I recently read an article in which the author started the essay by defining forgiving as the release of deep anger.
In fact, there is a consensus building that forgiveness amounts to getting rid of a negative emotion such as anger and resentment. I did a Google search using only the word “forgiveness.” On the first two pages, I found the following definitions of what the authors reported forgiveness to be:
Forgiveness (supposedly) is:
- letting go of resentment and thoughts of revenge;
- the release of resentment or anger;
- a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person who acted unjustly;
- letting go of anger;
- letting go of negative feelings such as vengefulness.
I think you get the idea. The consensus is that forgiveness focuses on getting rid of persistent and deep anger. Synonyms for this are resentment and vengefulness. Readers not deeply familiar with the philosophy of forgiveness may simply accept this as true. Yet, this attempted and consensual definition cannot possibly be true for the following reasons:
- A person can reduce resentment and still dismiss the other person as not worth one’s time;
- Reducing resentment itself is not a moral virtue. This might happen because the “forgiver” wants to be happy and so there is no goodness toward the other, which is part of the definition of a moral virtue;
- There is no specific difference between forgiveness and tolerance. I can get rid of resentment by trying to tolerate the other. My putting up with the other as a person is not a moral virtue;
- Forgiveness, if we take these definitions seriously, is devoid of love. It is not that one has to resist love. Yet, one can be completely unaware of love as the essence of forgiveness while holding to the consensual definition.
- A central goal of forgiveness is lost. Off the radar by the consensual definition is the motivation to assist the other to grow as a person. After all, why even bother with the other if I can finally rid myself of annoying resentment.
The statement “forgiveness is ridding the self of resentment or vengefulness” is reductionistic and therefore potentially dangerous. It is dangerous in a philosophical and a psychological sense. The philosophical danger is in never going deeply enough to understand the beauty of forgiveness in its essence as a moral virtue of at least trying to offer love to those who did not love you. The psychological danger is that Forgiveness Therapy will be incomplete as the client keeps the focus on the self, trying to rid the self of negatives. Yet, the paradox of Forgiveness Therapy is the stepping outside of the self, to reach out to the other, and in this giving is psychological healing for the client. It is time to challenge the consensus.
I hear so often that to forgive is for your own healing and is not for the one who hurt you. This kind of statement happens so often that it is time to address the issue: Is this true? To answer this question, we have to know what forgiving actually is. To forgive is to exercise a moral virtue (Enright, 2012; Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). What is a moral virtue? According to Aristotle, as explained by Simon (1986), all moral virtues, whether it is justice, patience, kindness, or even forgiveness, focus on what is good for others and for the community. When we are engaging in justice, we are good to the other who, for example, built a dining room table for us at the cost of $500. Being good in this case is to pay for the work done. Patience is goodness toward others at whom one is irritated, such as toward a grocery store clerk who is simply doing one’s best with a long line of customers. What then is forgiveness? It is being good to those who are not good to you by deliberately reducing resentment toward that person and by offering, to the extent possible, kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the other. You are not offering these directly toward the self, but to the other.
Here, then, is where the confusion comes in: A paradox of forgiving is that as we extend ourselves in kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the offending other person, it is we, ourselves, as forgivers who often experience emotional healing as the consequence of offering forgiveness to others. Thus, the answer is this to the question, “Is forgiveness for the self or for the other?”: Forgiving is definitely for the other and one major consequence—not the act itself, but a consequence—-is that the forgiver benefits.
As another related issue, one can forgive out of a motive of freeing oneself of resentment, but to do so entails a focus on the other with the morally virtuous qualities for the other of kindness, respect, generosity, and love.
The statement, “Forgiveness is for you, not the other”, is to confuse essence (what forgiving is at its core) with the consequence and essence with one’s motivation. The essence of forgiving is a positive response, as best one can at present, for the other. The consequence in many cases is the actual self-healing. One’s motive can be the hope of self-healing from burning anger. Of course, one need not have as the motive or intended consequence self-healing. One’s motive may be entirely for the other as a person of worth. Even so, self-healing can occur even when the motive is other-centered.
When we make the distinctions among: a) what forgiving is; b) some of the consequences for the self of forgiving; and c) one’s motives for beginning the process of forgiving, we see that the moral virtue of forgiving itself (in its essence) is for the other.
- Enright, R.D. (2012). The Forgiving Life. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Simon, Y. (1986). The Definition of Moral Virtue. New York: Fordham University Press.
The question posed in this essay centers on my goal in forgiving. Is the goal of forgiving to help me or is it to aid the one I am forgiving and others? The answer can get very confusing because as we muse on this idea of the goal, at least two possibilities emerge. (Actually, there are more than two, but for the sake of clarity, we will focus only on two here).
Let us make a distinction between a primary goal and a secondary goal. As an analogy, I may have as my goal the winning of a tennis match and so I am motivated to become physically fit. The physical fitness is not the primary goal, but instead is a secondary goal that could lead to the primary one of winning.
It is the same in forgiving. Sometimes forgiving is the primary goal and sometimes forgiving is the secondary goal. When a primary goal, forgiving is offered by people for the sake of the other person who acted unjustly. I want good for that person, even though I have been hurt by that person’s actions. I, thus, am motivated, not by self-interested goals, but by the altruistic goal of betterment for the other. This is a primary goal because this is what forgiving actually **is.** It is the offer of goodness, as an end in and of itself, toward others who acted unjustly.
“When forgiveness is a primary goal, it is the offer of goodness toward others who acted unjustly.”
Dr. Robert Enright
When forgiveness is a secondary goal, then we have a different endpoint, at least for now, than the other’s betterment. In most cases of forgiveness as a secondary goal, we desire to use the process of forgiveness to feel better. We are hurting, possibly feeling unrest or anxiety or even depression. We want to be rid of these and forgiveness offers a scientifically-supported path to this healing. Thus, we forgive for ourselves and not for the other. This is a secondary goal because it does not focus on the essence of forgiveness, on what forgiveness is, but instead focuses on forgiveness as a vehicle for advancing the goal of one’s own health.
As an analogy, suppose a person gets into a car to go to work. Driving the car is not the primary goal. It is a vehicle that gets one to the primary goal of going to work. Forgiving is the vehicle for health in this case. This usually is not a selfish goal, but instead a self-interested goal. To use another analogy, if a person has a throbbing knee and she goes to the doctor for relief, this is not selfish but instead is a sound self-interested goal. Going to the physician is secondary to the primary goal of walking pain-free again.
When forgiving others is the primary goal, it is showing an understanding of what forgiving is by definition. To forgive is to reach out to the other for the other’s sake. When forgiving is the secondary goal, there may or may not be a deep understanding of the essence of forgiveness. We would have to probe the person’s understanding: Is the self-interest the primary goal so that the person defines forgiveness as a vehicle for self-betterment?
We have to be careful not to conflate using forgiveness as a vehicle to promote health and the actual essence of what forgiveness **is.** If we mistakenly conflate the two, equating forgiving with emotional relief, then our definition of what forgiveness is becomes only a self-serving activity, which then moves forgiveness away from the fact that it is a moral virtue, something good for others as well as the self. Forgiveness, then, is only a psychological self-help technique, not a virtue. Virtues when practiced well become part of the person’s life, part of who the person actually is. A self-help technique never goes that far but instead is used for a while and then is discarded. We need to distinguish forgiving as a secondary goal and as a primary goal to keep its definition—what it **is**—as accurate as possible.
In summary, if we want to forgive for our own emotional relief, this is being motivated to achieve a secondary goal, and a good one. If we want to forgive for the sake of the other, this is being motivated to achieve a primary goal, and preserves the accurate definition of what forgiving **is.**
“The self-help books target women; research sometimes targets women. Forgiveness is asking women to tolerate men’s injustice; men would not be asked to do this toward women. Therefore, forgiving is playing out the power differential in the new societal struggle (which, to Marx, belonged once to ownership and labor in industry), which is the battle of the sexes.” Lamb (2002) made this point.
The argument is helpful if clinicians and researchers focus attention on only men or only women. In actuality, however, the pioneering research and interventions have been concerned about both. For example, Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis (1995) educated both college men and women in forgiving deep hurts. The first empirical study on person-to-person forgiving published in psychology included both men and women (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989).
Although it is true that some self-help books are geared toward women only, most talk to both genders (see, e.g., Smedes, 1984, 1996). Our studies on participants with postabortion emotional effects (Coyle & Enright, 1997) and on those with coronary artery disease were exclusively with men. Our studies of participants in drug rehabilitation (Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004) and of adult children of alcoholics (Osterndorf, Enright, Holter, & Klatt, 2011) include both men and women.
One cannot help but see a particular assumption in the argument that targeting women for forgiveness is a gender bias. The argument seems to imply that forgiving is a way for the offender to keep a sinister control over the forgiver. If forgiving led automatically to reconciliation, then the argument would have weight. We already saw, however, that forgiving an offense and reconciling with an offender are two separate issues. The argument has a false first premise, that forgiveness and reconciliation are synonymous.
If, on the other hand, forgiving is a choice freely made and, once made, releases one from a host of psychological problems, then a predominant focus on women would actually be a bias against men. In actuality, however, forgiveness therapy and research target both genders. ♥
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5182-5198). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
Forgiveness can be misunderstood and dismissed for the wrong reasons.
A colleague, Megan Feldman Bettencourt, has written an important article in Harper’s Bazaar entitled “How Forgiveness Has Been Weaponized Against Women.” The gist of the article is that as people misunderstand the actual meaning of forgiveness, they can so discourage people from forgiving that emotional healing is blocked. In the case of sexual abuse of women, as Ms. Feldman Bettencourt points out, the “forgiver” is supposed to refrain from reporting the abuse and is expected to go back into the unwanted relationship.
In her article, Ms. Feldman Bettencourt gives stark examples of women who, in the name of forgiveness, think that they must keep the abuse against them secret, thus personally pardoning the offender. One woman who did stand up for justice (not condoning or pardoning) was shunned by her support group because that group misunderstood what forgiveness is. Forgiveness does not abandon the quest for justice. The author’s call is for a clear and accurate definition of forgiveness so that it can exist side-by-side with justice-seeking and not block emotional healing. True forgiveness can enhance the forgiver’s well-being.
Another Example of Weaponizing Forgiveness:
I once was asked to help an organization set up small groups focused on forgiveness in the workplace because there was high tension among the workers. A Human Relations specialist in the company was convinced that adding a level of forgiveness into the workplace would be one strong way of diminishing the conflict and increasing productivity. When we met with the owner of that company, it took him less than five minutes to dismiss the specialist’s idea. “No. Forgiveness is inappropriate here,” he said with cold confidence. “Forgiveness asks too much of my workers,” was his reply.
When we asked him how this is so, he quickly responded, “Look, when there is conflict in our workplace, this is an emotional pain. Forgiveness adds another layer of pain to my workers and so why would I impose this second pain on them? Forgiveness is quite a struggle and we don’t need that at this time.” And that was the end of the specialist’s idea, which as of this writing has not been implemented… and the conflicts at that company continue with no end in sight. What the owner did not understand is this: When there is physical injury, sometimes surgery is needed. Yes, the surgery is an added burden, but it is temporary and restores what is broken. It is the same with forgiveness: When the heart is broken, we sometimes need surgery of the heart to restore emotional health.
Ms. Feldman Bettencourt sees how the weaponizing of forgiveness can actually hurt women who are trying to heal from sexual abuse. I have seen firsthand how the weaponizing of forgiveness can keep workers from reducing acrimony and striving toward greater cooperation.
The moral of this essay is that to misunderstand forgiveness is to keep people from a scientifically-supported way of reducing resentment and getting on with life in a healthier way. We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at our own peril. We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at the expense of others. It is time simply to define our terms — in this case forgiveness — and lay down the weaponizing against it.
This blog originally appeared in Psychology Today on October 08, 2018.