Forgiveness means letting go of past hurts and grudges. It’s about moving forward without holding the offender responsible for your pain and suffering. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes is just as important as forgiving the offender. Forgiveness can depend on the value you place on a relationship, what the offender has done, and/or whether you think she or he will harm you again. In some cases, forgiveness seems unattainable, but it’s not about letting someone off the hook for hurting you, it’s about not carrying the weight of the anger and pain, and moving past the mentality of victimhood.
When you hear about a mother forgiving her child’s murderer, you might commend her for showing compassion and strength in the face of adversity; or think she’s lost her mind. Or feel a tinge of guilt for being less evolved because you can’t even forgive your spouse for leaving the toilet seat up or the waiter for messing up your order. So how could you ever forgive someone for heinous acts such as murder, torture, or betrayal?
The ability to forgive, at times, is a lot easier said than done. But as someone who has been on the receiving end of what some would consider unforgivable acts (a range of abuse), I’ve learned to forgive for the sake of my well-being (because the burdens of anger and resentment greatly disturb my soul).
In the Ten Rules, forgiveness is one of the lessons under Rule #3 (there are no mistakes, only lessons). And if there are lessons to be learned – even from the most heinous acts – focusing on what you can learn from the person or situation helps you see things in a new light, especially when you’ve had some distance from the offender or offense, and time to reflect. The road to forgiveness is not a straight one, most often, it’s littered with anger, revenge fantasies, pain, guilt, and resentment, but after cycling through these less-than-healthy thoughts/feelings, the capacity to forgive becomes more likely.
Let’s take a look at what psychologists and other academics have to say about forgiveness (‘cause you know they have a lot to say about this too), then we’ll review some strategies to help you on your path…if for nothing else than to unload the anger, pain, and resentment that have weighed you down for far too long (onward!).
The Science of Forgiveness
The literature on forgiveness is packed with different perspectives on what it means to forgive, various types, how people forgive, what makes forgiveness possible (or not), and the benefits of forgiving. Unpacking this might help you see things from a more clinical perspective, which then may encourage you to forgive for your own sake (let that shit go!). If you’re totally intrigued with all things forgiveness, check out this 600-page Handbook of Forgiveness (you’re welcome). Or you could just continue reading my summary of the research (you’re welcome…again. Ha!).
Biology of forgiveness. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are not innately wired to forgive. We’re predisposed for retaliation and vengeance as a way to protect against future harm, restore power or self-worth, and promote group cohesion. In some communities or cultures, retaliation is still the preferred method of conflict resolution (for example, the Pashtuns’ code of conduct is Pashtunwali…advocating “eye-for-an-eye” principles). Still, others believe that the capacity to forgive is also a part of human nature.
In more complex societies where laws are codified, we seek punishment for disproportional violence (you kill my son, I seek justice in the courts). Some researchers define revenge, retaliation, and redirected aggression as forms of payback that are natural to humans (and other animal species), and argue that we can rise above our pain and suffering by managing it more humanely (I can be the bigger, more mature person…).
Religion and forgiveness. In all the major religions, forgiveness is a significant virtue. Religious people are taught to ask God for forgiveness. In general, they’re also taught to forgive the transgressions of others (or might be guilted into doing so by being reminded of the mercy of God…as I often was). In Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, forgiveness is cultivated as a result of core teachings and meditative practices (these folks are much more equipped to forgive). In the Western World, the modern concept of forgiveness can be traced back to the secularization of divine forgiveness in the 18th-19th centuries (if you want to dive into religion and forgiveness, have at it).
And while the debates continue among theologians and philosophers about what forgiveness is (and isn’t), starting in the 20th century, psychologists used moral development models to assess the capacity to forgive (for more info, see Jean Piaget’s cognitive development model and Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development).
Types of forgiveness. There are not only various types, but forgiveness is also a process. Divine forgiveness is when you seek forgiveness from God. Self-forgiveness involves forgiving yourself for transgressions, with guilt and a “determination to change” as key motivating factors. Trait or dispositional forgiveness is about your character and is positively correlated with agreeableness and emotional stability. Intergroup forgiveness, which occurs in a “specific socio-political or cultural context” doesn’t happen at the individual level, and usually takes place as a collective gesture (a leader apologizes on behalf of his/her country to another country or group for past atrocities).
And of course, there’s forgiveness of an offender, which according to the experts, can be grouped in two distinct varieties (hang in there with me, this is an important distinction that might help you on your path to forgiveness). The first is decisional forgiveness, which is a “behavioral intention to treat the offender as a valued and valuable person.” The second is emotional forgiveness, which is the “replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive…emotions such as empathy, sympathy, compassion or love.” So you can make the decision to forgive, but not do so at the emotional level.
Emotional forgiveness of a stranger or someone you don’t interact with happens when you reach emotional neutrality (indifference…not wishing the person good or ill). But for someone with whom you interact with, the replacement of negative emotions (or neutrality) with positive ones can take time to achieve (if at all); it’s a process. And if you’re able to achieve both decisional and emotional forgiveness, you’re also likely to forget the negative traits associated with the offender (or what a piece of shit she or he is, or can be…okay, that’s harsh…no name-calling!).
Cultural differences & forgiveness. In general, there are similarities across cultures when it comes to practicing forgiveness, with some variation across individualistic (it’s all about me!) and collectivistic (it’s all about we!) groups. At the expense of stereotyping, individualistic cultures (such as ours…the U.S.), are more self-reflexive, viewing relationships as exchanges (tit-for-tat), with a high value of self-forgiveness. Collectivist cultures (not the U.S.; maybe Japan or China), are more interdependent, viewing relationships as communal, with a low value of self-forgiveness. As such, the goal of forgiveness for a person with an individualistic worldview is personal well-being; whereas for a person with a collectivist worldview, it’s social well-being.
One interesting sociological theory about the increased attention on the study of forgiveness in the U.S. is that it was “a response to new historical challenges of coping with interpersonal conflict and resentment in an individualistic” society with declining social support networks. So whereas in collectivist cultures, people have a wide social support network to rely on (family, friends, neighbors, etc.); in individualistic ones, people have fewer, and as a result, turn to therapy and self-help literature to cultivate coping skills. IMHO, I don’t think this is limited to the study of forgiveness, and most certainly encompasses other issues people seek help for (happiness, anxiety, stress, grief, anger, etc.). And why the multi-billion dollar self-help industry continues to flourish.
Physical & psychological outcomes of forgiveness. Studies focused on the physical and psychological effects show that forgiveness can: “aid in cardiovascular recovery from stress” and help to reduce blood pressure; improve mental health for those suffering from a lifetime of stress; decrease anxiety and increase hope and self-esteem; strengthen relationships with others; promote spiritual growth; and lead to a more purposeful life. The flip side – unforgiveness – can lead to “worse mental and physical health; and economic, social, and spiritual problems.” And if all of this isn’t enough to help you understand the importance of just letting that shit go, here’s eight more reasons from a bona fide forgiveness expert.
Do You Have the Capacity to Forgive?
While there are definite benefits to forgiveness, it’s nonetheless challenging for a variety of reasons such as the value of the relationship with the offender, the type and severity of the act, how religious someone is (not that nonreligious people don’t/can’t forgive), the risk of future exploitation by the offender, and how forgiving we are, among other things.
If the information I’ve shared so far piques your curiosity enough to want to assess your propensity to forgive, take the Forgiveness Quiz. I recommend taking it multiple times – each time keeping a specific offender or situation in mind. Your scores will vary, but at least it’ll help you assess where you fall on the forgiveness-unforgiveness continuum.
For me, the topic of forgiveness brings to mind Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements, which are: (1) Be impeccable with your word; (2) Don’t take anything personally; (3) Don’t make assumptions; and (4) Do your best. I bring this up not to veer into some rabbit hole (squirrel!), but to point out how much it influenced my capacity to forgive, and might help you do the same. My short description isn’t enough information on HOW to implement or abide by these agreements, but the link I’ve provided for the book will help you with this, so check it out.
In terms of specific strategies, I’ve highlighted some process models below in the hopes that it helps you let go of the anger, bitterness, and pain, and cultivate physical and psychological well-being. I realize that in some instances, forgiveness might not be possible, but it’s my hope that you can at least achieve emotional neutrality and attain self-forgiveness, especially if you hold yourself responsible for anything that’s happened to you. I also recognize that therapeutic interventions might be necessary to help you on your path, so by all means, seek help if you need assistance and guidance.
Process model. This model is a long-term, clinically-oriented one that helps you work through four phases in order to forgive. While you can move through the phases chronologically, you might spend a bit more time in one phase, or go back to a previous phase. So don’t get too hung up on how long it takes you to cycle through. It’s your journey, and your willingness to consider forgiveness (even if it takes a long time) is something that you should be proud of.
(1) Uncovering phase: is about examining potential psychological defenses (denial, projection, etc.) you might be using to redirect the anger or bitterness; becoming aware and confronting your anger and releasing it; and recognizing how the experience has changed you (hopefully for the better!).
(2) Decision phase: includes viewing the offense or offender in a new light, and deciding to forgive, then making a commitment to do so.
(3) Work phase: entails reassessment of the offense or offender and being able to show empathy for the offender; and then accepting the pain of the situation in order to move past it.
(4) Outcome phase: focuses on the lessons you’ve learned from the situation once forgiveness takes place.
REACH model. This model comes with a do-it-yourself handbook for those of you who wish to do the work on your own. REACH is also a process model that’s just as effective as the four-phase model. It stands for:
R = Recall the hurt. Accept that you’ve been hurt and that you want to move past victimhood, and no longer want to harbor revenge fantasies.
E = Empathize with your partner (or offender). The offender doesn’t have to be present or involved in the process, you can write a letter or sit in front of an empty chair and state your grievance(s) (as if the offender is sitting across from you).
A = Altruistic gift. Decide that your forgiveness is given unselfishly, reminding yourself of times when you’ve hurt others and how they’ve forgiven you.
C = Commit. Once you’ve forgiven, remind yourself of this if you continue to engage in ruminative thinking about the pain and hurt.
H = Hold onto forgiveness. Go beyond reminding yourself that you forgave, and write it down (in your diary, journal, sticky notes) as a way to help you remain committed.
When you’re the offender (and if you have any semblance of a conscience), you’re likely to feel guilt and remorse for inflicting pain on someone else. You might replay the offense over and over in your mind, and feel awful about damaging a relationship (friendship, marriage), but punishing yourself by holding on to the shame and guilt is counterproductive. If the person you’ve hurt is not willing to accept your apology and forgive you, it’s still important to forgive yourself (here’s a DIY handbook on self-forgiveness).
Maybe the person needs more time to heal; maybe they don’t value the relationship as much as you do; or maybe the exploitation risk is too high for them. Whatever the reasons, you can at least be comforted in knowing that you’ve tried to repair the relationship (maybe you can try again later).
Sometimes, as the person who’s been hurt or betrayed, you can hold yourself equally responsible for what’s happened to you. This is especially true when you’ve experienced trauma, which broadly “involves exposure to a non-normative event that disrupts one’s self-concept, and at least temporarily, overwhelms one’s ability to cope.” Examples include abuse (physical, sexual, psychological), the sudden death of a loved one, and witnessing violence, among other things. (For more information on trauma, check out these resources).
Being traumatized can result in “negative emotional reactions.” Two broad categories of reactions are self-deprecating (guilt, shame, worthlessness, sadness, powerlessness) and self-protective (outrage, vengefulness, anger, indignation). Keeping in mind the type and severity of the trauma, I’m in agreement with the renowned psychologist, Alice Miller, who asserts that you can never fully recover or be cured (she’s written extensively on childhood trauma). I think with therapy and a willingness to work through your issues, you can learn to cope more effectively with trauma, but it always manifests in some form in adulthood.
For example, if you witnessed violence as a child and haven’t dealt with it (reflection, forgiveness, therapy, etc.), you can exhibit negative emotional reactions towards others who pose a threat to you in adulthood (anger, outrage, revenge). If you were molested as a child, you can carry shame, guilt, and worthlessness into your adult relationships.
Between the ages of 3-5, I was physically abused by my nanny; to the point where my life was threatened every time I was left in her care. She would put chili pepper seeds in my milk (which made me sick); one time she made me stand next to a beehive and hit it with a rock (I had multiple bee stings); and she’d often beat me with a belt buckle and instruct me to tell my parents that my injuries resulted from playing outside (I can go on, but you get the picture).
When I’d tell my parents what she was doing, they had a hard time believing me because she took such good care of my brother. It took a long time for me to feel safe (not until my early 20s) and an equally long time to deal with the anger towards her and my parents. As I worked through self-forgiveness, I was also able to forgive her and my parents (they also had to work through the process of self-forgiveness, shame, and guilt).
Again, ruminating over unresolved offenses or injustices leads to unforgiveness, resulting in a snowball of “resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear.” Forgiveness isn’t an easy path, but it’s possible and has to be done on your terms and on your timetable. Sometimes emotional neutrality is the best outcome you can hope for, which is great because at least it signals that you’re past the revenge fantasies and (hopefully) not redirecting your anger. But if you value the relationship and believe that the risk of future exploitation is low, then there’s hope for attaining forgiveness.
If you’ve experienced horrible offenses that have left you scarred, especially if the offender is someone you’ve had a relationship with (significant other, family member, etc.), I’m very sorry for what’s happened to you. And if you’ve had enough distance from the situation and are able to focus on the lessons, then I hope you can at least entertain the possibility of forgiveness. Doing so doesn’t mean letting the offender off the hook; it’s about making your well-being a priority and leading a more fulfilling life without allowing the offender to rob you of your peace of mind.
Love, peace, and blessings,