Forgiveness: Definition, Tips, & How to Do It
What is forgiveness, and why might you want to learn about it? Discover tips and techniques for self-forgiveness, forgiving others, and asking for forgiveness.
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What Is Forgiveness in Psychology? (A Definition)
Forgiveness, in simplest terms, is letting go of angry feelings and thoughts toward somebody who hurt you and replacing them with positive feelings and thoughts. When we forgive, we accept that something bad happened to us and say that we want to move on. We become willing to see the other person for more than what they did that hurt us.
Moving from anger to more positive emotions can be a lot harder than it sounds. When somebody hurts you, it is natural to want them to feel what you’re feeling. Forgiving that person means overriding that natural impulse to strike back (Wade et al., 2008). Forgiveness also means deciding to feel positively toward the person who hurt you. When we do this, many of us draw on a moral or religious principle, such as the belief that if God forgives people for their sins, people should do the same for each other (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000).
At the same time, forgiving is not deciding that what the other person did was justifiable, excusable, or okay. When you forgive somebody, you’re not absolving them of blame—you are deciding that you won’t hold what happened against them. What they did was still wrong but letting go of your feelings about it has become more important. Whether or not you ever want to interact with somebody again, you can still forgive them.
You might have noticed that when you don’t know the person who hurt you very well, it may be easier to let go of the negative feelings they have (Worthington, 2005). In fact, you might not even need an apology from the person who hurt you (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). However, forgiving someone you are closer to may require more effort on your part, or an apology from that person (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). For example, I don’t need to talk to the driver who cuts me off in traffic to forgive them, but if my best friend forgets to call me on my birthday, I probably do.
Often, we forgive when the benefits of forgiving start to seem more important than the benefits of staying angry. We might miss the company of the person we’re angry with, or be tired of feeling upset every time we hear their name. But there are a range of health benefits to practicing forgiveness (Witvliet & McCullough, 2007; Worthington & Scherer, 2004) that make it worth your while to learn more about how to practice forgiveness.
A Forgiveness Definition for Kids
Looking at everything I’ve just said about the complex nature of forgiveness, you might be thinking, how can I get kids to understand forgiveness? Here are some things you can say to a child to help them understand forgiving:
When you forgive somebody, you decide you’re not going to be mad at them anymore for something mean or hurtful that they did to you. You say, “I won’t try to get back at you, or make you feel bad, or hurt you back.” In fact, when you forgive somebody, you say, “Even though you hurt me, I do not think you are a bad person.” You might even try to be friends with that person again, although you don’t have to.
Forgiveness is not forgetting that something bad happened. It is not saying that what happened was okay. It is hard to say, “I’m not going to feel mad anymore” when somebody hurts us. That is why forgiving somebody takes courage and strength.
To help a child understand forgiveness, try these steps. First, share how it’s important in your family or your culture to treat all people with dignity and respect. It might help your child to experience this theme in picture books, TV shows, or movies. You can point out the moments when one character treats another with kindness, even though the second character has mistreated them. See if your child can articulate why they think the first character does that. If your child can identify a reason for the character to behave that way, explain to them that this is an example of forgiveness. If you’re looking for more inspiration, the video below shows another great way to make the process of forgiveness more concrete for children.
Video: Cultivating Forgiveness
Children are often eager to please adults, so it is important to clarify that if somebody hurts them, only they can choose to forgive that person. You can also tell them that forgiving somebody doesn’t mean they have to keep playing with them or be that person’s friend.
The Opposite of Forgiveness
The opposite of forgiveness is unforgiveness, or holding onto the anger, sadness, or resentment that comes from being hurt. As I noted above, it’s very common and understandable to have those feelings when somebody has hurt us. There are many reasons we might hold a grudge instead of forgiving (Baumeister et al., 1998). Holding a grudge may cause the person who hurt us to apologize or change their behavior. As we continue to feel hurt by what happened, we may have difficulty not feeling resentful. Holding a grudge may feel like the best way to ensure we don’t get hurt the same way twice.
What Does It Mean to Be Unforgiving?
When we are unforgiving, we continue feeling angry, resentful, bitter, vengeful, or any of the other feelings associated with being wronged. Unforgiveness also involves negative thoughts about the person who wronged us, such as ill-wishes toward the other person or thoughts of revenge (Worthington, 2006). The act of forgiving focuses on finding a way to stop these negative thoughts and emotions.
We may remain unforgiving because the people who hurt us do not apologize, take accountability, or change their behaviors. This can be a particularly frustrating experience. There are a couple people who have wronged me over the years and never took responsibility for the impact of their actions. Thinking about them still gets my blood pressure up. I try not to think about them often, and for good reason – ruminating on thoughts of unforgiveness may not be good for your health (Witvliet et al., 2001).
What is Radical Forgiveness? (A Definition)
Radical forgiveness is forgiveness that occurs even when there is no hope of repentance from the person causing harm. For example, when in 2006 an outsider entered an Amish community in Pennsylvania and killed several schoolchildren before taking his own life, that community responded by meeting with the attacker’s family and even attending his memorial service (Fiala, 2012). They practiced radical forgiveness, describing it as their duty to forgive (Kraybill et al., 2007).
A religious or moral expectation that we must forgive others motivates some acts of radical forgiveness. Some common examples include the belief that all human beings have worth, regardless of what they do; that eternal life is more important than what happens in the material world; that it is wrong to seek vengeance; or that we must forgive others just as God forgives our sins (Fiala, 2012; Kraybill et al., 2007).
Another aspect of radical forgiveness is that it is unclear what the person doing the forgiving could gain from forgiving. For example, the Amish community could not receive an apology from the attacker, nor could they have their beloved community members returned to them. At most, they knew they were acting in accordance with their faith.
Forgiveness versus Compassion
Compassion is feeling concern or pity for what other people have suffered. This is different from forgiveness, which as we now know is about letting go of negative feelings toward someone. While feeling compassion is often helpful to the process of forgiving (Miyawaga & Taniguchi, 2020), it is not necessary to feel compassion to forgive. We do not need to understand why the other person did what they did to forgive them.
To explain further, let me give an example. In feeling compassion, we typically try to identify with the other person, putting ourselves in their shoes. Sometimes, this is an important part of coming to forgive someone. If I say something hurtful to my partner when I get home from work – and yes, I admit this has happened before – it may be easier for my partner to forgive me when they hear about how stressful my day was. However, they do not need to know that context; they could decide to forgive me because I don’t make such comments very often, because I show them love in other ways, or simply because they know everybody slips and gets angry sometimes.
Conditional vs Unconditional Forgiveness
Conditional forgiveness is forgiveness that can only take place when the person who caused harm engages in certain behaviors (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2011). The offending party typically is expected to admit that they did what they did, acknowledge their responsibility without making excuses, and express regret for what they did (Andrews, 2000). They may also indicate an action they’re going to take to make things better. For many people, behaviors like these are a prerequisite for forgiveness – the person who caused harm must do them for forgiveness to be possible (Andrews, 2000).
By contrast, unconditional forgiveness is forgiveness that comes with no expectations of the person who caused harm. This means that we forgive the person regardless of whether they ever take responsibility, apologize, or try to make amends. As an example, we can remember the radical forgiveness displayed by the Amish community I described earlier.
How to Forgive Someone
Forgiveness has to happen in your own head; if you say you forgive somebody, but don’t mean it, that forgiveness isn’t driven by your conviction. To be ready to forgive someone, you can ask yourself if you believe the three following statements (McCullough, 2008).
1. The other person deserves forgiveness.
2. You could get something positive out of forgiving them.
3. You are at least relatively safe from being hurt by this person, in this way, again.
If you’re thinking about a harm you experienced and not feeling ready to agree with these statements, that’s okay, too! Everybody has their own pace for becoming ready to forgive.
The next step, which is optional but often helpful, is to tell the other person your side of the story. You can watch the video below to see several people practicing explaining what happened, naming the impact on them, and sharing how and why they forgive somebody in their lives. It’s a short watch, full of compelling examples of how forgiving someone, even if they’re not there to be forgiven, can bring us greater peace. Just like in the video, you might get relief from forgiving somebody from a distance.
Video: The Power of Forgiveness
How to Get Forgiveness From Someone
Before you try to ask for forgiveness, there are some helpful questions to ask yourself (Holmgren, 2002). First, you can check to see whether you are rationalizing that your behavior was okay – are you holding on to the belief that you didn’t do anything wrong? You might also ask yourself if you are hesitating to take full responsibility for your role in what happened. Finally, you can check to see if you have any judgments of the other person that might make it hard to ask for forgiveness. Do you think the other person is overreacting or does not have a right to be upset? It might help to talk about your answers to these questions with a trusted friend, loved one, or mentor before you ask for forgiveness.
Once you have answered those questions to your own satisfaction, here are four steps you can use to get forgiveness from someone (Cornish & Wade, 2015):
1) Take responsibility. Acknowledge what you did and what the consequences were for the other person. Do not focus on any responsibility they might share for what happened, even if you think they are also to blame.
2) Express remorse. Tell the other person how you feel when you think about what you did. If possible, try to focus more on feelings of regret than feelings of shame, because expressing shame might bring the focus back on your emotions.
3) Offer amends. Say you would like to make things better and ask the other person what might help. Come prepared with a few ideas of your own. Describe how you plan to change your own behavior.
4) Describe your hopes for the future of your relationship. Maybe you hope the other person will feel safe trusting you again, or that you can be friends again someday. Remember, though, the person doing the forgiving decides whether to forgive and what kind of a relationship they want in the future.
What is Self-Forgiveness? (A Definition)
Self-forgiveness is very similar to forgiving someone else. Self-forgiveness involves taking responsibility for harm you have caused yourself, saying that you are sorry, figuring out how to make amends, and then following through on those amends (Cornish & Wade, 2015). Just as when you forgive someone else, you come to feel better about that person, and self-forgiveness can bring you increased feelings of self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-respect (Cornish & Wade, 2015). When we self-forgive, we often feel more connected to ourselves (Webb et al., 2017) and have an easier time thinking about what we did or being around the people we affected (Hall & Fincham, 2005).
How to Forgive Yourself
Forgiving yourself means following the same steps I described above, but applying those thoughts to yourself.
Although I have thus far described self-forgiving for having wronged other people, it is important to self-forgive for behaviors that seemed to hurt only ourselves. Every time I forget to complete a small task, I have to practice self-forgiveness. If I remain upset with myself, I am more likely to stay in a negative mood, and less likely to actually get the task done. If I accept that I just made one more in an endless string of errors, which are inevitable because I’m human, I can forgive myself and start figuring out how to avoid the same mistake next time.
I made it sound easy, right? Unfortunately, all of us often feel shame (about ourselves) or guilt (about what we did) when we hurt someone (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). If you’re like me, you can easily get stuck in those feelings. You might even assign yourself more responsibility for what happened than is fair, or fear that the other person’s pain is going to be too hard for you to bear. Forgiving yourself might be the first step in the chain of self-healing.
More often than I want to admit, I find myself avoiding apologizing for my mistakes, and it’s usually because I am too upset with myself. Once I forgive myself, it’s easier to make a real apology and ask for forgiveness.
Quotes About Forgiveness
Articles Related to Forgiveness
Want to learn more about forgiveness? Here are some related articles that might be helpful.
Books on Forgiveness
Final Thoughts on Forgiveness
Forgiveness is an essential tool for reducing feelings of anger and resentment and being able to repair relationships. Whether you are forgiving yourself or someone else, you give yourself a chance to feel better and live a healthier life each time you put forgiveness into practice. The more you practice forgiveness, the more quickly other people may forgive you, too.