Tagged: “Forgiveness Process”

The Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness

By Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.
Professor, University of Northern Iowa

I loved seeing the article on forgiveness in last month’s newsletter.  I have discovered in my 30 years of studying forgiveness from a psychological perspective, that there are many misconceptions associated with what it means to forgive and contexts associated with forgiveness.

A common comment I hear from students in my university course on interpersonal forgiveness is that forgiveness is more complicated than people realize. It may not be the same notion of forgiveness preached by one’s parents or a religious leader. It goes beyond just saying the words, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” Although we often ask for forgiveness for minor injuries, forgiveness occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt (Smedes, 1996, The Art of Forgiving).

Specifically, forgiveness involves a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward an offender, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, empathy, and goodwill toward one’s offender (Enright, 2001, Forgiveness is a Choice). Notice that in this definition, one has a right to resentment and that the offender does not deserve one’s compassion and goodwill.

Although frequently confused with forgetting, acceptance, condoning, excusing, pardon, and denial of anger, forgiveness is none of these. When we forgive, we decrease our negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the offender and over time, increase our positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors toward the offender. We can also only forgive for the way that we were personally impacted by an offense.

Another common misconception about forgiveness is that you cannot forgive unless you receive an apology from the offender. This may be true for reconciliation but not forgiveness. Forgiveness is something people can do all on their own, for their own well-being, without any response from the offender. Forgiveness can sometimes lead to reconciliation between the injured party and the offender, but it does not have to.

Photo by Thalyson Souza on Unsplash

I began my career by educating adult incest survivors about forgiveness, and have recently turned my attention to children and adolescents. By teaching students about the psychological process of forgiveness, we are helping them develop healthy ways to express feelings, understand the perspective of others, and practice empathy and kindness.

As summarized by a 5th grader who was part of a forgiveness education program that I taught:

“I’ve learned that anger is a natural feeling. It takes time to forgive. You don’t have to forgive right away. They don’t always apologize. Forgiveness is one step closer to healing. You don’t have to be friends with the offender after. Apologies make forgiving easier. Forgiveness is made by the person who was hurt. If you want revenge, then you haven’t forgiven in your heart.”

I am often asked “Why forgive?” and my response is always the same: “What’s the alternative?”  Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury, or damage caused by the injury, it allows us to move forward in our lives free from the negative effects of all-consuming anger, hatred, and resentment. It offers us a way to heal while still acknowledging that what happened to us was wrong, unfair, and extremely hurtful.


This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of SEL in Action, “a newsletter written for educators, by educators to share real world stories, questions, ideas and opinions about how to address the social and emotional needs of students and the adults who teach them.” Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.

Dr. Suzanne Freedman

Dr. Suzanne Freedman is the author of The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness, a curriculum guide for 4th and 5th grade students she co-authored with Dr. Robert Enright. 

Dr. Freedman was recognized with a Veridian Community Engagement Fellowship (Fall 2020) for “meeting a community need through teaching and/or scholarship.” That same year she was also awarded a Kern Family Foundation Grant for a project that “examined ways that moral virtues, such as empathy, can be infused into a course on child and adolescent development.

Learn more about Dr. Freedman and her work at the University of Northern Iowa.

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What if I think that forgiveness is not the solution?  Then what?

Forgiveness is not necessarily a solution to injustice because to right that wrong you need the moral virtue of justice.  Forgiveness is a response to injustice in that you are now confronting the effects of the injustice (anger, possibly a strained relationship, disharmony in the family or organization) and so it is important to address those negative effects, if you choose to forgive.  So, if you are thinking about forgiveness as solving the problem of injustice, I think you are asking the wrong question about forgiveness. Instead of “How will forgiveness solve this problem?” I would urge you to ask a different question: “How can forgiveness help me (and us) overcome the negative effects of the injustice?”

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Is it possible that for some people forgiveness does not “work” in that they find no relief?

When this happens, I recommend: 1) more time in forgiving this person and, if this still is not working, 2) try to see if this person reminds you of someone else in need of your forgiving.  For example, a person is having trouble forgiving his wife.  His wife has behavioral patterns similar to his mother, whom he has not forgiven.  I then recommend that he forgive his mother first.  When he then focuses on forgiving his wife, the anger toward his mother is not getting in the way of that forgiving.

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You have said that once we forgive people, then we are ready for the next injustice and we might be able to go ahead a little better the second time. Isn’t that statement self-righteous? I say that because some people and some injustices are much harder to forgive than others. Why do you claim that we just get better and better in our forgiving?

Aristotle made the wise point that as we practice any of the moral virtues, this practice helps us get better in how we appropriate the virtues.  He never implied, nor do I, that the next incident will lead to quicker forgiveness than the first one and the person easier to forgive just because of the practice.  Instead, Aristotle implied this:  We will be more familiar with the process of practicing the virtue and so we may be more efficient and accurate in our next attempt.  Yes, you are correct, in that the next person who hurts us might do so in a very grave way, making it hard to forgive.  Yet, if we bring a lot of experience to this new person and situation, we may get through it more deeply and more quickly than otherwise might have been the case.

To get very concrete about this, suppose that to forgive Person A, you ideally needed two weeks.  To forgive Person B, without your having any prior practice in forgiving, you would need six months to forgive because the incident was so unjust.  Yet, if you have a lot of practice in forgiving, then your forgiving Person B now might take only three months rather than six.  Yes, this is still much longer than what was needed to forgive Person A, but the time needed for this with Person B is shortened precisely because the former practice is aiding your forgiving Person B now.

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Dr. Viktor Frankl says that we can find meaning in our suffering.  I think that is really insensitive to those who are oppressed.  It is insensitive to say to the oppressed: “Oh, you are a victim of racism. Rise above it by finding meaning.” What do you think?

Dr. Frankl never meant to imply that we should seek to be oppressed (or ignore the oppression) so that we can find meaning in our suffering.  You seem to be dichotomizing finding meaning and seeking justice, as if we can do only one or the other.  We must remember that Dr. Frankl was in concentration camps during World War II.  He certainly did not imply that this was good for him so that he could find meaning in his suffering.  Instead, we need to right the wrongs of injustice by practicing the moral virtue of justice and, as the same time, find meaning in our suffering.  These two (seeking justice and finding meaning in suffering) are teammates, not opponents.

Editor’s Note: Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. He was the founder of logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy which describes a search for a life meaning as the central human motivational force. Dr. Frankl published 39 books including his best-selling autobiographical Man’s Search for Meaning, based on his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps.
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