Forgiveness is a word we have all heard before, we´ve been taught we “should” forgive and we´ve all made our own interpretations of the word. How many times have we seen little children having to give a kiss and say sorry? Forgiveness is something that we´ve supposedly learnt to do as we grew up. But when given a deeper thought, do we know what forgiveness is? Do we know how to forgive?
The subject of forgiveness seems to be tainted by culture, religion and personal factors. Therefore, throughout this article we will take a look into what forgiveness really is and how we forgive from a psychological perspective.
Enright and Fitzgibbons defined forgiveness as “the desire and willful abandon of the right to feel resentment and related responses towards a wrongdoer, whilst endeavoring to respond based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts, has no right)”.
It´s important to understand that forgiveness is an internal process the individual actively chooses to make and does not depend on the offender, it´s the jump from feeling a victim to feeling a survivor. Forgiveness is a gift that one chooses to make.
To better understand forgiveness it´s important to be aware that forgiveness does not mean:
- Forgetting: Forgiveness and forgetting are incompatible. To forgive it is necessary that there is a conscious awareness of the damage done, if I forget about the damage done I cannot forgive o learn from the experience.
- Condoning or excusing the offender: The first step in forgiveness is to accept the hurt that has been done to one and validate the idea that one deserved better. The damage is real and it may be inexcusable. Forgiving does not mean that I think what happened was ok, acceptable or “that it wasn´t that bad”.
- Reconciling: As mentioned before, forgiveness only requires action from the injured. Forgiveness doesn´t require contact with the offender, the relationship doesn´t have to be renewed. I can forgive without contacting that person again. Forgiveness does not require an apology.
- Accepting: forgiveness misunderstood may be accompanied by the fear that we will be placing ourselves in a place of vulnerability where people can further hurt us. This misconception comes from the belief that by forgiving we are letting go of the possibility of justice/ protection. We can seek for justice whilst we forgive, but it´s important to differentiate between seeking revenge and looking for public justice. Furthermore, justice alone may not provide the healing we´re looking for.
Forgiveness is not an obligation, it is a right and a choice that we can make when we want to or feel ready to do so. Deciding to forgive implies making the decision to not hold on to the resentment and changing our perception so that we can understand our offender (not excuse) and grow from that experience.
The Process of Forgiving
Now that we can understand what forgiveness is from a psychological perspective, the next step that would make sense to take is to understand how we forgive. Before we get into it, it´s relevant to mention the importance of being patient and kind to oneself; we cannot hurry true forgiveness, we have to allow ourselves to feel whatever it is that we are feeling and slowly work towards the next steps of our journey in order to truly forgive. Forgiveness in no way entails denying the emotions we may feel towards the offender.
Enright described the process of forgiveness in four phases:
1. Uncovering Phase
2. Decision Phase
3. Work Phase
4. Deepening Phase
Uncovering Phase: This first phase is the moment in which forgiveness is probably the furthest away from our mind possible. It´s the moment to feel the damage done and become aware of how it has affected our life. There won´t be real forgiveness unless we accept our feelings and our reactions to it. If we jump towards being rational and understanding without allowing ourselves to feel the damage first, there won´t be real forgiveness, only a pseudo- forgiveness that won´t help our growth.
This is the moment to cry, vent out, rage and feel shameful. We may think about different scenarios and outcomes, and even find ourselves talking to a mirror as if it was our offender. It is to be expected to feel angry and shame, let it out. Journal about it, talk with people and allow it to flow outwards. You have to feel the pain in order to heal yourself.
Decision Phase: the moment has come to decide whether or not to pursue forgiveness. As explained before, forgiving is an active process that requires from us to actively choose to forgive.
Once the emotions have been expressed and as time goes on, there may come a time when we start feeling stuck on our negative emotions and we become aware on how taxing it can be to be fixated on them. The belief that there has to be some other way to deal with our emotions and the situation starts to flourish. This is the moment in which we can start thinking about forgiveness as a real option.
Deciding to forgive is a gift we decide to offer to ourselves, the offender doesn´t have to know nor do we have to believe that “he deserves it”. It´s making the choice to let go of negative emotions and work towards more positive ones.
Work Phase: Once the decision towards forgiveness is made, it´s time to actually do the work to achieve it, that´s what this phase is about. The goal is to change our perception on the offender and to obtain a better understanding of the situation.
In order to obtain this goal, a first step would be to learn more about the offender- his life, his experiences, etc. We make the effort to see the world through his/her eyes and understand what moved him/her to act the way they did. Remember, agreeing with the choices made by the offender or condoning his behavior isn´t our goal, we´re only trying to understand.
With time negative feelings may slowly be released, understanding our offender may lead to compassionate feelings towards him. We may not want contact with the offender again, but we can wish him/her the best in the future.
During the work phase reconciliation may or may not happen. As we already know, contact with the offender isn´t necessary to forgive nor is it necessary to reestablish the relationship in order to believe we have forgiven. Forgiveness can happen without reconciliation and reconciliation can happen without forgiveness.
Deepening phase: as described by Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000), the deepening phase is characterized by the creation of meaning surrounding the offensive incident, the emergence of a newfound purpose in life, the realization of one´s own need for forgiveness, and an increase in positive feelings.
This phase is when we can finally say that we have integrated the experience, a meaning to its existence has been found. We have learnt something from it and in some way it has changed us for the better, perhaps by gaining a new purpose in life.
When forgiveness is truly given, a release of negative feelings happens and a feeling of liberation comes from the new understanding gained. The realization that we are not alone may also come, not only have many others gone through a similar experience to ours, but we can become aware that we ourselves may look for forgiveness from someone in the future. In the end, we are all just trying our best to make the most out of life.
After everything that has been said, now might be time for all of us to look into our “backpacks of resentment” and decide if we are ready and willing to give forgiving a try and see if it does work and makes us feel better.
Enright, R.D. (2010). Forgiveness is a Choice. A step-by step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington DC: APA.
Enright, R.D (2015). 8 Keys to forgiveness. New York: W.W Norton & Company, INC.
Enright, R.D., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington DC: APA.