What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is widely considered a moral virtue or social etiquette. But what is forgiveness, exactly? Anglican bishop and human rights activist Desmond Tutu described it as “a path to healing.” Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach defines forgiveness as “letting go of blame.” Jack Kornfield, one of my mentors and a world-renowned writer and teacher who trained as a Buddhist monk, offers that forgiveness is “choosing love over suffering, sorrow, burden, pain, and betrayal,” and adds that it is “a deep process of the heart.” And Jerry Jampolsky, the author of Love Is Letting Go Of Fear, says that “forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”
Forgiveness is associated with love, freedom, release, peace, healing, and hope. And yet, many of us struggle with the ability to forgive since it can be a process filled with hurt, grief, and even shame. Understanding what forgiveness is, and what it is not, may move us toward an ability to experience the positive impact of forgiveness in our lives.
Our failure to know joy is a direct reflection of our inability to forgive. – Charlotte Joko Beck
Myths About Forgiving
Many people may resist forgiveness because they believe that by forgiving, they are condoning the behavior of the person that hurt them. It is important to recognize that forgiveness does not mean that the harm that occurred was okay. Tara Brach reminds us that forgiving is not condoning, but rather “a movement to free your own heart from that squeeze of hatred and blame.” This is related to another myth about forgiveness, which is that it always involves reconciliation. In many situations, it is not necessary to involve anyone else in your process of forgiveness and healing. If you do communicate forgiveness to the other person, they may feel better, but it is ultimately for your own healing.
Another misconception about forgiveness is that it demonstrates weakness or the willingness to be a victim. Remember, forgiving does not mean forgetting or excusing the harm that was done to you; you can forgive someone and hold strong boundaries or even choose to end a relationship to protect yourself from future harm.
Finally, weakness is not reserved for those who are saintly or enlightened. Jack Kornfield describes forgiveness as “an honorable practice,” that is accessible to anyone.
Forgiveness isn’t approving what happened. It’s choosing to rise above it. – Robin Sharma
As much as we may struggle to forgive others, we may struggle even more to forgive ourselves. Tara Brach notes that “our inability to accept and forgive ourselves directly blocks our capacity for healing, joy, and intimacy.” What are the reasons we may resist self-forgiveness? We may fear that by forgiving ourselves for our mistakes we are letting ourselves off the hook, and will have no reason to do better in the future. We may hope to judge, punish, or admonish ourselves into becoming a better person; the harshness actually creates a false sense of control that ultimately leads to self-shaming feelings and behavior. Self-condemnation does not give us control or make us better people. In fact, it can send us into a spiral of shame and disconnection. True freedom comes from approaching ourselves with loving-kindness and acceptance.
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. – Carl Rogers
Benefits of Forgiving
Forgiveness allows emotional wounds to heal, improves relationships, and boosts mental and physical health. Refusal to forgive is associated with increased anxiety and depression and difficulty staying in the present moment, as our mind is continually focused on the harm that was done to us. We also tend to carry our pain and feelings of mistrust into all of our other relationships and experiences. Forgiving allows us to let go of our grievances and judgments and allow ourselves to heal and connect with others. The Stanford Forgiveness Project found that people who forgive also become more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate and have enhanced conflict resolution skills.
Those who are able to practice forgiveness may also benefit from a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, better sleep, and reduced stress and muscle tension. If you need an extra push toward forgiveness, consider the positive effect it will have on your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody. – Maya Angelou
The Process of Forgiveness
How do we begin the process of forgiveness? The first step is intention. Tara Brach tells us that the intention to forgive “softens the heart” and “opens the door enough for the whole process to unfold.” If you are struggling to forgive, you might begin with a loving-kindness statement such as “May I be open to forgiveness” or “May I be willing to forgive.” Or perhaps all you can do for today is to create an intention to someday start the process to forgive because your hurt is too tender to even touch into right now. When you are ready to proceed, there are several models from which to choose.
The Four-Fold Path
Desmond Tutu describes a four-fold path to forgiveness. The first part is telling your story to a trusted person in order to reclaim your dignity and create your own narrative. Second, explicitly name how you have been hurt. This is the time to focus on emotions rather than facts. Expect to feel grief, and seek support. The third part is granting forgiveness. Remembering your motivation is helpful for this step; you want to give yourself agency and free yourself from victimhood. Tutu suggests imagining the perpetrator as a tiny baby in your arms to overcome any resistance to forgiving. Finally, the fourth part is releasing or renewing the relationship. Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to reconcile with the person who caused harm or choose to set a boundary and let the relationship go.
The RAIN acronym was coined by meditation teacher Michele McDonald and further developed by Tara Brach. In this mindfulness exercise, you begin by Recognizing your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Next, Allow those thoughts and feelings to be as they are, without judgment. Then, Investigate by getting curious about your thoughts and emotions, exploring where they come from and what they feel like. Ask yourself what you are needing right now. Finally, Nurture yourself with kindness and self-compassion.
Author and marriage and family therapist Andrea Brandt offers four steps to forgiveness: First, acknowledge and accept what happened and how it impacted you. Second, acknowledge any growth or learning you may have experienced as a result of what happened. Third, consider the person who harmed you, and any unmet needs or limiting beliefs that may have contributed to their actions. See the person as human and inherently imperfect, just like you. Fourth, decide whether or not to express your forgiveness directly to the person who harmed you.
Whether you choose a specific model of forgiveness or allow your process to unfold naturally, forgiveness will give you the freedom to move forward. Remember that forgiveness cannot be forced, and it does not necessarily happen all at once. Be kind and patient with your process.
Take forgiveness slowly. Don’t blame yourself for being slow. Peace will come. – Yoko Ono
How Forgiveness Echoes Into the World
Forgiveness affects us deeply and personally, but it also has a pronounced impact on our society. A person who has found peace through forgiveness moves through the world very differently than someone who is holding a grudge. This peace and well-being are likely to have a positive influence on anyone the person has contact with, sending a ripple effect through their family and friends, into their community, and into the larger world.
Forgiveness on a larger scale is transformational. In “Let South Africa Show the World How to Forgive,” Desmond Tutu explains how forgiveness paved the way for a “reasonably peaceful transition from injustice and oppression to freedom and democracy” as the country began its recovery from apartheid. In schools and in the criminal justice system, restorative justice programs focus on forgiveness and reconciliation over retribution and punishment. These programs allow those who have been harmed an opportunity to heal and also result in lower recidivism rates for those who have harmed others.
Forgiveness improves mental and physical health, allows for more joy and freedom, and positively impacts individuals, communities, and cultures. As Jack Kornfield says, “A world without forgiveness would chain us to the suffering of the past.”
If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive. – Mother Teresa
Photo by Sheila Sund.