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What Forgiveness Really Looks Like, and Why It Matters

A counselor on how to work toward letting go

In my job providing early intervention services, I see a lot of people who have been deeply hurt by those they love. Like Mark*, who was bullied by those who once were his friends. Or Mariana*, whose stepfather had physically abused her. And Stella*, who was raped by her boyfriend at a party while her friends stood outside the room. These cases are heartbreaking, and I’m thankful that they are seeking help. But the one thing that is most helpful to them is the one thing that seems most impossible: Usually, the key is in forgiving.

Across many faith traditions, forgiveness is upheld as important and necessary for well-being. Christians are commanded to forgive as Christ has forgiven them. Judaism requires forgiveness when the wrongdoer seeks to rectify the wrong. Islam recommends forgiveness between believers. In Buddhism, it is seen as a way of maintaining peace and mental well-being. So ubiquitous, forgiveness made its way from spirituality and religion to the scientific halls of psychology via Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s classification of virtues and character strengths. As a prevention specialist seeing clients who have experienced grave wrongdoing, I often talk about forgiveness as it relates to everyone’s life, regardless of religion or science. The mental and emotional relief one experiences in naming the wound and letting it go can provide that individual with the freedom needed to rebuild his or her life.

While, over time, forgiveness can bring psychological relief for some, it is counterproductive to expect instantaneous forgiveness. Dr. Phillip Sutton describes the Enright Process Model of Psychological Forgiveness by focusing on what forgiveness is not. I think this is an important place to start.

The Real Meaning of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is not forgetting what took place. It is not condoning or excusing the offense, and it does not mean you no longer feel angry about what happened. It is not giving up on efforts to obtain legal justice. Lastly, it does not require the wrongdoer to admit his or her offense, ask for forgiveness, or be willing to change. Mark would not need to become friends again with those who betrayed him nor would he need to expose himself to more pain by attempting to confront those who bullied him.

So, what is forgiveness, then? Forgiveness occurs when you choose to let go of resentment or revenge even though the wrongdoer’s actions don’t deserve it. You choose to give him or her gifts of mercy, generosity, and love. He doesn’t deserve it. But you deserve the freedom of letting go.

Forgiveness starts with acknowledging that someone has done something wrong to you and that they do, in fact, deserve your anger. Beyond that, though, you have to be able to still wish good things for him or her. It involves what may be a long and difficult process. It takes time to understand what forgiveness means, and it can take longer depending on the seriousness of the offense and the length of time you have lived with the hurt caused.

Why We Seek Forgiveness

Kim Tingley, writing for Real Simple, boils down the research on forgiveness. Holding a grudge can have a toxic effect on your body. It can raise blood pressure and increase risk of stroke or heart attack. It can impair the functioning of the immune system and increase stress hormones. Stella was trapped in her experiences—bitter and resentful that life should continue for the aggressor while she suffered still. A lack of forgiveness often hurts victims, whereas it makes no difference to those who have wronged.

Everyone has experienced some injustice in their lives. Some among us have experienced such terrible injustices that it may take decades before we feel able to let go. And even after reaching that point, there will always be reminders.

Although forgiveness begins with an act of will—as in, “I choose to forgive this person”—to think of it as an on–off switch of either being forgiving or unforgiving doesn’t help. The process is more nuanced, less black and white. Real forgiveness is a journey.

How to Really Forgive

If forgiveness isn’t as simple as saying, “I forgive you,” how does it work? Thankfully the psychological literature offers some answers here as well. As it happens, there are phases of forgiveness that, if we’re aware of them, can help us to be more patient as we heal and as we deal with wounds that open again.

In the first phase of forgiveness, which Enright calls The Uncovering Phase, those seeking to forgive must “learn how the wrongdoing has compromised my life, confront and clarify the nature of the offense, and uncover the consequences that have followed.” It will take reflection and a willingness to face what you have lost because of what another person did. Mariana thought she had to allow her abusive stepfather back into her life in order to forgive him; because she could not do this, she thought herself outside God’s forgiveness. Understanding more about real forgiveness helped move her forward.

In the second phase, The Decision Phase, you learn more about the nature of forgiveness and make a decision to commit to forgiving. This is the phase where you state your will. Even if my feelings do not match up with my desire to forgive, the act begins here with a choice.

In the third phase, The Work Phase, you work to reframe your view of the wrongdoer—see his or her side of the story, so to speak. As a spiritual person, I may work to pray for this person and ask for guidance to see him as God sees him. Mariana began to share with me about her stepfather’s traumatic background and the way his parents treated him. She understood that he couldn’t control his anger, and she felt sorry for him. These steps, in time, may change your feelings toward the wrongdoer.

In the final phase, The Deepening Phase, negative feelings decrease, and you are able to find meaning in the suffering you have experienced. Stella, still broken, had a growing desire to work with other women who had been hurt in this way. Helping others becomes a way to find good out of a terrible trauma. It connects her to others. Freud called this “sublimation.” No longer weighed down, she can transcend suffering.

No matter one’s approach to forgiveness, the facts remain that it is never simple, and real forgiveness is never quick. Anniversaries of trauma and new similar experiences can make victims of wrongdoing revisit wounds from the past. But thanks to therapists, support groups, and girlfriends, we live in a world where we can grow and learn to forgive, let go, and move forward on the path to freedom.

*Names changed to protect client confidentiality.