If forgiveness is divine, does one need to be a saint?
Forgiveness is the stuff of everyday heroes, the ultimate measure of internal peace.
It can be a form of emotional aikido, where we disarm our perceived opponent with patience and calm and exact the grandest form of “revenge” by declaring peace, if only internal.
To err is human, to forgive divine.
Forgiveness is a choice one makes over and over again. It can be a fresh perspective or a healthy distance; like a quiet room with a view onto the world of complexity and conflict.
Forgiveness can be a gift to yourself or to others, it may be something you receive, but it can also be a quality that describes a relationship where one must be capable of self-forgiveness in order to forgive others.
It loved to happen.
If hope gives you wings, forgiveness will often be what you will need to get off the ground. As an aspect of resilience and a measure of psychological flexibility, forgiveness is best cultivated as an ongoing practice.
It is often difficult to foresee what transgressions or old triggers can make us feel resentful and angry, so it helps to apply the balm of forgiveness as a preventive measure, as a form of investing in yourself and a more peaceful future.
One can become more forgiving, but as all positive solutions, it requires sustained effort and a significant investment of energy if we are to move in the direction of lasting change.
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What is Forgiveness? (And What It Is Not, Incl. Definitions)
Forgiveness is often defined as an individual, voluntary internal process of letting go of feelings and thoughts of resentment, bitterness, anger, and the need for vengeance and retribution toward someone who we believe has wronged us, including ourselves.
Our capacity for forgiveness is a part of human nature that has evolved in the process of natural selection, and according to evolutionary science, it developed in the same way as our tendency toward revenge.
Both forgiveness and revenge are social instincts that solved problems for ancestral humans. Although both of these are fixed aspects of human nature, these capacities can be altered which gives us hope that we can make the world a more forgiving and less vengeful place (McCullough, 2008).
The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.
Forgiveness can be initiated by different means and can be a result of changes in cognition, the offender’s behavior, the victim’s behavior, willful decision, emotional experience or expression, spiritual experience, or any combination of those. Some of us are more forgiving than others and forgiveness can be conceptualized as a personality trait or as an aspect of more complex enduring quality like resilience.
There are several definitions of forgiveness that emphasize different aspects of it and represent many of the existing models of understanding and approaches to forgiveness.
DiBlasio (1998) emphasizes willful decision-making and forgiveness that is based on will power:
Decision-based forgiveness is defined as the cognitive letting go of resentment and bitterness and need for vengeance. However, it is not always the end of emotional pain and hurt. Forgiveness here is viewed as an act of will, a choice to let go or to hold. People can separate their thoughts of resentment and bitterness from their feelings of hurt.
DiBalsio’s decision-based model is about cognitive letting go of resentment and bitterness but does not account for hurt feelings which often persist after the choice was made.
Another cognitive definition of forgiveness is based on the perspective that sees transgressions as violations of cognitive structures, like beliefs for example (Gordon et al., 2005). A cognitive approach to forgiveness employs standard cognitive therapy and psychodynamic therapy interventions to help people change their cognitions.
One such example is the cognitive model of Thompson, Snyder, Hoffman, and Rasmussen et al. (2005). They have proposed a definition of forgiveness as:
“the framing of a perceived transgression such that one’s responses to the transgressor, transgression, and sequelae of the transgression are transformed from negative to neutral or positive. The source of the transgression, therefore the object of forgiveness, may be oneself, another person or persons, or a situation that one views as being beyond anybody’s control like illness, fate, or a natural disaster.”
Worthington (2006) defined true forgiveness as something that happens only when emotional forgiveness can occur because emotional replacement is necessary.
When emotional forgiveness is complete, the person will have replaced negative emotions associated with unforgiveness like anger, resentment, and vengefulness with positive emotions like empathy, compassion, sympathy, and altruistic love.
They argue that the change in emotional forgiveness, as it begins and moves toward completion, will be reflected most accurately by changes in emotions, not by changes in thoughts, motivations, or behavior, although those will often occur as well.
Forgiveness as a Process
Finally, Enright and Fitzgibbons (2015) believe that all three aspects of forgiveness need to change, namely cognitive, affective, and behavioral, if a person is to fully forgive.
They argue that a person must have a form of emotional readiness to forgive before they are likely to be receptive to forgiving. The process of forgiveness may take many forms and involves some of the following: cultivating acceptance and empathy, perspective taking, and benefit finding.
For example, a person may decide to re-write the story of the transgression in a journal by using one or more of these approaches and thereby alleviate the anger and allow for emotional healing to occur (McCullough, Root, & Cohen, 2006).
What Forgiveness is Not
Forgiveness is not pardoning, condoning, excusing an offense or forgetting about it. It is also not the same as reconciliation although that can occur as part of the forgiveness process.
Some also argue that decisional forgiveness and its many forms can sometimes be mistaken for forgiveness (Worthington & Scherer, 2004). Administration of justice, for example, can resolve conflict and set the score by taking the revenge out of the hands of an individual and by placing it in the hands of society.
True forgiveness, however, is an individual and internal process and administration of justice is only an external solution to an internal event that rarely satisfies the complexities involved in the process.
Tolerating the situation or any form of denial and suppression of emotions that create more stress are also not effective forms of coping and forgiving. Pardoning is very much a legal concept like the administration of justice and also does not constitute forgiveness.
Finally, condoning which justifies the offense, and excusing which implies shifting the blame, are no more than forms of self-deception that encourage a deeper sense of victimhood (McCullough, & Witvliet, 2002).
The Psychology of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a complex psychological construct and researchers who study forgiveness stress different aspects of it when they formulate their theories.
While forgiveness can be understood as a situational response and as a skill that can be learned, it is also influenced to a large extent by an aspect of one’s personality and as such termed as trait forgiveness.
Some of us are simply more forgiving than others and psychology attributes this to personality differences and other dispositional qualities that tend to be stable over time.
State and trait forgiveness
Big Five personality traits of neuroticism, conscientiousness, extroversion, openness, and agreeableness have been found in some studies to be linked to forgiveness.
Agreeableness and neuroticism were most strongly related to forgiveness and all of them except openness have been found to relate to an unforgiving or forgiving disposition (Worthington, 2006).
In addition to the Big Five, a number of other dispositional qualities affect forgiveness and include relatively stable beliefs, values, and attitudes. Worthington suggests that if we want to become more forgiving, we might seek to change our dispositional qualities.
To provide a target for intervention, he suggests that we start with qualities related to the self and work on the stability of our self-esteem first, followed by modifications of attitudes of pride and enhancing humility.
One can also seek modification of the angry, hostile, aggressive, and vengeful affective dispositions as well as relational qualities, especially those that influence the emotional tone of a relationship (2006).
People are said to have an unforgiving disposition when they are unable to forgive across different situations and over time. Although this predisposition could be due to nature as much as nurture, an unforgiving disposition can be distinguished into two types: a grudge-holder or a vengeful person (Worthington, 2006).
People with a grudge-holding disposition wish harm and misfortune on the offender and express a form of passive resistance and bitterness rather than active retaliation and direct confrontation.
Grudge-holders ruminate about being a victim and as a result experience a lot of negative emotions, namely bitterness, resentment, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear.
Fear of being hurt, offended, and victimized dominates, followed by anger associated with pain and suffering rather than with active destruction. Finally, when topped with a sub-current of sadness, the grudge-holding disposition can lead to depression over the inability to retaliate or escape the grudge.
People are not usually born vengeful but those that are predisposed to hostility and anger tend to channel an unforgiving disposition toward vengeful motives. These individuals are often hyper-attuned to justice or may suffer from a narcissistic wound to their pride.
Forgiving disposition can also come about by nature and by nurture. Worthington argues that a biological disposition toward forgiveness might be apparent soon after birth.
Particularly, if forgiveness is conceptualized as a replacement of the negative emotion of unforgiveness by any of the positive and other-oriented emotions (2006).
Adult attachment model of self
Another mitigating factor that can influence one’s ability to forgive is one’s attachment style, as defined by Bowlby (1969) in his Adult Attachment Model of Self.
Based on how we develop a sense of attachment to our primary caregivers as infants, those dispositions reflect important cognitive frameworks that are likely to drive interpersonal behavior in adulthood (Kachadourian, Fincham, & Davila, 2004).
Studies found that insecure individuals do not accommodate when a close partner hurts them and are often less forgiving than securely attached individuals (Gaines et al., 1997; Scharfe & Bartholomew, 1995, Kachadourian et al., 2004, 2005).
Rumination has been suggested as a connector between affect and ways people respond to hurts (Berry, Worthington, O’Connor, Parrott, & Wade, 2005).
Insecurely attached respond intensely to threatening events and ruminate about the relationship (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005) which in turn chronically primes the insecure working model (Kachadourian et al., 2005), to a point that any threat can and will activate it.
Reactivity to sensory stimuli is related to both introversion and emotionality according to Aron and Aron (1997) and Worthington and Wade (1999).
They proposed that sensitivity is as a predictor of forgivingness where sensitivity to rejection as stimuli could be an example of a personality characteristic related to unforgiveness.
Stability of self-esteem
Although Tangney, Boone, and Dearing (2005) found no significant relationship between forgiveness of others and self-esteem, Worthington suggests that stability of self-esteem might be more important to forgiveness than simple high self-regard (2006).
Ruminative style of the victim
The content of one’s thinking, and particularly repetitive types of rumination, will typically influence whether one will be more forgiving or more vengeful in their motivations, and perhaps in their actions as well.
There are many types of rumination: some can be fearful or simply obsessional, while others can be about getting revenge and responding angrily.
Rumination is a form of affect-laden repetitive thinking associated with automatic and intrusive thoughts about an event and its consequence for the person can interfere with the person’s daily activities.
Emmons (2000) has linked narcissism to an unforgiving personality and observed that relationships of those who tend to be narcissistic are characterized by entitlement and lack of empathy.
Defined as self-admiration that is characterized by tendencies toward grandiose ideas, exhibitionism, and defensiveness in response to criticism, narcissism was implicated in difficulties with the cultivation of forgiveness.
A sense of pride or a high sense of ego was hypothesized by Baumeister, Exline, and Sommer (1998) to likely provoke others to transgress against them. They suggest that overly proud individuals behave in ways that invite transgressions that often involve blows to their self-esteem and pride.
Other affective dispositions of negative valence that are strongly linked to unforgiveness are trait anger, trait fear, shame-and guilt-proneness, hostility, aggressiveness, and vengefulness.
On the other hand, other-oriented emotional traits, like those of trait empathy, trait sympathy, trait compassion, and traits that demonstrate altruistic love are strongly associated with emotional forgiveness and are often involved in the very definition of it.
Particularly, the research examining trait empathy found that state empathy mediates or partially mediates the connection between apology and forgiveness (McCullough et al., 1997). Some of these are discussed below.
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A Look at the Theory and Research
Although forgiveness has been an important concept in many religious and spiritual practices for millennia, it is fairly new as an object of psychological research. Nevertheless, there are already several different models of forgiveness.
Baumeister, Exline, and Sommer were the first to differentiate between intra- and interpersonal forgiveness models and proposed the process of forgiveness on a continuum of silent and hallow forgiveness on one side versus full forgiveness at the other end of the spectrum (1998).
The interpersonal models usually do not cover the experience of forgiveness as something that occurs within the person and can be termed better as interactions surrounding the transgression.
Sapolsky (Sapolsky, & Share, 2004) and de Waal (de Waal, & Pokorny, 2005), for example, created a reconciliation-based model where the focus was on reconciliation rituals.
They argued that these rituals are based on the evolutionary theory and have been effectively used to foster repair in relationships. Sapolsky and others showed that many of the reconciliation rituals throughout history were designed to lower arousal and suggested that this could lead to forgiveness.
McCullough (2001) extended the reconciliation-based model to include the intrapersonal realm and conceptualized forgiveness as an attachment-empathy system competing with ruminating justice-revenge system, but still for the purpose of governing the social process.
Hargrave and Sells’ interpersonal theory saw forgiveness as driven by exoneration and entitlement and divided it into stages, although not necessarily sequential (1997).
Insight and understanding stages were about recognition of dynamics and identifying the reasons for transgression. When occurring together, they were considered as an exoneration of the individual because in the context of family, for example, the system was responsible for the problem and no one was guilty.
The third and fourth stage, more explicitly interpersonal, were a form of allowing for compensation. Here the responses of the offender would be considered, and explicit forgiving would take place including expression of forgiveness from victim to the offender as well as the offender’s response to that forgiveness.
Rusbult’s interdependence theory model conceptualized forgiveness, particularly in a relationship, as a gut response to transgression characterized by angry emotions and vengeance motive (2005). While most people restrain the gut feeling, subsequent cognitions, emotions, and motivations move them toward pro- or anti-relationship behavior.
These behaviors were categorized into passive positive loyalty or passive negative neglect on one side and then active positive voice and active negative exit on the other.
Intrapersonal forgiveness models are exemplified by Worthington’s stress-coping model of forgiveness. His early model was based on the classical conditioning model, where his explanation of forgiveness was simply about how transgression causes emotional pain.
Here, forgiveness was defined as triggering of an emotional response where extinction of such response would be forgiving until it was triggered again.
The model originally did not acknowledge the cognitive complexity, exercise of willpower or the nuances of the situation. It had eventually evolved into a comprehensive REACH model discussed below as an example of the process of forgiveness that employs multiple methods to encourage forgiveness.
Other intrapersonal models stressing different aspects and representing competing perspectives on forgiveness are as follows:
Flanigan claims it involves predominantly cognitive processing (1992)
DiBlasio argues that decisional forgiveness is a core concept (1998)
Malcolm and Greenberg highlight affective aspects and stress emotional forgiveness (2000)
McCullough et al., conceptualize it as motivational change away from retaliation and estrangement and toward reconciliation and goodwill (1997)
and finally, Gordon, Baucom, & Snyder assign greater importance to behavior (2000).
The Process of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a process, first and foremost.
There is the intrapersonal process as in letting go of anger and interpersonal forgiveness which involves the transgressor and is not always necessary.
Recognizing that interpersonal forgiveness can be conditional and not always possible is key. Conditional forgiveness is not real forgiveness because true forgiveness is a service to oneself, it is about our own internal process.
The distinction between decisional forgiveness which is about the external process and emotional forgiveness which is about the internal letting go is very important (Worthington, & Everett, 2006). Forgiveness also does not work well when a person feels it wasn’t their choice to forgive, and forgiveness as a choice is discussed below.
McCullough described forgiveness as a process of change. McCollough also suggests that what makes his approach of benefit-finding different to other approaches (like empathy-finding or relationship-commitment), is the positive focus.
McCullough showed that writing about the benefits of interpersonal transgressions can be an effective form of intervention as it allows for cognitive processing that facilitates forgiveness:
When our participants wrote about the benefits or potential benefits of transgressions they had recently suffered (a task that they found remarkably easy to complete), they experienced reductions in avoidance versus benevolence motivation and reductions in revenge motivation—the motivations underlying forgiveness (McCullough, Root, & Cohen, 2006).
There are several different approaches to the process of forgiveness and taking perspective has been found to be one of the most effective ways to practice forgiveness as it allows us to connect to the transgressor as a human being (McCullough, 2008). Several studies in effective communications and couples therapy support these claims.
Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communications approach explains how defining the other side’s needs can be helpful in learning how to take another’s perspective (2003).
Similarly, John Gottman’s method of communication stresses that both sides of the story are valid and that acknowledging the other side’s perspective can also contribute to easing the process of emotional forgiveness (1999).
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.
The ability to forgive oneself or the forces of the universe (fate or God) is also an important part of cultivating forgiveness.
The level of acceptance a person is capable of plays a critical role in how effective the process of forgiveness will be, especially since some studies show that some instances of forgiveness may involve grieving (McCullough, 2008).
A meta-analysis by Wade, Worthington, and Meyer (2005) identified three elements that were common among all effective forgiveness interventions, irrespective of what intervention model or what theory the methods were based on:
use of multiple methods to reduce unforgiveness,
committing to forgiveness, and
empathizing or experiencing positive other-oriented emotions as an antidote to unforgiveness.
Finally, Webb and colleagues defined the process of forgiveness as a coping mechanism that employs mindfulness and involves re-framing and neutralizing ill will (Webb, Phillips, Bumgarner, & Conway-Williams, 2013).
They explained that “increased mindfulness might allow the tendency for unforgiveness to be recognized by the patient earlier and more readily and therefore provide an opportunity to utilize forgiveness as a coping mechanism” (2013).
The S.A.F.E. Technique for Self-Compassion
When struggling with emotions, be that anger, unforgiveness or self-hatred, there is a technique designed to calm your troubled mind.
The S.A.F.E. Self-Compassion Technique was originally devised by Goldstein (2015).
During a difficult moment, this practice works to take you out of autopilot mode, encouraging you to acknowledge your emotions as they are, connect to what you really need, and recognize the common humanity behind your struggles.
The S.A.F.E. acronym stands for:
S: Soften into the feeling.
Breathe in and acknowledge that the feeling is there. What are you feeling? Where in your body do you feel it the most?
A: Allow the emotion to be as it is.
Breathe in and out, acknowledging the feeling without resisting or clinging to it. Try just to let it be there.
F: Observe and experience the emotion with kind attention.
Uncover what you need. Investigate the feeling. What does this feeling make you believe about yourself? What does this feeling need right now?
E: Expand your awareness to all people struggling with this emotion.
Understand that you share this emotional experience with the rest of humanity. Everybody suffers and makes mistakes. You are not alone in this feeling. Let that bring you some solace.
Forgiveness and Positive Psychology
Several philosophers see “an attitude of real goodwill towards the offender as a person” as fundamental to forgiveness (Holmgren, 1993, p.34; see also Downie, 1965). It is this positive dimension of benevolence that situates forgiveness most strongly as a construct in positive psychology.
Forgiveness in positive psychology is most often viewed as a character strength and a virtue worth pursuing for everyone who desires a greater sense of wellbeing. Positive psychology explores human strengths that help us live more satisfying and fulfilling lives (Seligman, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and forgiveness is one such strength.
In the face of a transgression when we are deeply hurt or betrayed by a close other, it is easy to feel hatred and desire revenge. It is much harder, however, to feel benevolence toward the transgressor and to truly forgive. Martin Seligman explained that people don’t forgive because:
they feel it is unjust to forgive;
forgiving is showing love to the transgressor but not to the victim; and
forgiveness blocks revenge, which is an emotion many people hold onto tightly.
While these reasons appear to be self-evident and understandable, they stem in part from misconceptions about forgiveness. That’s why it is crucial that we look at human propensity towards forgiveness as a form of momentary response to one another as well as a characteristic that could describe a relationship.
As more practitioners are developing detailed protocols for forgiveness interventions and investigate the efficacy of each, enhancing optimal human functioning is becoming as important in psychology as preventing distress. Benefits of cultivating forgiveness are being recognized as important areas of research next to studying the detriments of anger and hostility.
Applied studies like positive psychology are a predominant source of evidence about the effects of forgiveness on wellbeing, mostly because they are the only disciplines that attempt to facilitate forgiveness specifically. Positive psychology also leads research on forgiveness, and the trends that place greater weight on the importance of forgiveness in maintaining and promoting wellbeing are growing steadily.
Positive psychology has brought consistent focus to the benefits of forgiveness and cultivating a more forgiving personality. Some consider forgiveness an exemplar for positive clinical psychology (Worthington, Griffin, Lavelock, 2016).
What is Forgiveness Therapy?
Forgiveness has been found to be a pivotal process in helping clients resolve anger over betrayals, relieve depression and anxiety, and restore peace of mind and there is a lot of new promising research in the growing field of forgiveness therapy.
Many people struggle with the inability to forgive and recommendations for practitioners who work with such individuals, is that in order to give good advice and support to the client, one needs to be not only objective but also trained in forgiveness therapy.
The important distinction between forgiveness therapy and other interventions is that forgiveness therapy may not be compatible with forms of therapy that claim to be value-free and don’t address the issues of right and wrong, justice and mercy.
To practice forgiveness therapy, the therapist must be comfortable dealing with moral issues and be willing to help the client determine that certain behaviors are wrong and unfair while other behaviors, such as mercy, can under certain conditions be beneficial (Enright, & Fitzgibbons, 2015).
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
A meta-analysis of several studies conducted by Wade, Hoyt, Kidwell, and Worthington showed significant efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness regardless of the model used (2014).
Cognitive interventions stress the role of our thought process but not all emotions and behaviors are caused by conscious cognition. Malcolm and Greenberg describe the forgiving person as being able to “see the offender in a more complex way” (2000) and remind us that a person could attribute causality to situations.
Cognitive interventions such as Thoresen (2000) use a reframing process where the client constructs a new narrative about the transgression, the transgressor, and the forgiver. In therapy, the practitioner leads clients to intentionally change thoughts, which presumably change emotions and behaviors.
One model of forgiveness therapy that places empathy at its center and stresses emotional forgiveness is Worthington’s REACH forgiveness model based on the stress and coping theory of forgiveness.
Each step in REACH is applied to a target transgression that the client is trying to change.
R = Recall the Hurt
E = Empathize with the Person Who Hurt You
A = Give an Altruistic Gift of Forgiveness
C = Commit to the Emotional Forgiveness That Was Experienced
H = Hold on to Forgiveness When Doubts Arise (Worthington, 2006).
Then the REACH model is applied to several other key transgressions in a client’s life. The client is helped to grant decisional forgiveness and to experience emotional forgiveness for each transgression and for each person. Finally, becoming a more forgiving person is focused on.
In one study, forgiveness-based group treatments including the REACH model were employed to address interpersonal hurts and have shown to be beneficial.
The study examined a sample of 162 adults in a community randomly assigned to three treatment conditions 8 weeks in duration: a REACH forgiveness intervention (Worthington, 2006), a process group, and a waitlist control.
The forgiveness-based treatment was more effective than the waitlist control across a range of forgiveness-related constructs but no more effective than the process condition. It turned out attachment avoidance and anxiety interacted with treatment type to predict certain outcomes, indicating that the REACH forgiveness model may be more helpful for promoting forgiveness with insecurely attached individuals.
Another example of forgiveness therapy is the contemplative practice of Naikan which is centered in mindful awareness of the kindness of others. Although originating in Japanese spiritual culture, Naikan practice can be introduced as a secular process because its benefits are not tied to its origins but rather address universal issues.
Naikan therapy is centered around the act of forgiveness and is a structured method of self-reflection. What actually makes it different from other forms of therapy is the relational context versus individual-centered perspective. This other-centered perspective is a source of new insights and a means by which transformation occurs.
Perspective taking has been linked to empathy which in turn has been shown to be an aspect determining one’s capacity towards forgiveness in several research articles (McCullough & vanOyten Witvliet, 2002). Some studies show that the more self-focused and egotistical a person is the harder it is for them to feel connected to others (Emmons, 2000).
The implications of that also involve a lesser ability to take perspective and therefore be capable of compassion.
Naikan reflections are based on three questions relating to the person the client is struggling to forgive:
What have I received?
What have I given?
What troubles and difficulties have I caused?
Naikan philosophy does not believe that the past has to be static, unchangeable or subjective. Tendencies towards misplacement and distortion that are typical in the recollection of past trauma often have lasting effects on relationships as most people treat the past as something fixed.
Naikan method allows them to re-balance good and bad, without denying what had happened or forgetting about it. Sense of victimization is released via Naikan and equanimity gives a patient a sense of having more in common with others like our vulnerabilities, mistakes, and desire to be happy (Ozawa-de Silva, 2013).
9 Benefits of Forgiveness
It is not hard to imagine how it would be of enormous benefit to humanity to cultivate forgiveness as it is an antidote to our predisposition toward revenge and avoidance.
Many laws in human history have evolved out of the need to regulate the natural human tendency toward revenge and in time they became the complex judicial systems of today. But as such, these address only a small aspect of what is involved in true forgiveness.
Historically, emotional forgiveness has been promoted predominantly in the spiritual arena. Over time it was included as part of treatment for trauma, and only recently recognized as an aspect of wellness in fields like positive psychology.
Research in positive psychology and elsewhere shows that outcomes of forgiveness that have been found to have an impact on overall wellbeing include:
reduction in negative affect and depressive symptoms
restoration of positive thinking
restoration of relationships
reduction in anxiety
a greater sense of hope
greater capacity for conflict management and
greater ability to cope with stress and find relief.
Research shows that forgiveness training raises self-esteem and hope of people who’ve been hurt and lowers their anxiety. We see more often forgiveness exercises like those adapted from Sonja Lyubormirsky’s book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want where one can teach forgiveness even to young kids (2007).
The benefits of forgiving for individual wellbeing have been documented across a variety of domains including:
physical health (Harris & Thoresen, 2005; Worthington & Scherer, 2004),
mental health (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Toussaint & Webb, 2005), and
life satisfaction (e.g., Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer, 2003)
One study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that forgiveness not only restores positive thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward the offending party and restores the relationship to its previous positive state, but the benefits of forgiveness spill over to positive behaviors toward others outside of the relationship.
Forgiveness was also associated with other altruistic behaviors like volunteerism and donating to charity (Karremans, et al., 2005).
Are There Health Benefits?
Forgiveness as an emotional and cognitive process is characterized by releasing of anger, and anger elsewhere has been proven to have negative physical, emotional and cognitive consequences over time.
We are told by Worthington and Scherer (2004) that unforgiveness when considered as a negative emotional and cognitive construct causes stress. This implies that forgiving can be used as an emotion-focused coping strategy, and therefore could contribute to overall health.
Inability to forgive was linked to anger and hostility, and those, in turn, have proven to have negative health effects, especially with regard to cardiovascular conditions. Forgiveness, on the other hand, was linked to positive emotions of empathy and compassion (Worthington & Scherer, 2004).
An expanding group of theorists, therapists, and health professionals has proposed that the ways people respond to interpersonal offenses can significantly affect their health (McCullough, Sandage, & Worthington, 1997; McCullough & Worthington, 1994; Thoresen, Harris, & Luskin, 2000).
They found that forgiving people experience more life satisfaction and less depression than others. Finally, these studies have also shown that more forgiving individuals have a greater propensity to engage in reflective thinking and a lower tendency to engage in any type of rumination including:
ruminative depression which is a form of repetitive thinking experienced by depressed individuals,
brooding which is a form of critical thinking about the self or others, and
reflective rumination and contemplation of the roots for one’s feelings.
Reliving painful memories and harboring resentment has a negative effect on emotional wellbeing and physical health of those who choose to hold a grudge according to the research done by researchers at Hope College (Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander Laan, 2001).
Unforgiving responses of anger, blame, and hostility, as shown in other studies therein, contributed to poor health and specifically coronary heart disease.
The participants of the study who were asked to imagine not forgiving an offender had more negative feelings like anger and sadness, were more aroused and felt less in control. Physiological effects included elevated heart rate, blood pressure surges, and sympathetic nervous system activation.
Example of Forgiveness
The many stories of courageous forgiveness are often a subject of great biographies. One such story is that of Richard Moore who was blinded by a rubber bullet fired by a British soldier when he was ten years old. Despite never regaining sight, he went on to live a full life and devoted himself to the cause of promoting forgiveness and peace.
His talk, which he delivers every year at the Four Corners festival in North Belfast, tells his story of forgiveness from the perspective of other people in his life who at first struggled to bring themselves to tell him about his blindness.
He credits his family and community with bringing him up in the way that cultivated forgiveness and closeness. His account of what happened, however tragic, has a positive tone and is full of gratitude toward people in his life.
There are no expressions of anger about the incident that left him blind for life. Somehow even as a child, Richard Moore knew he would be hurting himself by being resentful (Moore, 2015).
Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself.
Our capacity to forgive in our core is something that varies from one person to another. Some people are quicker to get angry while others are more prone to forgive easily. Just as we don’t have to be taught how to get angry, we are born with the ability to forgive.
When asked about ideas on nurturing forgiveness, Richard Moore said one must be in touch with compassion and value it in the first place.
That can be challenging however and is not always part of our environment when growing up. Moore was of the opinion that forgiveness can be nurtured versus taught and the best form of teaching forgiveness is by example.
Seeing forgiveness and being forgiven are the best ways to learn about it, alongside teaching and learning about the value of empathy.
Forgiveness does not change the past but it does change the future.
Richard Moore, whose life is an example of a great act of forgiveness, exhibited many of the necessary characteristics that foster it: acceptance, realism, perspective taking, and sense of connectedness to his transgressor as a human being.
Moore was known to remind people that they forgive more often than they realize and that we all have a potential to forgive but need to learn to observe this as a capacity in ourselves first as well as realize the enduring value of it.
Is Forgiveness a Choice?
Forgiveness is a choice, even if it takes a long time to make that choice.
While forgiveness relates to the perception of injustice, the decision to forgive is different than the emotional experience of forgiveness. Forgiveness also suggests change over time and it is not always possible to say if we have “fully forgiven.”
Baumeister defines decisional forgiveness as a behavioral intention statement that says one will behave toward the transgressor like one did prior to a transgression (1998).
DiBlasio tells us that decisional forgiveness occurs when one decides to release the transgressor from the debt and in some cases, decisional forgiveness could trigger emotional forgiveness (1998).
It is important to remember that one might grant decisional forgiveness and still be emotionally upset. Despite having made a decision to forgive we may still be prone to angry, anxious, or depressive rumination and exhibit motivations oriented toward revenge or avoidance.
Emotional forgiveness, on the other hand, is rooted in emotions that affect motivations where the magnitude of the perceived injustice gap is hypothesized to be inversely proportional to ease of forgiving and directly proportional to emotional unforgiveness (Worthington, 2000, 2001, 2003; Worthington, Berry, & Parrott, 2001; Worthington & Wade, 1999).
The greater the sense of injustice we feel, the harder it is to forgive.
Decisional versus emotional forgiveness simply represents the difference between cognitive processing versus emotional processing of a negative event.
Someone may be required to forgive based on the rules of their social environment: perhaps one’s family or religious affiliation requires one to forgive. In such instances, one can rationalize away why forgiveness makes sense, but if emotional forgiving does not take place at the same time, decisional forgiving may simply be no more than masking the resentment well.
According to Worthington and Scherer in order for forgiveness to be a process of transformation, emotional forgiveness must take place. If a person is suppressing or denying intense negative emotions when recalling the transgression, she has not forgiven even though she may behave as if she has (Worthington & Scherer, 2004).
Comparison of Decisional and Emotional Forgiveness:
Arrived at rationally or by will
Arrived at by emotional replacement
May come before or after emotional forgiveness
Necessarily reduces unforgiving emotions
May occur without emotional forgiveness
May come before or after decisional forgiveness but usually after
Aimed at controlling future behavior but not motives or emotions
May occur without decisional forgiveness on rare occasions
May make a person feel “settled,” calming emotion and motivation (i.e., might lead to emotional forgiveness or at least reduce emotional unforgiveness)
Aimed at changing the emotional climate but inevitably triggers neoassociationistic networks leading to changes in motives, thoughts, and other associations
May give new meaning to the situation
May give new meaning to the situation
May change behavior
May improve interactions by de-escalating or promoting reconciliation
Will change motivation
Makes a person feel less negative emotionally and perhaps more positive
May improve interactions and promote reconciliation
May reduce the injustice gap
May reduce the justice motive
According to Worthington (2006), emotional forgiveness is a true barometer of the desired change over time and is based on the emotional replacement hypothesis where negative stressful unforgiving emotions are replaced with other-oriented emotions.
Worthington’s is a stress- and coping-theory that uses emotional replacements. But in order to employ emotional forgiveness, one must first clearly distinguish between decisional and emotional forgiveness.
What and When is Forgiveness Day?
World Forgiveness Day falls on the first Sunday in August each year. This year it falls on August 4 and you can learn more about it through the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance, non-profit organization and their website.
One of the initiatives sponsored by the alliance is the Forgiveness Challenge initiated by Desmond Tutu and anyone can participate in it by picking one person or incident and offering forgiveness.
With each act of forgiveness, whether small or great, we move toward wholeness.
Desmond & Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving
The concept of forgiveness is embraced by many spiritual traditions around the world and considered a universal virtue. Ho’oponopono, for example, is an ancient Hawaiian practice of forgiveness performed not only in Hawaii but also in on other islands throughout the South Pacific, including Samoa, Tahiti, and New Zealand.
The ceremony allows for everyone’s feelings to be acknowledged and ends with releasing of the past by a very simple prayer that consists of saying these words:
“I’m sorry, I love you, please forgive me, I thank you.”
For International Forgiveness Day, the Unify organization organizes a global wave of forgiveness actions. Unify.org is well known for their popular Facebook page with inspiring quotes and articles, but their strength is in organizing globally synchronized initiatives.
Globally synchronized meditations focusing on different themes throughout the year as well as community actions are central to Unify’s mission.
The Forgiveness Project
The Forgiveness Project collects and shares stories from individuals and communities who have rebuilt their lives following hurt and trauma.
The organization, who is not affiliated with any religions, also provides resources to help people examine and overcome their unresolved grievances.
The testimonies they collect bear witness to the resilience of the human spirit and act as a powerful antidote to narratives of hate and dehumanization, presenting alternatives to cycles of conflict, violence, crime, and injustice.
At the heart of The Forgiveness Project is an understanding that restorative narratives have the power to transform lives; not only supporting people to move on from harm or trauma but also building a climate of tolerance, resilience, hope, and empathy.
This idea informs their work across multiple platforms including publications and educational resources, through the international F Word exhibition, in public conversations, and RESTORE prison program.
4 Videos and TED Talks Worth Watching
A short selection of highly relevant videos well worth your time:
The Dalai Lama's hero, Irish man Richard Moore
In search for the man who broke my neck - Joshua Prager
9/11 healing: the mothers who found forgiveness, friendship
Forgive - motivational video - CJ-Chan
6 Recommended Books
Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application by Everett Worthington (Amazon)
Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness by Lydia Woodyatt, Everett Worthington, Michael Wenzel, and Brandon J. Griffin (Amazon)
Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective by The Dalai Lama and Thupten Jinpa (Amazon)
Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct by Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D., (Amazon)
The Book of Ho’oponopono: The Hawaiian Practice of Forgiveness and Healing (Amazon)
A Take-Home Message
Forgiveness has many faces and many definitions. It is a complex process and although beneficial cannot be accomplished by simple means.
Contemplating forgiveness reminds us that our sense of injury plays an important part in how we perceive wrongdoings committed against us. We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Although at times it is hard to be anything other than what the pain has taught us to be, when the fog lifts our heliotropic nature helps us turn toward the sun because nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure. Marcus Aurelius used to say that when we reject our sense of injury, the injury disappears.
What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.
Forgiveness is good for our health, our relationships, our souls, and peace in the world and that’s reason enough to convince virtually anyone to do the work of letting go.
From a practitioner’s perspective, forgiveness is the ultimate test for whether we practice what we preach. We should consider ourselves lucky to work in a realm where we have constant reminders of what is best about human nature. And while these may be some of the toughest conversations we ever had and some of the most difficult topics to write about, we are all better for it.
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About the author
Beata Souders is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Psychology at CalSouth and MA in Creative Writing at SNHU, she holds a Master's degree in Positive Psychology from Life University. An ICF certified coach and a Gottman Institute Certified Educator, Beata is on the Executive Committee for the Student Division of the International Positive Psychology Associations and has published and presented on subjects ranging the Flow Theory to learned helplessness.