Forgiveness

Defined

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 everyone 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). 

We forgive to reduce the impact of negative events on our self-image and the way we perceive and interact with others (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 a transgression (McCollough, 2001). 

Keep in mind, that we cannot force someone to ask us for forgiveness, nor can we force someone to accept our request for forgiveness. We can only make a meaningful effort to be forgiven. Each party must respect the victim's decision on the matter for what it is.

Cultivating Forgiveness With Others

Forgiveness between two people or within groups can be accomplished by identifying the emotions caused by the transgression, openly acknowledging the wrongdoing, and restoring the self-esteem lost. Others may be willing to participate in this process to help create a resolution, or we may need to create resolution for ourselves (Enright, 1998). 

Let's begin by working to name the feelings that arise when we think about the transgression. For help naming emotions, visit the emotional regulation page by clicking here. Take a moment to write down every emotion word that accurately describes the impact of the transgression. Consider the emotions of others involved in the transgression. How do we think they feel?

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

We can consider writing a letter to the person who was harmed or who harmed us. Use this tool to 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 to demonstrate our sincerity (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 steps, 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.
    • Here we use the words ‘I apologize’ and use specific language to describe what we're sorry about.
    • We can show deference through body language, and it is important 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 the transgression 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 our actions or saying ‘if’ or ‘but’. 
    • This is a vulnerable process, and we must make an effort to ensure our vulnerability doesn’t cause us to blame shift or bring up hurt from past events. It’s important to stay focused on what exactly we are apologizing for.
  • Make Restitution - We accomplish this by thinking 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 - At this point, we 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 caused by our transgression. 

At this point, the other person can either accept our request for forgiveness, or reject it. It is on us to listen to them, and accept their decision without conditions. Consider giving the other person time to make a decision on forgiveness, so that they are not reacting emotionally.

If we are the victims of a transgression, and wish to facilitate forgiveness, we can consider sharing these five steps with the transgressor to see if they are willing to make things right. Remember, the victim gets to decide if the efforts made are enough to restore trust and connection.

    How To Forgive Ourselves

    This process begins with accepting the role we played in the transgression, be it as victim, as perpetrator or as a combination of both. 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 what we could have done differently (Woodyatt, 2013). 

    To most accurately identify a reasonable amount of personal responsibility, we can 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. We should only accept responsibility for what remains after everyone, and everything, else is accounted for.

    Now we can take fair ownership of our role in the transgression, 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.This may be a good time to revisit the tool of boundary setting if we are encountering others who want us to accept more than our fair share of responsibility. For help with boundaries, click here.

    With the reality of the situation in focus, we can benefit from engaging in radical acceptance. This perspective asks us to make an active effort to accept people as they are, the situation for what it is, and ourselves as imperfect human people with strengths and weaknesses. For access to the radical acceptance page, click here.

      Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an incredibly powerful resource that can help us to rebuild our self-esteem after a difficult event. Click here for more information on how to use CBT to overcome a challenging event.

      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 it had on others (Martinez-Diaz, 2021).

      Someone acting defensively may feel compelled to justify, defend or explain themselves or the 'reasons' they committed the transgression. 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).

      Remember that we do not owe our forgiveness to others, others do not owe forgiveness to us, and no one should risk their safety because it makes someone else more comfortable (AAWS, 2001).

      If you feel the need to control the situation, or control the reactions of others, please visit the power and control page for specific strategies.

      If you are unable to cope with the facts of the transgression, or find yourself stuck in harmful patterns of thought about yourself, others or the world after a transgression, please visit the maladaptive challenge page for help.