I’ve been thinking about the issue of forgiveness lately, and how it might play a role in my work. As a therapist, at first I thought there’s something almost counter-intuitive about it. One of the ways people heal in therapy is by getting a chance to talk about how they’ve been hurt in the past, and do so in a supportive environment. So the tendency for the therapist can be, in trying to support the client, to agree with or promote the idea that the person who hurt the client was wrong. From there it is a short leap to defining the offender as bad. However, as understandable as this tendency may be, it may not be all that helpful in the long run.
There are a lot of misconceptions about forgiveness. For example, the idea that forgiving someone meant either denying the pain that has been caused, or condoning the hurtful action. However, fully acknowledging the pain that’s caused is an important aspect of forgiveness, and there is absolutely no need to condone hurtful actions to forgive someone. Similarly the idea that in order to forgive someone you have to resume the relationship is also untrue. Reconciliation is a different process than forgiveness, and there are times when not reconciling or resuming the relationship is necessary or even preferable.
The definition of forgiveness that I’m using here has to do with releasing the hate, bitterness, anger, and confusion that come with being hurt. When you forgive someone, you’re letting go of the burden of carrying around all these negative feelings. In that sense, while it might be good for the person forgiven, the primary benefits are for you. It’s not something that you have to do or should do, but something you may choose to do as a way of healing, moving on, and gaining some peace. You’re deciding not to carry poison around in your heart anymore.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. But a number of researchers, Including Nathaniel Wade of Iowa State University, Robert Enright of University of Wisconsin-Madison, Marilyn Cornish of Auburn University, and many others, have studied how to do it. This research describes some steps in developing forgiveness. These include sharing the story of being hurt in a safe and supportive setting, and acknowledging the feelings and pain that were caused. It also can involve gaining an understanding of the situation and the perspective of the offender, and perhaps by walking a bit in their shoes developing empathy for them. It seems to be a process of really acknowledging the legitimate feelings of hurt and pain, while also trying to see the situation through the eyes of the offender.
Another crucial practice, and one that often comes up in therapy, is the issue of self-forgiveness. Many people have done things that they feel they could never forgive themselves for, and they carry this burden around with them. In these situations, being able to forgive oneself is central to healing and growth. The researchers Cornish and Wade came up with a four step model for taking on this challenge.
- Responsibility — taking an honest responsibility when a person harms another
- Remorse — expressing authentic remorse for the offense
- Restoration — this includes making amends and committing oneself to upholding values that would not permit this type of harm.
- Renewal — Letting go of the harsh self-criticism and replacing it with respect and compassion for oneself.
In pursuing an honest acknowledgment of one’s offense, and authentically working to make the situation better, a person isn’t simply letting themselves off the hook. They are honestly attempting to right a wrong. To me, this effort is worthy of respect.
My sense is that both forgiveness of others and self-forgiveness can be enormously powerful in allowing a person to heal and move on in their lives. I’m curious to see how this can be helpful to my therapy clients.
One last thing: Jack Kornfield, a meditation teacher and psychologist, offers a discussion of forgiveness and a set of meditation practices. I think they are lovely and powerful. The link is below.
Jack Kornfield, “The Practice of Forgiveness”. https://jackkornfield.com/the-practice-of-forgiveness/