This month’s Moving Conversation was on forgiveness, a topic with no easy answers to the questions it provokes. It was a full house, with a deep and rich conversation that addressed many misconceptions about forgiveness.
In this article, we will touch on the interpersonal aspects of forgiveness, with future posts drawing out the more complex and sensitive aspects of forgiveness at the social level.
Defining forgiveness is complicated and there's no universally agreed definition for forgiveness. It is influenced and shaped by historical, cultural, social, theological, spiritual, and theoretical contexts and interpreted in many different ways. Research exploring the concept of forgiveness suggests a number of variations and diverse conceptualisations of what it is and isn’t.
Forgiveness often involves a deliberate and intentional decision by an individual to change, overcome and/or release negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviours (such as resentment, avoidance, or revenge) towards someone who has offended them or caused them harm. It is commonly described as a process, rather than a single event and may involve gradually replacing negative feelings with prosocial or positive emotions such as sympathy and compassion. Studies indicate that forgiveness is not condoning, justifying, excusing, forgetting, minimising hurt, denying negative emotions (such as anger), or pardoning and may occur with or without reconciliation.
Other common elements highlighted in the research include that forgiveness:
Unsurprisingly, in sharing our stories, forgiveness meant different things to each of us. For some, forgetting wasn’t required to forgive. For others, the harm they experienced was so enormous, that forgetting was a necessary step to forgive and get on with their lives.
Despite these differences, we all agreed that forgiveness was ultimately for ourselves. This is borne by the research which suggests that forgiveness isn’t just nice to do – it’s something we need to do for our own mental and physical wellbeing. Without it, we are at risk of becoming bitter, depressed, and more likely to develop serious health issues like heart disease.
We agreed that the wrongdoer does not carry the burden of our hurt, and does not always acknowledge the wrongdoing. This made it hard to forgive because we wanted to be heard, and our sense of injustice demanded there be consequences for wrongdoing:
Yet we knew that not forgiving can create more harm than the wrongdoing itself. This is because when we’re hurt, our instinct can be to hang on to that hurt, pass that hurt on in the form of anger, or engage in ongoing conflict:
Viewed in this light, forgiveness is not about the other person. We initiated our healing by being the person who stops the circuit of pain, in both body and mind:
In forgiving, we were not blessing the wrongdoing. Rather, as the research suggests, we were accepting the event happened without excusing the behaviour. We were choosing to value ourselves and our happiness over that event by saying:
For many of us who shared, forgiveness did not mean going back to what was, or always having to reconcile with the wrongdoer. The experience of being hurt changed us. We felt like a different person with a different perspective. With fresh eyes, we could reclaim agency by reassessing the value of that relationship in our lives and set better boundaries to look after ourselves.
Where we decided to keep a connection with the wrongdoer, forgiveness felt like starting a new relationship with that person, but with a different, more guarded slate because we now had new information about them.
We believed that forgiveness required intentionality, deep soul-searching, and self-compassion. Learning to “sit” with our pain, and listen to what it revealed about us, was necessary to begin our journey towards healing:
By forgiving ourselves for our own actions, we ultimately let go of any self-directed anger. Knowing that forgiveness is not a one-time event also helped us be kinder to ourselves when triggering events inevitably tugged us back to the pain.
By intentionally processing these emotions, we could safely explore the broader context of our pain. Whether we were the ones forgiving or seeking forgiveness, we could ask ourselves with curiosity and compassion:
From forgiving to flourishing
For us at CBBC, forgiveness is the ultimate journey of self-compassion.
One that allows us to make space to lament our own suffering, while also permitting ourselves and others to heal.
In doing so, we create healthier, more fulfilling relationships with those around us, and more meaningfully engage and contribute to the flourishing communities we all deserve.
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American Psychology Association (2006) Forgiveness: A sampling of research results. Washington, DC: Office of International Affairs.
Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. American Psychological Association.
Fehr, R., Gelfand, M. J., & Nag, M. (2010). The road to forgiveness: A meta-analytic synthesis of its situational and dispositional correlates. Psychological Bulletin, 136(5), 894–914
McCullough, M. E., & Witvliet, C. V. (2002). The psychology of forgiveness. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (p. 446–458). Oxford University Press.
McCullough, M. E. (2008). Beyond revenge: The evolution of the forgiveness instinct. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., Tabak, B. A., & Witvliet, C. v. O. (2009). Forgiveness. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. Oxford handbook of positive psychology (p. 427–435). Oxford University Press.
Wade, N.G., Worthington, E.L., (2003). Overcoming Interpersonal Offenses: Is Forgiveness the Only Way to Deal With Unforgiveness?. Journal of Counselling & Development
Worthington, Jr., Everett L. (2005) Handbook of Forgiveness, Routledge