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Understanding Forgiveness

Often in life there are obstacles that prevent us from living to our full potential.  We may not always be conscious of it, but in many cases it is connected to forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a frequent challenge in life and a common concern for clients in therapy.  While it is easy to see the emotional benefits of forgiveness, in reality forgiving the offender can prove to be much more difficult.


What is forgiveness?


The manner in which a person is able to forgive depends partly on defining what forgiveness is and what it is not.  Generally, forgiveness is a conscious decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. It is a deliberate act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that keep you stuck in negative thought cycles of the offense and/or the offender.   Forgiveness can reduce the power these feelings have over you, so that you can live more freely and happier in your present life.


Doesn’t forgiving someone mean you’re forgetting or condoning what happened?


Absolutely not!  Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting or denying what happened to you.  There are many misperceptions around this.  The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can help lessen its grip.  Forgiveness does not mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn’t minimize the wrong. Nor does it mean reconciliation.


How do I know it’s time to embrace forgiveness?


When we hold on to our pain and get stuck in our anger, resentment, and bitterness, many areas of our life can suffer.  We may also begin to see it’s ourselves who are paying the price over and over.  We may also notice that we bring anger into every relationship and new experience.  Our lives become so wrapped up in the past that we are unable to be in the present.  Other signs that may signal it is time to consider forgiveness include:


  • Dwelling on events surrounding the offense
  • Hearing from others that you have a chip on your shoulder
  • Having anger outbursts on the smallest perceived slights
  • Being consumed by a desire for revenge or punishment
  • Having symptoms of anxiety and/or depression
  • Regretting the loss of a valued relationship


The Process of Forgiveness


According to Robert Enright, an expert on forgiveness, the process of forgiveness proceeds through four phases:


In the Uncovering Phase, a person gains insight into how the injury has impacted their life.  This involves confronting the nature of offense and uncovering the consequences of having been offended.  This often involves working through layers of pain, anger, shame, obsessive thoughts about the offender and/or one’s offense, temporary or permanent life changes due to the offense, and changes in one views about justice and the world.


In the Decision Phrase, a person gains an accurate understanding of the nature of forgiveness and makes a decision to commit to forgiving on the basis of this understanding.  It is important that forgiveness is viewed not as a moral obligation or religious commandment, but is and must be a “free choice.”  By the end of this phrase a person realizes forgiveness is an option and makes a decision, however hesitant, to begin forgiving.


During the Work Phase, the person begins to understand that the offender is more than an offense (or offenses) committed. The person begins to gain a cognitive understanding of the offender, which then often results in a positive change in affect about the offender. The focus shifts from self, where most of the attention was centered in the Uncovering Phase, to the offender, with an emphasis on understanding, empathy and mercy toward him.  Acceptance or absorption of the pain is a central point in learning to forgive and involves committing oneself not to pass on one’s emotional pain to others, including the offender.


The Deepening Phase according to Enright is to discover ways in which the forgiveness process changes you.  Enright states that bitterness, resentment and anger are the four walls of a prison wall. Forgiveness is the key that opens the door and lets you out of the cell. Forgiveness may be looked at as a journey, with lots of bumps and bruises along the way, but one which will give you peace of mind and heart.


Debbie Will is an Associate Professional Counsellor and specializes in the areas of anxiety, depression and personal growth as well as many others. For more information on Debbie and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.