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Forgiveness: What it is, why it matters, and how you can forgive.

Updated: 6 days ago


Resentment is like a poison we carry around inside us with the hope that when we get the chance we can deposit it where it will harm another who has injured us. The fact is that we carry this poison at extreme risk to ourselves.

- Bert Ghezzi

Photo courtesy of Unsplash


What is Forgiveness?

Psychologists define forgiveness as the transformation of motives after a transgression from negative motivations, thoughts, and feelings (such as avoidance and revenge) to more positive motivations (such as benevolence, compassion, and understanding) (Tsang & Martin, 2021).

It is also crucial to separate forgiveness from some of the other constructs associated with the topic. Forgiveness does NOT necessarily mean that you:

  • Make excuses for someone

  • Reconcile with the transgressor

  • Forget what happened

  • Condone their behavior

  • Allow injustice


Why Does Forgiveness Matter?

Forgiveness isn't necessarily something you do for the person who hurt you: it's something you do for yourself (although it can certainly help improve and repair your relationship with someone if that is your goal). Forgiveness is associated with lower cholesterol and cortisol levels, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, improved sleep, and lower rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and addiction (Tsang & Martin, 2021). Although we don't fully understand why forgiveness has these effects, it may have something to do with releasing the negative emotional baggage that comes with holding onto resentment.


Do I Have to Forgive?

No! You may not be ready to forgive someone, and that is okay. This is your process, and no one is allowed to tell you when or how to forgive someone. Forgiveness can be particularly challenging if the transgression was severe, the offender acted intentionally, or you did not have a good relationship with them before the offense occurred.


There are even some situations where forgiveness is a bad thing. For example, research has shown that when someone is in an ongoing abusive relationship, forgiving the offender lowers the victim's self-respect and makes it more likely that the abuse will continue (McNulty, 2012). Similarly, there are other instances where forgiveness may make the offender less likely to give reparations, make amends, or otherwise change their behavior. In these instances, you may decide to harness the negative emotions associated with unforgiveness as a tool to take action and drive change.


What if They Don't Apologize?

An apology from the transgressor is not a requirement for forgiveness. However, research shows that it makes it easier to forgive someone who has expressed genuine remorse and understanding and has changed their behavior to match.


We typically think of forgiveness as transactional: we offer up our forgiveness, and the other person then receives it. But there are many situations where someone may not be willing to apologize or is unable to apologize (for example, if you don't know who the offender is or if they have passed away). While that may make it harder to forgive, it isn't impossible. In addition to transactional forgiveness, we can also engage in unilateral forgiveness. Unilateral forgiveness is forgiveness that doesn't require the involvement of the other party at all. Remember that ultimately the purpose of forgiveness is to release the negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions associated with the person who wronged you. Doing so does not necessarily require the participation of the other person.

How Do I Forgive?

It may seem obvious, but the first (and sometimes overlooked) step in forgiveness is deciding to forgive. Research has shown that there are several potentially effective strategies to work through the process of forgiving once we have committed to doing so.

  1. Write a forgiveness letter. A forgiveness letter can be challenging to write, but it is a great way to untangle and start to process all of your complex thoughts. Consider writing about what happened, how you felt at the time, the negative emotions you've held onto since then, and how you feel now. You can write about how you think they may see the situation and what feelings you think they may have held onto. You can go on to state your intention to forgive and let go. If you can, you can even wish them well and express kindness and empathy towards them.

  2. Use the empty chair technique. In this exercise, you sit across from an empty chair and imagine the transgressor sitting in that empty chair. Talk to the person who hurt you as if they were there. Express your perspective on what happened, how you felt, and anything else you would like to say to them. Then, switch chairs and imagine yourself as the person who wronged you responding to what was said. Continue moving between chairs, expressing the views of yourself and the offender. You can act it out as what you think the offender would say or act out what you wish they would say in a perfect scenario. You may even decide to have the person who hurt you apologize and express understanding. Even though the person isn't apologizing in real life, just playing the scenario out in this way can bring some closure.

  3. Practice mindfulness. Paying attention without judgment to the present moment can help us interrupt negative thoughts and feelings that repeatedly play in our heads after being hurt. Ruminating on feelings of anger or the desire for revenge can be satisfying at the moment, but long term, these negative thought patterns only make us feel worse. Pay attention to times when you tend to spiral into anger or frustration about the situation and make a conscious decision to pull yourself out and refocus on what is going on in the present moment.

  4. Consider times when you have needed forgiveness. Spend some time thinking or writing about a time when you hurt someone and needed forgiveness. Considering our imperfections can allow us to remember the "common humanity" we share with the person who hurt us. When we think about them as fallible humans just like us and realize that we too have made mistakes, we find it easier to let go of some of the anger, resentment, and other negative emotions we feel towards them.

  5. Use the "Five P's" to take a different perspective. This intervention aims to help you see things from the offender's perspective, which can help you develop empathy and let go of negative emotions. This technique can also help you shift from seeing the offense as an intentional act or part of someone's character to a more complex understanding of the situational factors involved. Note that it is essential to remember that you are trying to understand the offender's perspective but not make excuses for their behavior or blame yourself for what happened, which can be counterproductive. Because of the nature of this exercise, I think it works best for relatively minor offenses. In this exercise, you think about or write down your answers to the following prompts, developed by Worthington and colleagues (2004, 2014):

  • Pressures. What kinds of external forces were acting on the offender at the time when they hurt you? What was their situation like at the time? Did anything out of their control influence them? For example, perhaps your employer was short with you because their boss was pressuring them to improve performance.

  • Past. What role could the past have played in the offender's actions? Is it possible that something in the past (even going as far back as their childhood and upbringing) contributed to their choices and actions? For example, you might decide to consider the abuse your father faced as a child and the role that may have played in how he treated you growing up.

  • Personality. What are some of the aspects of the individual's innate personality that may have played a role? For example, perhaps your music teacher is quite anxious, and her harsh rebuke of your performance was mediated by fear that your parents would be angry with your lack of progress.

  • Provocations. Is there any way that you contributed to what happened? Are there things that you could have done differently? Note that you must be especially careful not to blame yourself when considering the role that you played. Just because you can understand what you contributed does not excuse someone else's behavior. For example, if you got into an argument with your sister, can you think of any way you may have contributed to starting or perpetuating the argument? Is there something you could do differently next time, for example, being more careful not to raise your voice in future disagreements?

  • Plans: Is it possible that the person had good intentions in some way? Can you think of a way in which they may have thought they were helping you or someone else in their actions? For example, considering whether your friend decided to confront your bully because they thought it was the only way they could help you.


No matter how you decide to work on forgiving, it is okay (and even encouraged) to get professional help. Forgiving someone is rarely ever easy, so don't feel like you need to go it alone. A good therapist or another mental health professional can help you identify ways to approach this complex subject and be a source of encouragement when things get tough. Above all, please remember to be gentle with yourself. Forgiving is hard work, and it is crucial to be persistent, flexible, and compassionate with yourself through the entire process.




References

McNulty, J. K. (2011). The dark side of forgiveness: The tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 770–783.


Tsang, J. & Martin, S. (2021). Interpersonal approaches: Forgiveness. In C. R. Synder, S. J. Lopez, L. M. Edwards, & S. C. Marquez (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of positive psychology (3rd ed., pp. 550-570). Oxford University Press, 202.


Peterson, S. J., Van Tongeren, D. R., Womack, S. D., Hook, J., Davis, D. E., & Griffin, B. J., (2017). The benefits of self-forgiveness on mental health: Evidence from correlational and experimental research. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 159–168. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2016.1163407


Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Scherer, M. (2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: Theory, review, and hypotheses. Psychology & Health, 19(3), 385–405. doi:10.1080/0887044042000196674


Worthington, E. L., Jr., Wade, N. G., & Hoyt, W. T. (2014). Positive psychological interventions for promoting forgiveness. In A. C. Parks & S. M. Schueller (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell handbook of positive psychological interventions (1st ed., pp. 20–41). Somerset, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.


Worthington, E. L., Jr., Witvliet, C. V. O., Pietrini, P., & Miller, A. J. (2007). Forgiveness, health, and well-being: A review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30(4), 291–302. doi:10.1007/s10865-007-9105-8