Forgiveness – What Is It & How Do You Do It?

It’s not a topic often talked about.  From the psychologist’s office though, it is probably true to say that it’s the most necessary thing that client’s often need to do.  Forgive.  Forgive a friend who wronged them, forgive a boss who bullied them, forgive a parent who abused them, forgive an aunt who cheated them, forgive a sibling who upset them.

Why bother with forgiveness?  Is it really just a bit “old hat”, or maybe just a bit “too religious”?

I once heard a story about large, somewhat obvious sign which hung behind the desk of a typically tough U.S. Marine major:  The sign read, “To err is human; to forgive is divine–and our policy is to do neither!”  Interesting comment indeed.  But what’s our own “policy” when it comes to forgiveness? We certainly know what it is to err, to do ‘stuff’ that we’re not proud of, to overstep the line, but what about forgiving?  What does forgiveness really imply, and should we be interested in promoting this virtue for others around us and particularly for ourselves?

What is Forgiveness?

Forgiveness entails a series of changes that occur within an individual who has been offended or hurt in some way by another person.  In other words, you choose to forgive.  You make a choice.  Forgiveness cannot be coerced, but must be freely chosen by the one who was wronged.

When individuals forgive, their thoughts and actions toward the transgressor become more positive (e.g., more peaceful or compassionate) and less negative (e.g., less wrathful or avoidant).

A Process Model of Forgiveness

Developmental psychologist Robert Enright provides a process model of forgiveness outlined in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1998, he outlines the following nine steps toward forgiveness:

  1. Acknowledge your emotions. Whether you are angry, hurt, ashamed, or embarrassed (or some combination of the above), acknowledge your emotional reaction to the wrongdoing.
  2. Go beyond identifying the person who hurt you and articulate the specific behaviors that upset or hurt you.
  3. Make the choice to forgive.
  4. Explain to yourself why you made the decision to forgive. Your reasons can be as practical as wanting to be free of the anger so that you can concentrate better at work.
  5. Attempt to “walk in the shoes” of the other person. Consider that person’s vulnerabilities.
  6. Make a commitment to not pass along the pain you have endured — even to the person who hurt you in the first place.
  7. Decide instead to offer the world mercy and goodwill. At this stage, you may wish to reconcile with the other person (but that’s not necessary).
  8. Reflect on how it feels to let go of a grudge. Find meaning in the suffering you experienced and overcame.
  9. Discover the paradox of forgiveness. As you give the gift of forgiveness to others, you receive the gift of peace.

Why should we Bother to Forgive?

Basically, we make up rules inside our heads about how people should react and behave towards us and others.  When they “break” those rules, we get upset (or hurt, annoyed, resentful, frustrated, angry etc).  We play it cool and are aloof; we sulk, we try to give the other person(s) a hard-time.  Sometimes, if we think it’s bad enough, or we’ve been hurt a good deal, we don’t forgive them.

But really, in a nutshell, not forgiving and feeling resentful or badly towards others for breaking our rules is ridiculous.  Somehow or other, we believe that we can punish others by refusing to forgive them.  “If I don’t forgive you, you suffer.”

Know what?  Actually, its us that suffers.  We’re the ones who feel tense, its our stomach that churns, we’re the ones who lose sleep, we’re the ones who feel fatigued, we’re the ones who get headaches, we’re the ones who feel miserable.

If you believe though that consciously you’re not suffering because you won’t forgive, then it is still argued that whether you can accept it or not, you are affecting yourself subconsciously.  At a deeper level, you are impacting yourself (whether or not you are prepared to consciously admit it), and that impact is negative.  It affects your “psyche”.

Forgiveness Distinguished

Forgiveness needs to be distinguished from condoning, excusing, reconciling, and forgetting.  So, what’s the difference?

When someone condones or excuses, he or she realizes there was no unfairness intended.  If, for example, Frank just takes Sarah’s car to drive an injured child to the hospital, Sarah, on realizing what had happened, would not need to forgive Jack, but would excuse him under the circumstances.

Reconciliation involves two people coming together again in mutual trust, whereas forgiveness is one person’s choice to abandon resentment and offer beneficence in the face of unfairness.  One can forgive without reconciling.

Forgiveness does not always mean forgetting.  When one forgives, he or she rarely forgets the event.  People tend to recall traumatic events, but on forgiving, a person may remember in new ways — not continuing to harbor the deeply held anger, resentment or emotions.

What helps Forgiveness and what doesn’t?

Forgiving those who have wronged us belongs in the “more easily said than done” category.  Think about your own forgiveness history.  Whom have you forgiven?  And what seemed unforgivable?

Research on forgiveness has identified several conditions or factors that make forgiveness more or less likely:

  • People tend to be more likely to forgive when the offense took place within a close, satisfying relationship.
  • Forgiveness is related to the character strength of empathy. Individuals are better able to forgive when they can empathize with the offender.
  • The relationship between forgiveness and justice is complex. Traditionally, researchers have suggested that a strong belief in justice can be a barrier to forgiveness. However, more recently, it has been demonstrated that individuals are actually more likely to forgive when they are first primed to think about justice.  Researchers hypothesize that whereas a “retributive” (eye-for-an-eye) sense of justice may be a barrier to forgiveness, a broader, more “pro-social” sense of justice may in fact, promote forgiveness.
  • We are better able to forgive when we do not blame the offender for the act (e.g., “It was an accident”). In contrast, we are less likely to forgive acts that were intentionally committed — especially if they have severe consequences.
  • A tendency to ruminate makes forgiveness much less likely.
  • We are more likely to forgive as we age. Young children tend to be the least willing to forgive, and older adults are the most willing.
  • As you would expect, apologies help. We are more likely to forgive if we receive an apology from the transgressor or the one who wronged us.

Forgiving Ourselves

Forgiving yourself is critical.  Philosopher André Comte-Sponville once said the following:

“Can one forgive oneself?  Of course, since one can hate oneself and overcome self-hatred.  What hope would there be for wisdom otherwise?  Or for happiness?  Or for peace?  We must forgive ourselves for being merely what we are.  And also forgive ourselves — when we can do so without injustice — for feeling hatred or pain or anger so strong that we cannot forgive.  Fortunate are the merciful, who fight without hatred or hate without remorse!”

Living without forgiving yourself would be like living with an inner torment, an inner torture.  Why so?  Do you think that you are so bad that you can’t be forgiven or that what you’ve done can’t be forgiven?

In the Christian tradition, forgiving yourself frequently means “repenting”. Repentance has three components.  A failure to make genuine change and transformation is because we have failed at one of the  3Rs of repentance:

Recognize:  That you are doing something you don’t want to do.  Without awareness we will never recognize our need to change.

Regret:  Being conscious of the cost to others and ourselves of our actions.  If we don’t truly regret our actions we will not change.

Reorient: Turning from what we don’t want, to what we do want.  If we continue to focus our attention on what we don’t want we will persist in that behavior.

Interestingly, the failure to reorient is one of the primary causes of why people don’t achieve the change they want in their life.  It keeps them trapped in the pain of regret, trying to do less of an unwanted behavior which in turn is a guaranteed way of maintaining that behavior in focus and ensuring that it will persist.  Reorientation occurs when we turn our attention to what it is that we do want and orient our life around that preferred behavior.

In essence, it’s about accepting that we’re all human, we all stuff up.  It’s about realising that there is a special message re forgiveness found within the Christian scriptures.  The whole of the Easter period in the Christian calendar is about Jesus’ message of forgiveness.

How do you Forgive?

It could well be what is called a “defining moment” when an individual chooses to forgive.  Forgiveness is a decision that is made.  “I choose to forgive him” or “I will no longer allow my anger to eat away at me.”

Alternatively, it could be a gradual process which takes time and sustained effort. This is part of a longer journey.  Individuals may decide they want to “let go” and “get on with life”, but then struggle with continued anger or resentment.

What’s the Final Answer?

This is not a cop-out, but the answer is within you.

Don’t punish yourself, by trying to punish someone else.  It’s futile.  It’s senseless.

Give up trying to make others feel badly.  Take charge of yourself by stopping your negative thoughts and turn them around.

Forgive.  Whether it’s forgiving yourself or forgiving others, it will be one of the best decisions you ever made.