What is Forgiveness?

This posting was written with Kris MacKain, Ph.D.

It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.

Maya Angelou

Sometimes we are emotionally wounded by the negative behaviors of other people toward us, resulting in disabling feelings of hurt, anger, and/or resentment. Forgiveness is a process that enables us to let go of that resentment.

Though many would agree that forgiveness is the best way to free us from those negative feelings, why is it so often difficult to do? How many times have you (or others you know) said that they are not ready to forgive or cannot forgive? Why do we hang on to our hurt feelings, which are obviously not doing us any good, and continue to harbor (even nurse!) our negative feelings toward those who have hurt us?

Perhaps it’s because we fear that there will be negative consequences for us if we forgive. Or maybe it’s because we don’t fully understand what forgiveness is and the profound positive (even transformational) effect that it can have on us.

In considering the potential negative consequences of forgiveness, we may worry that, if we forgive our offenders, we will be:

  1. Admitting to them, the rest of the world, and us that what they did was acceptable.
  2. Condoning their hurtful behavior instead of getting justice (making them culpable) or revenge, so that they’ll think twice before trying to hurt us again.
  3. Minimizing or suppressing our hurt feelings instead of resolving them.
  4. Opening the door to further abuse by letting down our guard.

From this perspective, forgiveness can make things worse, not better! It’s no wonder people balk at forgiveness. But forgiveness is not letting offenders off the hook so that they can abuse again and it is not minimizing or suppressing the trauma we experienced.

The secret (and beauty) of forgiveness is that it is not about the offender or their acts against us. Rather, it is about us.

The process of forgiveness is profound, restorative and transformative and may be one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. The key to forgiveness is learning what we have to do and then walking the path with the courage and wisdom we all have within us.

On the path to forgiveness, there are two significant tasks: the first is detaching from the offender and the emotional pain we experienced. The second, which is made possible through detachment, is “opening our hearts” to our true selves.


 The writer and mystic, Thomas Merton, once wrote, “The secret of interior peace is detachment”. During the process of forgiveness, we do not detach by fully forgetting or editing what happened in the past. Rather, we focus on those aspects of the painful experience that inhibit or prevent us from moving beyond the hurt in order to gain a new, healthier perspective about our situation.

1.    Detaching from negative feelings. It is important, first, to communicate our hurt and have our feelings validated. However, we then need to move past venting our feelings by learning to relate our story in an objective manner, without emotion. For example, we do not demonize the offender, engage in self-pity, and/or vent our rage or resentment. Detaching from our negative feelings has a positive effect on our physical and emotional health and will help free us to assess our situation in a different light.

2.    Defining ourselves by what happened. Sometimes when bad things happen to us, it morphs into reshaping our identity, as in “I’m a rape victim” or “I’m a down-sized executive”. This identity as a victim of unfortunate circumstances is reinforced when we continually reminisce about the hurts of our past.  By reframing our experience, we come to recognize that the bad things that happen to us need not define who we are. At our core, we are capable of much more than that.

3.    Giving up the idea that the offender must change. It is unrealistic to expect others to change when we forgive them. Once we relinquish the need for their changing, we come to accept what is. This frees us to move toward our truer and deeper selves. It is here that we arrive at the key and the mystery to forgiveness: we do not forgive others in order to change their behavior or disposition toward us; rather, we forgive in order to transform ourselves.

A natural response to being hurt is to shut down and close our hearts. A key factor in healing, however, is to open our hearts so that we can view the offender and ourselves in new ways.

 Opening our Hearts

 “To be loving and kind is our deepest aspiration, because love and kindness is the true nature of the human heart” –Buddhist Nun Kathleen McDonald

Opening our hearts takes us to the last leg of our journey. It is here that we experience a release from emotional pain and the recognition of our spiritual power.

So how do we open our hearts? By doing the following:

  1. Choosing the type of person we want to be and acting according to our highest nature or “true selves”.
  2. Connecting with a universal source of truth and goodness through our spiritual traditions or within ourselves. This focus helps to move us beyond our pain to empowerment and inner peace.
  3. Acknowledging that, as in all world religious traditions and other spiritual philosophies, the love for all humans, from family to enemy, is an achievable ideal.
  4. Learning ways (via detachment) to a greater understanding of and empathy toward the offender, leading us to genuine compassion.
  5. Transforming our personally destructive rage into productive action that helps others who have experienced similar traumas.

The journey of forgiveness is a journey of transformation. We empty our hands of hurt and open our hearts to become empowered by forgiveness. In so doing, we fully embrace our true nature and highest potential as human beings.

 Additional Quotes About Forgiveness

“Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a different past” Martha Beck in “Leaving the Saints”

There are as many ways to forgive and many lessons to be learned along the way. Please share your forgiveness journey in the comments section.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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5 Responses to What is Forgiveness?

  1. Janice Hill says:

    Attitude is the difference between something being an ordeal or an adventure. I will keep that in mind on this difficult journey of forgiveness. I am only hurting myself by keeping grudges about others’ behavior. Detachment with love and empathy is my key, but I often lose my keys.
    We are giving a gift to ourselves when “forgiving”. Mahalo for this wonderful blog.
    Aloha from Maui Jan

  2. Perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks to forgiveness is the word itself. If the Eskimos have a myriad of names for snow, we could think of coming up with more names for what we are talking about. To so many people, “forgiveness” means all of the things you talk about in “the negative consequences” section. It means saying, “hey, don’t worry, it was no big deal, I’m fine, it never happened.” And that diminishes our sense of self and self-worth. It’s a concept of “radical forgiveness” that just isn’t realistic for most people. We have no idea how to detach from those feelings of hurt; and our natural reaction is to become defensive, to stand our ground and insist that we were wronged. From that point is is very difficult to move ahead.
    I’d like to see if there is some other way of describing the healing process that would make it more transparent and less thorny. And I’d like to see if there is a simple formula for detaching. One of the things that has helped me over the years is just to repeat to myself, “This is not then. This is now. I have the choice to be happy and that is what I choose right now.” In this way I focus on my self and move away from the actions and people that I am “forgiving” — the change of focus actually results in what we think of conventionally as forgiveness, but almost as a happy accident.

    You ALWAYS make me think deeply!!

  3. Karen Shapiro says:

    The most powerful interaction between two people is when someone sincerely acknowledges their wrong and asks the person for forgiveness one-on-one – the energy this creates is palpable. But when this isn’t possible (and most of the time it isn’t!) other steps have to be taken to relieve the pain. Many people look to their religion for guidance on forgiveness, but end up with little or no tangible actions to take to get there – even the New Age version of “letting go” is difficult to put into practice.
    I use a three-step approach when I feel stuck with the forgiveness issue – all three require brutal honesty with yourself.
    First – Have I thought this through from all sides? Could it be a misunderstanding, or an overreaction on my part? Does this “wrong” occur often in similar forms in my life? Am I sensitive to this “slight”, giving it more meaning and energy than it deserves?
    Second – What am I getting out of this? Am I enjoying being a slave to emotion and drama? Am I remaining unforgiving out of a moral sense of superiority and virtuousness? Do I get attention out of being the victim in other people’s eyes (oh, poor you!)? Do I have too much pride to just approach someone who has hurt me even if it might just resolve the whole thing?
    Third – If these don’t work, I ask myself “What do I want?” The answer always boils down to “I want this pain to stop”. I relax, focus on just that thought, and ask for help and guidance to achieve my goal of no more pain. Answers can come in unusual ways. Answers can be subtle – you have to pay attention!
    I believe this practical approach coincides nicely with both your comments on detachment and heart opening.
    This is a very worthwhile subject for everyone – thanks for continually bringing forth such engaging and interesting topics!

    • Janice Hill says:

      Your comment is really helpful for me. I love the reminder to try to look at multiple points of view.
      This dialogue is truly worthwhile. Happy New Year! Love, Maui Janice

  4. Thank you so much for the beautifully written and important message! May all of us have an experience of forgiveness, sooner than later! Blessings, Joseph

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