in Science Hall, as inconspicuous as it is small, is a series of simple rooms where trained therapists meet with clients.

But their research goal could shift the paradigm of traditional therapy for clients seeking forgiveness.

Nathaniel Wade is a trained therapist and associate professor in the psychology department at ISU. He has a background studying forgiveness, specifically in the area of clients forgiving others for harms they've suffered.

But in collaboration with Marilyn Cornish, a doctorate student at ISU, Wade is now pursuing an area of psychotherapy that rarely gets attention: clients forgiving themselves for harm they've caused others.

"At first glance some people might say, 'Well, it's bad for a person to forgive themselves because it just sets them up to excuse the offense and allows them to keep doing bad things to other people,'" Cornish said. "But what some of the past research has actually shown is people who can't forgive themselves . they can actually be more likely to do those same things again."

Cornish has worked for the last several months developing a treatment program specifically for clients who want to forgive themselves. Wade said that while therapists have helped people work through guilt for decades, their therapy provides a more "specific and structured technique" for the area of forgiveness therapy.

"It's a smaller sub-sample because not everyone is depressed because they did something bad," he said. "But for those people who are, we are trying to address, develop and test an intervention that might be more helpful for them than just a general psychotherapy."

The pair started accepting clients, some as old as age 75, for the study at the beginning of the summer. Participants enroll in an eight-week program and undergo 50-minute therapy sessions each week. The sessions are structured in a progression, Cornish said, which is tailored to the needs of the specific client.

The treatment focuses on four "R's" — responsibility, remorse, repair and renewal — with the goal of reducing a client's shame about their actions. Cornish said clients develop a similar relationship to their therapist as they would in a more traditional therapy session. But there are some differences, she said, including the structured nature of each session.

Part of the program, similar to techniques in Alcoholics Anonymous or other substance abuse programs, allows clients to talk directly to an empty chair and ask forgiveness from someone they've wronged.

And the treatment, of which the details won't be officially published until after the study is completed next year, could be of particular importance for at-risk groups including veterans or inmates.

Wade cautioned that the treatment isn't designed for one specific population. But, he said, the therapy could "easily be applied in those settings."

The study will continue accepting clients through March of 2013. Cornish and Wade said they expect to publish their results within the next few years.

Until then, the researchers say they will continue promoting the therapy.

"We've had quite a few people come through who have been in previous therapy," Cornish said, "And they either say, 'I didn't address this because I didn't know how to' or 'My therapist didn't know quite what to do with it, but I'm glad I now have a chance to work specifically on that.'"

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