Understanding Forgiveness

Susan Bennett, PhD



People are often encouraged to forgive others who have harmed them.  Advice is given to “move on” and “let go”.  Yet, as simple as these words are, for many achieving a state of forgiveness can be elusive.  Experts in the area of forgiveness suggest that the desire to retaliate or seek revenge after being injured “is deeply ingrained in the biological, psychological, and cultural levels of human nature.” (McCullough & Witlivet, 2001).


We might ask why a person would seek to counter our human nature in this way.  Most spiritual traditions place a high value on forgiveness (Enright, 2001).  Others argue forgiveness is necessary for communities to function successfully (Enright, 2001).  In addition, a proliferation of research over the last 30 years suggests possible benefits of achieving a state of forgiveness such as improvements in both physical and mental health (Daskovsky, 2011; Enright , 2001; McCullough, 2001).  Some of this same research, however, indicates there are more questions than answers at this point (Daskovsky, 2011; McCullough, 2001).  In fact, there is confusion for many people as to what forgiveness actually is. 


Some define forgiveness as an “intrapersonal process, in which the injured party comes to some resolution of their hurt and anger toward the offender, gives up wishes for revenge and makes some degree of peace with the offending events” (Wade, Bailey & Shaffer as cited in Daskovsky, 2011).  In this definition, restoring a sense of inner calm is emphasized.  Others suggest that forgiveness requires not only reducing personal agitation but actually developing compassion for the offender.  For example, a definition provided by Joanna North (as cited in Enright, 2001) is:


When unjustly hurt by another, we forgive when we overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence, and love; as we give these, we as forgivers realize that the offender does not necessarily have a right to such gifts.


It is also important to note what forgiveness is not.  Some misconceptions regarding forgiveness are that it: involves turning off or rejecting feelings of hurt or anger, that it is a single event or decision as opposed to being a time and energy consuming process, that it condones or excuses bad behavior, or that the offending behavior has been forgotten (Enright, 2001).


In fact, forgiveness appears to be a complex, multi-step process that at a minimum, requires:


  • Acknowledging the injury
  • Acknowledging and exploring the consequences of the injury
  • Facing comparable failures in ourselves
  • Speaking grievances
  • Expressing anger, feeling grief, mourning the losses
  • Recognizing that though the past can’t be changed, the future can be shaped by our agency


(McWilliams as cited in Daskovsky, 2011)


Herman (as cited in Daskovsky, 2011) further states that such a process may require giving up fantasies of revenge or compensation (or justice/fairness).


Thus, it appears that seeking to forgive another is not to be taken lightly.  Such a goal requires significant commitment to difficult tasks such as deep mourning of the harm done, of personal limitations, and of the reality that life is neither fair nor just.  That being said, it is encouraging that research indicates individual and group therapy focused on forgiveness can be useful in promoting such a state (Daskovsky, 2011; Enright , 2001; McCullough, 2001).  However, it is important to note that some experts believe forgiveness is not always helpful.  For example, Daskovsky (2011) speculates that “unforgiveness” may be necessary at certain points in a person’s life to support self-assertion, establish a needed boundary, or validate previously dismissed emotions.  For some individuals, depending on unique factors in their situation, not forgiving may be the most appropriate choice (Daskovsky, 2011; McCullough, 2001).


In sum, it appears that forgiveness is often healing for the individual and, in some instances, for relationships.  A focus on forgiveness in research in the last 30 years has increased our understanding greatly but also revealed significant gaps in our understanding of when and how forgiveness is most helpful.  At this point, it appears that individual decisions regarding the possibility of forgiveness should be assessed carefully.  It is not clear that all people should simply forgive.  At some points, being unforgiving may be the most psychologically healthy choice.  Therapy provides an ideal situation in which the therapist and client can explore together whether forgiveness is an appropriate goal at this point in the person’s life.  If a decision is made to pursue forgiveness, the therapist can assist the client through the challenging tasks leading to that goal.








Daskovsky, D. (2011). An exploration of “forgiveness” in a clinical population of emerging adults. Yellowbrick Journal of Emerging Adulthood, November,(III), 9-12.


Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington D.C.: APA Life Tools, American Psychological Association.


McCullough, M.E., & Witvliet, C.V.O. (2001).  The psychology of forgiveness.  In C.R. Snyder (Ed.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 446-458). New York: Oxford University Press.