What is Forgiveness?

April 6, 2015

Categories: Forgiveness

This post is Part 1 in an 8-part blog series on forgiveness.

Forgiveness is difficult. Although getting hurt happens in almost every relationship, it isn’t any fun. When people hurt us, we experience a range of negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, or fear. We might avoid the person or avoid thinking about the person. We might ruminate about what happened, or have fantasies about taking revenge on the person who hurt us.

Unforgiveness is stressful. Not only does unforgiveness hurt the relationship you are in, unforgiveness hurts you. When you are experiencing unforgiveness, you aren’t free. It’s as if you are carrying around a bunch of weights in a backpack. It weighs you down. Sometimes you might be struggling with unforgiveness long after the person who hurt you forgot about the whole thing. That isn’t fair.

Sometimes we forgive for the sake of the relationship, but we always forgive for our own sake. You deserve to be free.

Forgiveness can be difficult, even if you really want to do it. To make matters worse, sometimes our faith or the church can pressure us to forgive. We might hear a verse saying that if we don’t forgive our brother and sister here on earth, God won’t forgive us. Yet we might still struggle to forgive, and then feel guilty because we are struggling.

Struggling with forgiveness is completely normal. When you are hurt, it is natural to want to protect yourself. The negative emotions you feel (e.g., anger, fear) help protect you. The protection can actually be a good thing. So try not to beat yourself up for struggling with forgiveness. However, you might be in a situation where you feel like you want to forgive and move on from the pain of the hurt. Forgiveness can help you do that. In this series of blog posts, I will walk you through a tried-and-true method for helping you forgive someone who has hurt you.

The first thing I want to talk to you about is how to define forgiveness. Part of the reason I want to talk about this first is a practical reason. In my work on forgiveness, I have talked with a lot of people about what they think forgiveness is, and I have realized people think and talk about forgiveness in a variety of ways. I’m going to be using the word ‘forgiveness’ a lot over the next few blog posts, and I want to make sure we understand forgiveness in the same way.

Also, sometimes people hold certain ideas about forgiveness that make forgiveness more difficult. Or even more important, sometimes people might have an understanding of forgiveness that makes forgiveness (as the person defines it) harmful or even dangerous.

I’d like to start by talking through some common misunderstandings about forgiveness. Here are a few things that most psychologists believe forgiveness is NOT:

  1. Forgiveness is not forgetting. This is a common misconception, likely due to the oft-used phrase ‘forgive and forget.’ However, in most instances, it is impossible to truly ‘forget’ something hurtful that has happened to you. When you forgive someone, your negative emotional reaction to the person who hurt you will reduce. However, the event will probably never be truly ‘erased’ from your memory. Some people think that if they still remember what happened, they haven’t fully forgiven. But this isn’t true.
  2. Forgiveness is not “saying what happened is ok.” This is another common misconception. Many people believe that if they forgive someone, they ‘let the person off the hook,’ or give the person who hurt them a ‘free pass.’ Believing this misconception about forgiveness makes the process of forgiveness more difficult, because in addition to forgiveness, we also yearn for justice. And the truth is, certain hurts are not okay. If you are struggling with forgiveness, what happened to you probably wasn’t ok. That’s just the reality of the situation. Forgiveness doesn’t change the moral dimension of the transgression, or the culpability of the person who hurt you.
  3. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. This is probably the most important misconception, because it has a very real potential for harm. Many people view forgiveness and reconciliation as the same thing. It is true that in many situations, we choose to forgive because we want to repair a relationship with someone. But most psychologists agree that forgiveness and reconciliation are distinct processes, and you can forgive with or without reconciliation. This distinction is important in situations in which re-engaging with the person who hurt you might be harmful or dangerous, such as the case of a victim of abuse. If this situation describes you, it may be helpful for you to forgive, but it may not be advisable to reconcile with the person who hurt you.

Now that we have talked about what forgiveness is not, let’s talk briefly about what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is a process that involves a change in one’s thoughts and feelings toward someone who has hurt you in a direction that is less negative and (in some cases) more positive.

Let’s look at each part of the definition in a bit more detail:

  1. Forgiveness is a process. Forgiveness usually isn’t a one-time deal. Instead, forgiveness is a process that occurs over time. To be successful, forgiveness usually takes concerted effort over a period of time. It’s unrealistic to spend a few minutes thinking about forgiveness and expect it to happen quickly.
  2. Forgiveness involves a change in one’s thoughts and feelings. Forgiveness involves a change or shift in one’s thoughts and feelings. When someone gets hurt, usually their thoughts and feelings are negative toward the person who hurt them. For example, they might think, “He’s such a jerk!” “I hope something terrible happens to her!” They might feel sad, angry, or scared. As forgiveness unfolds, those thoughts and feelings change.
  3. The direction of the change is a reduction of the negative and (in some cases) an increase of the positive. As forgiveness unfolds, the thoughts and feelings of the person who was hurt become less negative. Also, in some cases, the thoughts and feelings of the person who was hurt become more positive. Whether or not forgiveness also includes an increase of the positive usually is dependent on whether or not the hurt occurred in a continuing relationship. If the relationship is non-continuing (e.g., You were hurt by a stranger), forgiveness may involve only the reduction of negative thoughts and feelings, and the end goal might be to get back to neutral. However, if the relationship is continuing (e.g., You were hurt by your spouse), forgiveness likely involves both the reduction of the negative and the increase of the positive, and the end goal might be to get to a place that was even more positive than before the hurt.

Discussion: What do you think about this definition of forgiveness? What parts do you agree with? What parts do you disagree with? How does this definition of forgiveness align (or not) with your definition?

Click here to read Part 2: 5 Reasons to Forgive


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