Forgiveness refers to the act of decreasing negative feelings toward someone who has hurt or offended the self. Sometimes forgiveness entails replacing negative feelings with positive feelings. However, many researchers believe that the reduction of negative emotions is sufficient.
Scholarly definitions of forgiveness often do not align with definitions held by the lay public, and these different definitions have created confusion. Thus, many researchers who study forgiveness start their writings by describing what forgiveness is not. To forgive someone does not mean forgetting or downplaying an offense. It does not mean behaving in a weak or timid manner, failing to hold offenders accountable or pretending that no offense occurred. People can forgive without trusting their offenders or choosing to have close relationships with them. Forgiveness is best understood as an internal process: a change in emotions, motivations, and attitudes that often leads to behavioral changes.
Prior to the mid-1990s, psychologists devoted almost no attention to the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness was seen as intimately tied with religion and spirituality, and many scientists considered these topics to be off limits for empirical research. However, with the recent advent of the positive psychology movement, the study of forgiveness and other virtues has become a rapidly growing area within social psychology. Within the past decade, research on forgiveness has increased dramatically. Social psychologists have studied forgiveness using the perspectives of social exchange theory, self-regulation, and close relationship research, to name just a few.
Injustice, Anger, and Forgiveness
Angry feelings are a natural response to injustice. When people treat one another unfairly, they create what scholars call an injustice gap, a gap between the way that things are and the way that things would be if everything were fair. If people believe that they have been treated unfairly, they often ruminate about the offense, replaying it in their minds and becoming more angry. However, if the injustice gap can be closed in some way, anger tends to dissipate. Offenders can close the injustice gap themselves by apologizing or making restitution. Victims may also take matters into their own hands by seeking revenge, pursuing legal action, or confronting offenders with wrongdoing. Regardless of whether people take steps to restore justice, they may eventually decide to forgive the offense.
One might think of forgiveness as bridging the injustice gap. Obviously, bridging a small gap is easier than bridging a large gap. And, indeed, many studies show that forgiveness is easier when the sense of injustice gap is small, that is, when minor offenses are quickly followed by apologies, restitution, or both. Forgiveness is also more likely in close, committed relationships. When people value a relationship, they are more willing to make the effort to bridge the gap. But what if the gap remains large? What about damage that cannot be repaired, such as the murder of a loved one? What about heinous offenses by strangers, particularly those who remain unrepentant or even smug about their crimes? Without question, the task of forgiveness is extremely difficult in such cases.
Costs and Benefits of Forgiving
Why would people want to attempt forgiveness, knowing that it can be so difficult? Many people see forgiveness as a principled decision. Regardless of its pragmatic costs or benefits, they see forgiveness as an important personal value, perhaps even as a moral, spiritual, or religious imperative. It is crucial to note, however, that people may choose unforgiveness for principled reasons as well. They may believe that forgiveness is wrong in certain situations—if the other party is unrepentant, for example, or if the offense is seen as unforgivable. Or, at the level of personal values, a person might hold a grudge because the goal of forgiveness is secondary to other goals involving justice, self-protection, or social dominance.
Although principles are important in guiding human behavior, pragmatic factors also exert a powerful influence. Research has demonstrated several pragmatic benefits of forgiveness. One major benefit is that forgiveness can help to heal relationships. Even in close, caring relationships, people inevitably hurt and offend each other from time to time. Thus, if people never make the sacrifices required to forgive one another, they will find it difficult to sustain close relationships over time. A second benefit of forgiveness is emotional: When people forgive, they free themselves from the emotional burdens of bitterness, resentment, and hatred. This experience of releasing negative emotions can be powerful and transformative, especially if it is accompanied by positive emotions, such as love, gratitude, or a sense of growth. A third benefit relates to physical health: Reductions in chronic anger and hostility may also help forgivers to maintain healthy cardiovascular and immune systems. There are many good reasons, then, to consider forgiveness as an option.
What about the costs of forgiving? Some of the costs that people associate with forgiveness do not involve forgiveness per se; rather, they are linked with behaviors that people commonly associate with forgiveness. For example, people often confuse forgiving with unassertiveness. In an effort to avoid confrontation, unassertive people may minimize serious offenses, accept more than their share of blame, and behave as though no offense occurred. Unfortunately, when people fail to assert themselves, not only do they leave the door open for future exploitation but they may also indirectly harm the offender, in moral terms, by not holding him or her accountable for the offense. Some offenders, particularly those with antisocial or egotistical tendencies, are quick to blame others. If paired with unassertive partners who quietly tolerate mistreatment and readily accept blame, aggressive partners will find it easy to continue a pattern of exploitation.
A closely related problem occurs when forgiveness is confused with reconciliation or trust. Abuse situations are a prime example. It is crucial for abuse victims to understand that they can forgive their abusers without placing themselves in jeopardy by remaining in close contact. Before attempting to forgive, victims often need to protect themselves from their abusers in some way, perhaps by asserting their legal rights, seeking powerful allies, or creating a safe distance.
The previously mentioned examples were based on misconceptions of forgiveness. But even if one uses a textbook definition of forgiveness, one that focuses on a positive emotional shift, forgiveness can still entail costs. One cost is that forgiveness requires people to release angry feelings, and anger carries its own rewards. Anger can energize people, helping them to feel righteous, proud, and strong. It can also spur them to take action to correct injustices. When people let go of anger, then, they may be losing something that has served a valuable function for them.
Another cost of forgiving has to do with the social benefits of being seen as a victim. When people are seen as victims, they often gain sympathetic attention. In fact, one of the primary ways that people fuel grudges is by engaging in vengeful gossip about how their offenders mistreated them. In such situations, third-party listeners often contribute their own negative information about the offender, which may help the victim to feel supported while contributing to an increasingly negative, demonized view of the offender. Many people are reluctant to give up this potential for social support by stepping out of the victim role.
Perhaps the greatest risk of forgiving has to do with the softening of attitudes that forgiveness entails. Anger is a self-protective emotion. When people allow their attitudes toward another person to become more positive, it can be natural for them to begin trusting the other person again, opening themselves up to the possibility of a continued relationship. Although reconciliation is not part of most textbook definitions of forgiveness, there is no denying that it is often a natural consequence. In many situations, increased openness is adaptive, opening the door for a healed relationship. But if the offender is someone who is ready to exploit others, it could be dangerous to see this person in a highly optimistic light. When offenders seem untrustworthy, offended parties may benefit from learning how to resolve their feelings of hatred or bitterness while still maintaining a cautious, self-protective stance toward the offender.
Individual Differences in Forgiveness
Research suggests that people tend to be more forgiving if they are agreeable and get along easily with others. In addition, people are more likely to attempt forgiveness if they identify with a religious or spiritual belief system in which forgiveness is a core value. Neurotic individuals, who are prone to focus on negative events, often have difficulty forgiving. Forgiveness is also difficult for persons who have a sense of entitlement, meaning that they see themselves as superior to others and are highly invested in defending their rights.
The Process of Forgiving
Assuming that a person does want to try to forgive, how might the process unfold? Granted, some people may forgive without being aware of doing so, perhaps because the offense was minor or because they have become practiced at forgiving. But in most cases of serious offense, forgiving requires deliberate effort. The description that follows focuses on cases in which people consciously work toward forgiving.
In most forgiveness interventions, the first step is to honestly assess the harm that was done, along with one’s feelings about the offense. As described earlier in this entry, forgiveness does not imply excusing, minimizing, or forgetting offenses. Such strategies may work well for minor offenses, such as being cut off in traffic. However, for more serious offenses, it is important to pinpoint the injustice and try to understand one’s emotional responses to it. Many people need encouragement to acknowledge their angry feelings. For example, individuals who are unassertive or low in self-esteem often need to learn that they have a right to be angry when treated unfairly. In contrast, those who see themselves as bold or dominant may find it easy to admit anger but hard to admit fear or hurt feelings.
Because anger can be an important signal of injustice, it is often appropriate to take steps to assert or protect oneself to reduce the odds of being harmed again. Those who forgive will often experience a softening of feelings about the offense or the offender. As such, it is important that people feel safe and strong before they begin to reduce their negative feelings. Authentic forgiveness is rooted in self-respect. In contrast, a lack of self-respect may lead to unassertive responses or a shame-based desire to lash out at one’s offender.
Once they have clearly identified the injustice and are operating from a position of strength and confidence, offended parties can make a reasoned decision about whether to try to forgive. In cases of serious offense, it may take weeks, months, or even years before a person will even consider the prospect of forgiving. As people face forgiveness decisions, it is important to note that forgiveness is an act involving both the will and the emotions. Although people can make an intentional decision to forgive, their emotions may not immediately change. Forgiveness requires people to regulate strong emotions, which in turn requires considerable self-control. Strong negative emotions may also require some time to subside. Nonetheless, there are some techniques that people can use to facilitate forgiveness.
Ironically, forgiveness is sometimes facilitated by confronting one’s offender. Such confrontations tend to be most successful when delivered in an atmosphere of mutual safety and respect. If people can specify what the other person did that hurt or offended them, they may receive a sincere apology. This outcome is not guaranteed, of course. But if the offender does offer a sincere apology or an attempt at amends, the process of forgiving will be easier. Many offenses are two-sided. Therefore, as part of their exchange with the offender, people may also find that they need to apologize for some wrongdoing of their own. If they start the interaction with their own apology, they may find that that their willingness to humble themselves will make the other party more willing to apologize.
Several studies suggest that forgiveness is rooted in empathy. Forgiveness will be easier if people can consider the situation from the offender’s perspective. For example, they might try to generate good reasons why the offender behaved in this way: Has the offender been mistreated by others in similar ways? Was there a misunderstanding that may have led to the offense? Could the offense have stemmed from the offender’s fear or shame rather than from cruelty? To the extent that people can empathize with those who have hurt them and try to understand the offenders’ motives, people will find forgiveness easier.
Nonetheless, sometimes people have no idea why another person mistreated them. Or, worse yet, they may be very clear that the other person was truly being malicious. In such cases, forgivers may need to use other means to empathize. For example, they might reflect on a time when they behaved cruelly themselves, particularly if it was a case in which they were forgiven or shown mercy. Or they might focus on the common humanity that they share with the offender. Studies have shown that people find it easier to forgive when they frame offenses as universals (“Human beings do cruel things to one another”) rather than focusing on the specific offense against the self (“My brother did a cruel thing to me”).
After trying to assert themselves and to empathize with the offender, people may still find that they are left with feelings of bitterness or resentment that they need to release. Some people find imagery useful as part of this release process. For example, they might envision themselves severing a rope that is tying them to their negative emotions. Or they might first envision their negative feelings as a burden that is weighing them down and then visualize themselves setting down the burden and walking away from it. People often report a sense of emotional release, peace, or relief associated with such attempts to release negative emotions.
When people have released their negative emotions, they often believe that the process of forgiving is complete. However, angry feelings commonly recur even after sincere attempts to forgive. An offense might be repeated, for example, or the initial offense might have ongoing consequences that continually remind the forgiver of the damage. Because anger often recurs, people often find it necessary to repeat the forgiveness process.
- Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Exline, J. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Hill, P., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Forgiveness and justice: A research agenda for social and personality psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 337-348.
- Lamb, S., & Murphy, J. G. (Eds.). (2002). Before forgiving: Cautionary views of forgiveness in psychotherapy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- McCullough, M. E., Pargament, K. I., & Thoresen, C. E. (Eds.). (2000). Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Guilford Press.
- Worthington, E. L., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Handbook of forgiveness. New York: Routledge.