Tagged: “reconciliation”

Is Forgiveness Overrated? A NY Times Reporter Seems to Think So

This month’s blog comes directly from our post at Psychology Today (July 5, 2024), which was in response to a critical article on forgiveness in the New York Times newspaper.  Click on this link to read the post on the Psychology Today website, or scroll down to read the entire text of the article below!


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Is Forgiveness Overrated? A NY Reporter Seems to Think So

When forgiveness is seen as inappropriate, philosophy is needed to avoid error.


  • Forgiveness is accused of being “overrated” in a recent New York Times article.
  • We use a philosophical lens to examine this indictment against forgiveness when a person is treated unjustly.
  • Reasons are given for why the accusations against forgiveness are false.
  • In the final analysis, forgiveness is innocent of all charges against it.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, something is overrated when it is considered to be better than it really is.” The dictionary gives an example of a person who sees an award-winning movie and decides that it is not so great. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to be overrated is to be valued too highly. Two synonyms for overrated at thesaurus.com are exaggerated” and overpriced.” Recently, the New York Times (Caron, 2024) published an article with the intriguing title, Sometimes, Forgiveness Is Overrated.” The purpose of this post is to philosophically examine the content of that essay in the New York Times to see if the accusation of overrated” is accurate or…..well….overrated.

Let us examine four points in the essay.

Point 1. What is the difference between forgiveness being overrated and the advice to forgive being so?

Nowhere in the essay is a clear distinction made between forgiveness as overrated and the advice given as overrated. The author states that an encouraging new movement is underway in which writers are “erasing the pressure” to forgive. Let us take an analogy of playing the sport of basketball. If an overbearing coach pressures middle school children to practice and practice to the point of wearing themselves out, is this the fault of basketball itself or the coachs intemperate advice?

It seems that basketball itself is innocent of all charges because the sport remains what it is regardless of how seriously or nonchalantly the adult leaders take it. This lack of distinction is a crucial point within forgiveness. Is it the fault of forgiveness itself if some people put pressure on others to forgive? It seems that the answer is no because the people so pressuring and forgiveness itself are very different from one another.

Point 2. What is the difference between what forgiveness is in its essence and the degree to which a person can practice it?

In the essay, a mental health professional is confronted by my definition of forgiveness, which, in its very simple form, is to be good to those who are not good to the forgiver. Forgiveness, in its essence, as pointed out in the essay, includes compassion, generosity, and even love toward the offending persons.

Soon after this definition is introduced, we read this from the mental health professional: Imagine saying that to a trauma survivor.” The statement obviously is a pejorative against the definition. Yet, the philosophical error is this: Neither the writer of the piece nor the mental health commentator is making the vital distinction between what forgiveness is in its essence and what a person can offer at the moment.

Consider the basketball analogy again. The essence of free-throw shooting is to put the ball in the basket. On its highest level, basketball would involve sinking 10 free throws on 10 tries because that is what the sport involves.

Yet, we have to make a distinction between basketball on its highest level and how it is actually performed by middle school students just learning the game. A middle school adolescent might be able to make four out of 10 shots, and that is fine in terms of ones current actions in basketball.

It would be disingenuous to present to the young person that this is all there is to basketball, the sinking of four out of 10. To be truthful to the adolescent, we can say that the point is to make the shot (all shots) and then be realistic that very few people who play the game reach such perfection. We are showing the student the difference between the essence of the game and the realistic existence (the actual performance) in the game.

It is the same with forgiveness. We do a disservice to those who want to practice forgiveness if we lower the bar of what the essence is, saying that all you have to do is reduce a little anger and, presto, you have forgiven.

Point 3. There is the claim that forgiveness could even be harmful.”

The point in the essay is that people need time to heal and to feel their emotions. It is as if forgiveness short-circuits a time for anger and mourning. This just is not the case. A part of the forgiveness process that has been in place for about a quarter of a century (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000) is that the first step in that forgiveness process is to allow a time of catharsis, a time of grieving, a time of confusion and the expression of negative emotions. To cut out that process of examining anger and then to label forgiveness as potentially harmful is to miss an important point that forgiveness is not reductionistic. It does not ignore this initial aspect of exploring emotions and taking the time to do so.

Point 4. Forgiveness is the choice of the one offended.

There is scientific evidence that forgiveness offers both psychological and physical benefits to the forgiver, which the essay admirably references. This does not imply that people must listen to the advice of the scientists. Forgiveness is always the choice of the one treated unfairly. The timeline of forgiving is the choice of the one injured.

Philosophers refer to certain moral virtues as supererogatory. This means that such virtues are not required in societies. Forgiveness is one of these supererogatory virtues (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2024). It does not have to be offered at all by those who choose not to forgive.

Thus, when one author is cited as stating that there is a “blanket forgiveness industry” insisting that everybody should forgive everything, this is a misunderstanding of the supererogatory nature of forgiveness. The accusation needs to be directed against those who misunderstand the philosophical quality of forgiveness. It is not the fault of forgiveness itself.

In Conclusion

As we examine the four issues above, it becomes rather obvious that it is not forgiveness itself that is overrated but instead is peoples misunderstanding of what forgiveness is and how to go about it for oneself or when thinking that forgiveness may be good for others. The essence of forgiveness is different from what people are usually able to achieve, especially if they have not practiced forgiveness very often. This is fine and should not be a judgement on the one forgiving. People need to be gentle in their advice toward others, as importantly implied in the NY Times essay. Forgiveness as supererogatory is the choice of the forgiver which contradicts a “blanket forgiveness industry” insisting on it. The value of the essay is to raise red flags. The philosophical lesson in this rebuttal is to be sure we raise the right red flags so that we do not falsely accuse forgiveness of being overrated.


Caron, C. (2024, June 27). Sometimes, forgiveness is overrated. New York Times.

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive. APA Books.

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2024). Forgiveness therapy. APA Books.


Is Forgiveness Something Tied to Western Philosophies/Religions and Therefore Is Not a Worldwide Idea?

I came across the above question, which suggests that forgiveness does not have a universal essence to it.  Yet, some years ago, we at the International Forgiveness Institute did a study of forgiveness words in 26 different world cultures.  As you will see below, forgiveness is not confined to Western thought.

Here is a list of various cultures and their words for to forgive” or I forgive you”:

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Albanian prt falur
Catalan a perdonar
Castilian Para perdonar
Czech Odpoutm
Danish At tilgive
Dutch Te vergeven
English to forgive
Filipino upang patawarin
Finnish Annettakoon se teille anteeksi
French pardonner
German Ich verzeihe Dir
Hungarian n megbocs tok neked
Icelandic afyrirgefa
Irish a logh
Italian A perdonare
Maltese li nahfru
Norwegian Til  forlate
Polish Odpuszcza
Portuguese A perdoar
Romanian Pentru a ierta
Spanish Para perdonar
Swahili kusamehe
Swedish Frlta
Turkish BEN size bala
Vietnamese Ti tha th cho bn
Welsh i faddau

26 languages, 26 similar ways to communicate. This, of course, is no proof of the universality of to forgive” or I forgive you.” Yet, we put this term and this expression to the test and they were not defeated. At the very least we can conclude that forgiveness has a place in many cultures.

For each term or expression, we translated it from English into the other language. We then back-translated into English and retained the term/expression only if both forms of translation were consistent.  The important implication is this: We can be motivated to talk with others about forgiveness and can be quite confident that the other person, from a different culture, has words that mean forgiveness, the same word that we are using.


Why You Cannot Always Trust the Scientific Data on Forgiveness

When I teach a graduate seminar on the psychology of forgiveness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we as a class frequently read scientific studies with the word “forgiveness” in the title and then we commence critiquing the science that is reported. Too often, we find that what is supposed to pass for forgiveness actually is quite suspect and the conclusions should not be taken at face value. For example, when we forgive, we do so toward persons, not situations. To forgive is to willingly decide to be good to those who have not been good to the forgiver. The one who forgives has been treated unjustly by a person or persons and tries to reduce negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and increase positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the offending person. Forgiveness does not mean to excuse, to necessarily forget, to necessarily reconcile, or to abandon justice. So, if a scientist, as an example, has a scale of “forgiveness” that asks the participants if they forgive situations (not persons, but situations), then this researcher is not studying forgiveness at all in this context, regardless of how many times the word is used.

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In this essay, I want to critique one study (out of four in the article mentioned below) which appeared in this published paper:

Luchies, Laura B. and Eli J. Finkel, James K. McNulty and Madoka Kumashiro, “The Doormat Effect: When Forgiveness Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), vol.98, no. 5, 734-749.

In their first study of the paper, they presented a “forgiveness” scale to newly married couples. The researchers continued to assess the couples in forgiveness, self-respect, and the degree to which each member of the couple showed “agreeableness” toward one another. The assessments lasted for five years and the conclusions by the authors are as follows:

“For participants who tend to forgive their spouse, the trajectory of self-respect over time depended on the spouse’s level of agreeableness…….The doormat effect subhypothesis was fully supported in that, for high forgiveness individuals whose spouse was low in agreeableness, greater forgiveness predicted significantly diminished self-respect over time.”

In other words, beware of forgiving unless the one you are forgiving has an agreeableness with you. Otherwise, you tend to devalue yourself and so forgiveness is dangerous.

Here is a critique of that study, that should give the reader of it pause in accepting the conclusions:

The forgiveness scale had nothing to do with actually forgiving the spouse because there were five vignettes that were made up. These were hypothetical situations that did not necessarily occur within the marriage, such as “failing to mail some important papers for the self, making a mess of the house.” There are two problems here: 1) The researchers were not assessing actual offenses and so there was no true construct of forgiveness toward the spouse being measured and 2) there were only five made-up stories and as you can see in the two examples above, they hardly constituted major violation of ethics for the most part.

The most serious problem in this study is the fact that the researchers never discerned what each participant meant by the word “forgiveness.” Some of the participants probably, when asked, would have said that to forgive is to “just let the incident go.” Others might have said that to forgive is to see the justification for what happened, so it really was not an injustice at all because of an extenuating circumstance. We, as the readers, just have no idea what each person means by the word “forgiveness,” so we cannot be sure if each participant was answering the questionnaire correctly. Even if many were answering it correctly, we still need to remember that these are made-up scenarios, and people may respond very differently to the hypothetical than to the real injustices against them.

Is there a “doormat” effect to forgiveness? If there is, it has yet to be accurately demonstrated. We should not give forgiveness a bad name by ambiguous science.


Power Versus Love

Current political norms seem to have power as a way to achieve objectives. In light of this, perhaps it is time to revisit the contrast between power and love. The following is an excerpt from the book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness (R. Enright, 2015).

Here are 10 pairs of contrasting statements differentiating between power and love, which may be useful in helping you forgive:

Power says, “Me first.”
Love asks, “How may I serve you today?”

Power manipulates.
Love builds up.

Power exhausts others.
Love refreshes them.

Power is rarely happy in any true sense.
Love understands happiness.

Power is highly rewarded in cultures that worship money.
Love considers money to be a means to an end, not an end itself.

Power steps on others.
Love is a bridge to others’ betterment.

Power wounds—even the one who exerts the power.
Love binds up the wounds, even in the self.

Power is joyless even when it is in control.
Love includes joy.

Power does not understand love.
Love does understand power and is not impressed.

Power see forgiveness as weakness and so resentments might remain.
Love sees forgiveness as a strength and so works to eliminate resentment.

Power rarely lasts because it eventually turns inward, exhausting itself. Look at slavery in the United States, or the supposedly all-powerful “Thousand-Year Reich” of the Nazis, or even the presence of the Berlin Wall, intended to imprison thought, freedom, and persons . . . forever. Love endures even in the face of grave power against it.


In Memoriam: A Tribute to Our Long-Time Board Member and Friend, Msgr. John Hebl

On March 11, 2024, our International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) lost our Board Member and friend, Msgr. John Hebl, who passed away at his home in Oxford, Wisconsin. He joined our IFI in 1994 and gave us 30 years of wonderful service with his wisdom and passion for forgiveness. He is an important figure in forgiveness science because he was the very first person, in the entire history of psychology, who did an empirically-based, peer-reviewed published study on a forgiveness intervention. In that article, published by the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychotherapy, he screened 24 elderly women who suffered injustices, mostly within the family and friendship contexts. He randomized the women into the experimental group, in which he brought them through our Process Model of Forgiveness, and the control group, in which social issues were discussed, such as the influence of senior citizens on society, attitudes toward aging, and family conflicts. Each lasted for eight sessions, once a week, for about an hour each time. Findings showed that the participants in the experimental group grew statistically significantly more than the control group participants in forgiving people who have hurt them. Those in the experimental group also grew statistically significantly more than the control group in their willingness to forgive others in general. The reference to this historical work is this:

Hebl, J., & Enright, R. D. (1993). Forgiveness as a psychotherapeutic goal with elderly females. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(4), 658–667. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-3204.30.4.658

Msgr. John was a dynamic, busy person as he led a Catholic parish and, at the same time, pursued successfully a doctoral degree in counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he did the groundbreaking research described above. Prior to this, he was a Brigadier General in the United States military service. I used to kid him, saying, “We all will have to address you as Father, Doctor, General Hebl!”

Rest in peace, Msgr. Hebl. Thank you for being a pioneer in forgiveness research, for serving people all these many years, and for contributing to a better world.