Forgiveness of self and others allows us to move past social transgressions in a prosocial manner. It enhances our motivation to cooperate with others on accepting a mutual reality and making agreeable changes to meet the needs of each party involved (McCollough, 2001). 

Forgiveness allows us to release our negative feelings about an event by creating our own form of closure. It puts an end date on the event, helping us create distance with time (Enright, 1998). 

Forgiveness does not imply that we should forego justice (Enright, 1998). Nor does it require pardoning or excusing the transgression. Forgiveness is also distinct from reconciliation, which is a series of behaviors aimed at making amends for the transgression (McCollough, 2001). 

We forgive to reduce the impact of negative events on our self-image and the way we perceive and interact with others (Enright, 1998). 

Cultivating Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be accomplished by identifying the emotions caused by the transgression, openly acknowledging the wrongdoing, and restoring the self-esteem lost. Others may provide us with such resolution, or we may need to create resolution for ourselves (Enright, 1998). 

Resolution begins with naming the emotions that arise when we think about the transgression. Access an emotions list by clicking here. Take a moment to write down every word that accurately describes the impact of the transgression. Consider the emotions of others involved in the transgression. How do we think they feel? How do we want them to feel? 

Next, openly acknowledge the event to ourselves, and to others when we are able. Story-telling in moderation aids us in solidifying what happened as in the past, but we must be careful not to ruminate (Enright, 1998). Acknowledgement is the the chance to express understanding of the event and any hurt that came from it. When we hear the perspectives of others, it enhances our ability to understand and empathize (McCollough, 2001). 

Consider writing a brief letter to a former self, to a loved one or to someone who has been lost. Share emotions and acknowledge the transgression in detail. Physically expressing what we wish to say, even if others are not present, can help create a sense of release. 

If we are the transgressor, we may consider the use of a specific apology, restorative actions, or other caring behaviors (Martinez-Diaz, 2021). Apologies can take many forms, but research suggests that a meaningful apology contains specific communication strategies designed to show our intention for reconciliation with the needs of the person we harmed in mind. This can be broken down into five approaches, outlined below (Chapman, 2008):

  • Express Regret - This action requires that we verbally acknowledge that we caused someone pain, betrayed their trust, inconvenienced them or disappointed them. We use this time to communicate through our actions, words and body language that we feel guilt, shame and pain for having caused hurt.
    • Use the words ‘I apologize for’ and be specific about what we're sorry about.
    • Show deference through body language, be sure that our facial expression and posture are aligned with the words we’re saying.
  • Accept Responsibility - Here we accept that we are flawed individuals capable of making mistakes. We own up to what we did, and put it into words to ensure everyone involved understands the truth of the event. 
    • Share an understanding of why the other person was hurt. 
    • Use the words ‘I was wrong’.
    • Take full responsibility without justifying actions or saying ‘if’ or ‘but’. 
    • Do not blame shift or bring up hurt from past events. Stay focused on what exactly we are apologizing for.
  • Make Restitution - Think about how to make things equal, fair or better. Think about an act of service that can help prove our commitment to reconciliation.
    • Ask the other person ‘How can I make it right?’ or ‘How can I show you that you are valued and loved?’
    • We must listen to the answer and take that action without complaint or desire for action from the other. Words without follow through is more harm done.
  • Genuine Repentance - Here we express what actions we will take to learn from our error and stop it from occurring again. 
    • Take full responsibility for what was done
    • Make a plan to change
    • Follow through on that plan
  • Request forgiveness - Use the words ‘Can you forgive me?’ This gives the person we harmed power over us to say no and to take what action they need to in order to protect themselves from more harm. It is a show of deference to restore the power imbalance. 

Forgiving ourselves begins with accepting the role we played in the transgression, be it as victim or perpetrator. This starts by identifying a realistic amount of personal responsibility, which may be all or none, but is usually somewhere in-between. The goal here is to facilitate understanding of what we did and could have done differently (Woodyatt, 2013). 

To most accurately identify personal responsibility, draw a medium-sized circle. Next to it, we'll list the names of everyone who was involved in the transgression. Our name goes last. This should include people who had influence over the event and the conditions surrounding it, even if they weren’t present at the time. Be sure to include environmental factors and other outside influences. Use the circle to make a pie chart of who/what holds which percentage of the responsibility. Only accept responsibility for remains after everyone, and everything, else is accounted for.

Now we can take ownership of what has been assigned and commit to making amends to ourselves and to others as needed. We need to make sure not to take on more than our share of the responsibility, and not allow others place excess responsibility onto us. For more help with boundaries, click here.

Now that everything has been brought to the light, we can consider engaging in radical acceptance. This tool asks us to acknowledge, and repeat out loud, the following affirmations:

  • The past occurred and it cannot be changed nor entirely forgotten.
  • I am a human person who makes mistakes and has successes.
  • If I knew then what I know now, things would have gone differently.
  • I have gained skills, knowledge and experience from life and am capable of change.
  • Internally, the past influences my future to the extent that I allow it to.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help us to rebuild our self-esteem after a difficult event. Click here for more information on CBT.

Roadblocks to Forgiveness

When confronted with the knowledge that we have committed a personal failure, and that others were harmed by our actions, we may become defensive. While our defensive strategies protect our self-image and reduce our emotional distress, they also rely on minimizing or denying the wrongdoing and the effect of it on others. Someone acting defensively may feel compelled to justify, defend or explain themselves. They may argue about what happened, attempt to negotiate feelings, and minimize the event to control the reactions of others. Some may avoid the conflict entirely by removing themselves physically or emotionally (Martinez-Diaz, 2021).

If the need to control the conflict arises, click here for more help.

If maladaptive thinking about the conflict arises, click here for more help.