Investigating the Stress-and-coping Model of Self-forgiveness, Self-compassion, Affect and Psychological Health
Historically many authors have written about the restorative influence that self-compassion and affect can have upon the process of self-forgiveness in promoting psychological health (e.g. Dalai Lama, & Chan, 2004; 2012; Tutu, 2000; 2015), but little empirical research exists into these relationships (Cornish & Wade, 2015b; Gilbert & Woodyatt, 2017). Worthington (2006) proposed a model of self-forgiveness from within a stress and coping paradigm (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) to unify and guide future research, but this model does not account for the restorative influence of self-compassion. Drawing upon the work of Worthington (2006), Gilbert (2005; 2009; 2014) and Neff (2003a; 2012), the researcher proposed a new stress and coping model of self-forgiveness, self-compassion, affect and psychological health that was evaluated through undertaking three studies using a mixed-methods approach.
Study 1 (n = 141) utilised a cross-sectional design with a mixed clinical and non-clinical sample to examine the researcher’s model in addition to the influence of a range of potentially confounding socio-economic and personality variables. Study 2 (n = 39) utilised a longitudinal design to establish relationships between trait self-forgiveness, self-compassion, affect and a range of psychological health variables (psychological distress, shame and guilt) with a group of clinical participants who had chosen to take part in a 12-week Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) intervention. Study 3 (n = 44) utilised the qualitative method of the focus group to provide more detailed understandings of participants’ experiences of the CFT group and the processes of change. It was also expected that the findings would provide context to inform the interpretations derived from the quantitative data obtained from Study 1 and Study 2.
In Study 1, reduced negative affect and the combined effects of the negative components of Neff’s (2003a) model (uncompassionate self-responding) emerged as having a mediating effect upon the relationship between increased trait self-forgiveness and reduced psychological distress. Whilst reduced negative affect and uncompassionate self-responding were found to partially mediate the relationship between trait self-forgiveness with shame and guilt. Neuroticism was found to have a significant confounding effect upon these results.
In Study 2, it was found that participating in the CFT group led to significant increases in trait and state self-forgiveness, compassionate self-responding, and positive and safe / content affect, and significant reductions in uncompassionate self-responding, negative affect, shame, guilt and psychological distress. Parallel mediations found that negative affect yielded a mediating effect upon the relationship between trait self-forgiveness with guilt, state self-forgiving self-beliefs with shame, and state self-forgiving feelings and actions with shame and guilt. In addition, uncompassionate self-responding was found to mediate the relationship between state self-forgiving self-beliefs with shame.
Study 3 identified two major themes: ‘Becoming self-compassionate and self-forgiving’, and ‘The CFT group was beneficial’. Together, with the findings of Study 1 and 2, the results of Study 3 indicated the importance of assuming responsibility for changing thoughts and feelings around personal transgressions rather than adopting a position of self-condemnation. Generally, the process of self-forgiveness was found to be facilitated by learning CFT skills that assisted with the regulation of negative affect. This process included the development of more balanced thoughts about perceived transgressions, and reduced self-condemnation that promoted psychological health.
It was concluded that the proposed model has both theoretical and clinical utility, but that further research is needed to test the model using larger sample sizes. Participating in a CFT group and developing self-compassion skills facilitated reductions in negative affect and uncompassionate self-responding that mediated the relationship between increased self-forgiveness and reduced shame and guilt. The qualitative results provided more insight into the relationship between self-compassion and self-forgiveness. The clinical and theoretical implications of these three studies will be discussed.