About her research in self-forgiveness, Dr. Karen Neal says: “Forgiveness is a process.” The validity of that statement is most apparent in the research study Dr. Neal has been conducting over the past five years. That’s because it focuses on the person we least think of forgiving: ourselves. Her study, which follows its primarily university-based subjects through nine modules, approaches self-forgiveness holistically: it includes topics such as psychology, psychiatry, and religion. Dr. Neal, of the Psychology Department, has been working with Dr. Lauren Toussaint of Luther College, one of the leading voices in the psychology of self-forgiveness. Now, after five years of dedication and diligence, she and her research partner are looking toward publication.
After writing her dissertation on perceptions of parenting styles’ effects on children’s forgiveness, Dr. Neal knew she wanted to continue digging into the science of forgiveness. This study is a manifestation of that desire, as Dr. Toussaint allowed her to join his research in the efficacy of self-forgiveness. At the beginning of each module, subjects are given a pre-course assessment to better measure their development, from the beginning to the end of the course. According to Dr. Neal, the majority of subjects reported significant improvements in self-efficacy, dealing with guilt, self-loathing, and resentment, as well as promoting self-acceptance, all qualities necessary for positive self-worth. Neal says these results were also generally linked to positive living and good health. Although she would “never tell you ‘you have to forgive,” her research gives subjects the tools they need to start the process of forgiveness.
And while the study has been a focus for the past five years, her work doesn’t end there. Professor Neal has been a member of the Queens Psychology department for 15 years, and for 13 of those years she’s offered PSY 351 Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice. The course allows students to explore similar topics in forgiveness. The flexible nature of Queens’ courses allowed Dr. Neal the freedom she craved to put together a course for all university students that gave them the tools necessary for positive self-affirmation. The course is often offered as an evening course, allowing students to lead class discussion and present research on forgiveness to a close community. Students have had just as positive a reaction to the course as subjects in the study, going so far as to create an Instagram page to further promote what they’ve learned.
“Queens was a bit of a career goal for me,” Dr. Neal says, primarily because our liberal arts approach allows students an opportunity that is rare at other institutions, especially at the undergraduate level. In effect, Queens’ liberal arts tradition has said “Yes And” to her work in forgiveness.
In spite of the pandemic, Dr. Neal continues her work in 2021, connecting with her students and promoting positive mental health practices in a time when we need them most. In fact, the way her course is organized allows for a somewhat easy transition in our new COVID-era of learning, since it’s basically a hybrid already. And though the course lacks the same synergy created from in-person connections, her students have still been engaged and dedicated to growing through the course. Her research has always focused on positive development in psychology. And in this study, we see her fostering that same positivity at Queens.