If you do an electronic search for anti-bullying programs, you will see three prominent approaches, the 3 P’s:

  • Peer mediation
  • Persistent norms. (This is a “no-bully zone;” we do not tolerate bullying in this school)
  • Punishment.

The rarely-tried approach, one backed by social scientific research, is to eliminate the anger in those doing the bullying (Gambaro, Enright, Baskin, & Klatt, 2008; Park, Enright, Essex, Zahn-Waxler, & Klatt, 2013). Those who are angry tend to displace that anger onto others, who then may displace it onto others, who may pass on the anger once again...and on it goes.

What makes people so angry that they:

  • a) retain it for a long time, sometimes years;
  • b) find no solution to that anger; and
  • c) give the never-say-die anger to others?

We find that unfair treatment from other people is the source of so much anger in this world (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). Anger as a source of inner disruption in the form of anxiety, low-self esteem, and pessimism all too often goes unrecognized. After all, if a person with high anxiety comes to a mental health professional, it is natural to focus on the presenting symptom. Yet, our research and the clinical work connected to it suggest that toxic anger, the kind that is deep and long-lasting, often is at the heart of many psychological symptoms for those who have a history of being treated unfairly.

Forgiveness therapy, as an empirically-verified treatment, reduces and even eliminates the toxic anger (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). This is a paradoxical psychotherapy. As the client discussed the unfair behaviors coming from others, the treatment focus shifts from the client’s symptoms to an exploration of who the offending person is, what emotional wounds this person has, the vulnerabilities and doubts and fears that person brought to the painful interactions with the client. As the client realizes that to forgive is not to excuse or forget or abandon the quest for justice or necessarily even reconcile with the other, then forgiveness therapy can proceed without distortion of what, exactly, it means to forgive. To forgive is to offer goodness to those who have not been good to the client. It is the offering of a virtue that has been around for thousands of years across many philosophies and religions and worldviews. To forgive offers the client a way to eliminate resentment by offering goodness...and it works (see, for example, Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004).  

When a student in school begins to aggress onto others, those who use the lens of forgiveness therapy start to ask these questions:

  • Does the one showing the bullying behavior seem to be particularly angry?
  • What is the source of this anger?  Might it be unfair treatment from others in the past, perhaps at home or in school or in the peer group?
  • Might this student be in pain, which emerged from the injustice, and might that pain now have turned to a toxic anger?
  • Might this student be willing to examine who perpetrated the injustice and the subsequent hurt and ask, “Can I forgive this person (or persons) for what they did to me?”

School counselors now have a resource for taking this kind of therapy directly to those who bully (Enright, 2012). Rather than focus on the symptoms of aggression, disobedience to school expectations, or even the student’s own anger, the treatment shifts: Who hurt you? Is this person hurting and vulnerable and confused? Do you know what forgiveness is and is not? Would you be interested in trying to forgive the one who caused you so much pain? This kind of therapy can take up to 12 or more weeks, but that is the blink-of-an-eye relative to anger that can last for years.

As the student’s pain subsides by seeing the inherent worth in the one who was cruel and by fostering compassion toward that person (not because of what was done but instead because of whom the other is as a person), so too does the anger within the one who bullies start to fade, and this takes away the incentive to bully.  The focus is not on the symptoms exclusively any more, nor is it on only creating school norms (which are all too easily ignored by those who bully when they are nurturing a rage inside). To reduce bullying, we need to see the anger inside those who bully and have a plan to reduce it. Forgiveness therapy, as empirically shown, already has done its job. Now it is time to transport such therapy from the clinician’s office into the school setting for the good of those who bully and for the good of those who are the unwitting recipients of their pain.

References

Enright, R.D. (2012). Anti-bullying forgiveness program: Reducing the fury within those who bully.  Madison, WI:  International Forgiveness Institute.

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015).  Forgiveness therapy.  Washington, DC: APA Books.

Gambaro, M.E., Enright,R.D., Baskin, T.A., & Klatt, J. (2008). Can school-based forgiveness counseling improve conduct and academic achievement in academically at-risk adolescents? Journal of Research in Education, 18, 16-27.

Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004).  Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.

Park, J.H., Enright, R.D., Essex, M.J., Zahn-Waxler, C., & Klatt, J.S. (2013). Forgiveness intervention for female South Korean adolescent aggressive victims.  Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20, 393-402.

Reed, G. & Enright, R.D. (2006).  The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 920-929.

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