What is Forgiveness?

Forgiveness is something that comes up pretty often in therapy. Folks often view it as something they “should” do or “can’t” do. I actually know a good deal about forgiveness as it was my dissertation topic. However, as with many complex topics, the more I learn about forgiveness, the less I know. Since forgiveness is so complex, this will be the first in a series of posts on the subject. I am passionate about making research understandable for laypeople. Too often there is a huge divide between psychological research and applying it to real life. My goal with this series is to make a complex topic understandable for people so that they can move toward the life they want to have.


In doing my readings for dissertation, I was struck by how quick authors are to identify what forgiveness is not. For example, most researchers agree that forgiveness is different from forgetting, condoning, excusing, pardoning, or reconciling. In other words, you can forgive someone even though you still remember what they did. You can forgive someone even though you do not support or agree with what they did. You can forgive someone even though you allow them to suffer the consequences of their actions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can forgive someone even though you have discontinued your relationship with them. These things are related to forgiveness and often coincide with forgiveness; however, it is important to remember that they are not the same thing as forgiveness and they are not necessary for forgiveness to occur.

Ok, so now we have an idea of what forgiveness is not. Let’s talk about the definition of forgiveness that all researchers agree upon. *Insert long pause with chirping crickets.* There’s the rub. There actually isn’t a definition of forgiveness that everyone agrees upon. That is one of the things that makes forgiveness so complicated. People are using the same word to describe different things! There are nearly as many definitions of forgiveness as there are researchers on the subject. Furthermore, remember all of those things that I listed above that researchers agree are different from forgiveness (e.g., forgetting)? Well, when you ask most laypeople what they think forgiveness is, they often will give a definition that includes forgetting, pardoning, etc. So researchers can’t agree with each other on what forgiveness is and researchers and laypeople definitely don’t agree on what forgiveness is. In the words of Peg Plus Cat, “we’ve got a really BIG PROBLEM!” But all is not lost. Even though researchers and laypeople can’t agree on specific definitions of forgiveness, there are similarities between definitions that can help us have an idea of what the heck we are talking about.

First, forgiveness is a process. It is something that unfolds over time. In most instances, forgiveness does not happen automatically or instantly after someone has been wronged. As for the steps in the process, there are a number of different theories as to how many steps and what they are. Something that Dr. McCullough (a forgiveness guru) and his colleagues have done is to divide the steps of forgiveness into two phases: 1) letting go and 2) moving on. The first phase is the letting go phase, which is considered a more passive phase. It involves a decrease in negative feelings such as anger or resentment toward the wrongdoer. It also is comprised of a decrease in thoughts or actions involving revenge. For example, let’s say I received news that someone who had hurt me in the past recently got a new job. If I were not in the process of forgiving that person, then I might feel angry and think ,”I hope they get fired.” Whereas if I were in the letting go phase of forgiveness, I would not have these thoughts and feelings. This first phase is characterized by and absence of negativity. The second phase of forgiveness is the moving on phase and it is much more active. It involves an increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the wrongdoer. If I were in the moving on phase and heard the news about my wrongdoers new job, I might think, “I am happy for her.” This phase is characterized by the presence of positivity.  

Now, something interesting that I noticed in my dissertation research was the tendency for some sort of event to occur between the letting go and moving on phase. I might run into the wrongdoer for the first time in a long time. The wrongdoer might reach out for an apology. I could hear a song that reminds me of what happened. Over and over in my research and my clinical practice I have heard people say, “well I thought I had forgiven, but then X happened.” It seems people tend to stay in the letting go phase of forgiveness until they are somehow reminded of what was done to them. When this happens, for some people it prompts them to shift into the moving on phase. For other people, it is not so simple or quick. This leads to another conundrum. If forgiveness is a process, then what is the endpoint of that process? How do you know when you’ve “arrived” at total and complete forgiveness? As I mentioned before, people oftentimes think they have forgiven someone only to find they actually have not. Again, this is another question about forgiveness without a clear answer.

I could go on and on about the different factors that can influence the forgiveness process (e.g., characteristics of the relationship, characteristics of the person who was wronged, or the wrongdoing itself); but this is where we will wrap up for today. My hope as you read this is that you will get a glimpse into how complex forgiveness is. I think in our culture people often feel pressured to forgive others quickly and easily. There are a number of reasons why forgiveness is a healthy choice. However, I think it is important to remember that when we use the word forgiveness, people often mean different things. I also think it is easy to underestimate and oversimplify what forgiveness requires of the forgiver. If you are struggling to forgive someone, remember to show yourself the same compassion and kindness that you are attempting to show the person who wronged you. We will pick up here next time in the second part of this series.

References and Resources:

Enright, R., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000) Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.; 2000), Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Guilford Press.

E. L. Worthington, Jr. (Ed.; 2005), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 557–573). New York: Routledge.

Special thanks to my dissertation committee:

Dr. Amy Peterman, Dr. Charlie Reeve, Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, Dr. Richard Tedeschi, and Dr. Edward Weirzalis