Forgiveness: What It Isn’t—and What It Can Be

Child in white dress with braided hair offers flower to upset child with short hairThe holiday season is upon us! And with it come many opportunities to visit and spend time with friends, family members, colleagues, and strangers. Often, getting together with others is the best of what this season can bring: warmth, connection, a feeling of being at home. But perhaps just as often, interacting with people we haven’t seen in a while can bring back painful memories, resurface emotional wounds, or remind us of loss. If you’re anticipating a difficult conversation, or if you’re worried about seeing someone with whom you have a difficult history, it may be time to think carefully about forgiveness.

Most of us carry mistaken assumptions about what forgiveness is—what it means, who gives it, and what happens afterward. Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring—perhaps best known for her books After the Affair and How Can I Forgive You?—challenges those assumptions with powerful insight drawn from her clinical experience.

Before we get into that, let’s do some myth-busting:

Myth: There is no choice other than to forgive or not forgive.
Reality: Forgiveness should be conceptualized as a continuum of choices, each with risks and benefits.

Myth: Forgiveness is unconditional.
Reality: Approaching forgiveness as a transaction rather than a gift enables us to maintain a sense of integrity and self-worth.

Myth: Forgiveness comes easy and naturally if we just let it flow.
Reality: Our culture does little to teach us in explicit and concrete ways how to navigate the complicated waters of forgiveness—especially when the person who hurt us isn’t sorry.

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If we know what forgiveness is not—a binary, unconditional choice that comes naturally—then we know what forgiveness is: an intimate dance with the person who hurt you that must be learned and is best when earned. Abrahms Spring’s forgiveness framework includes two types of dysfunctional and unhealthy forgiveness—“cheap forgiveness” and “refusing to forgive—” and two types of functional and healthy forgiveness—“acceptance” and “genuine forgiveness.” Here is a brief description of each type:

Cheap Forgiveness

  • Premature, superficial, unilateral
  • There is no processing of emotion, and no coming to terms with the injury.
  • “I’m fine. It’s okay. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just move on.”

Refusing to Forgive

  • Rigid, punishing, retaliatory
  • You’re stuck stewing in rage and nonnegotiable anger, clinging to indignation and contempt.
  • “No matter what you say or do to repent, I will never stop making you pay for the hurt you have caused.”


  • Empowering, life-affirming, personally healing
  • You decide how to transcend the injury and make peace with what happened, without the help or involvement of the person who hurt you.
  • “I’ve come to understand that you are incapable of acknowledging what you did to me. I don’t wish you harm, but I also choose a life without you in it. I am worthy of love, and I give it to myself. I have honored my pain, and I am free of it.”

Genuine Forgiveness

  • Interpersonal, contextual, extraordinary
  • With heartfelt participation, the person who hurt you works hard to earn forgiveness through generous acts of repentance. At the same time, you work hard to let go of resentment to allow the violation to be healed.
  • “I will bear witness to the pain I caused, and I will apologize genuinely and nondefensively. I will seek to understand my behavior, and I will earn your trust. I will forgive myself, as you work to forgive me, so that I make a sincere attempt toward atonement.” “I will help you understand the full sweep of my emotions without drowning in my pain. I will create opportunities for you to make good on your attempts to repent so that I can heal. I will reengage with life with you safely and on new terms.”

There is so much more to each type of forgiveness, especially the two healthy types, in Abrahms Spring’s books. Consider reading them on the train or plane when you’re traveling this holiday season. Better yet, talk about forgiveness with a licensed therapist.

May we all do the hard, transformative, and courageous work to process the injuries done to us so that we live our lives with vitality, freedom, and joy.


  1. Spring, J. A. (2012). After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, 2nd Ed. New York, NY: William Morrow.
  2. Spring, J. A. (2005). How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To. New York, NY: William Morrow.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Cook, PhD, LCMFT, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Sally

    December 6th, 2016 at 11:34 AM

    If it’s just one of those token and on the surface apologies then I could live without that.

  • Marissa

    December 7th, 2016 at 7:41 AM

    I used to be that person who would hang onto a grudge until I truthfully couldn’t even remember why I held it in the first place. I learned over time that it was better for me to let it all go. Giving forgiveness and being given forgiveness is one of the most special things that we can do for others and that they can do for us in turn. I will not say that it is always going to be the easy thing to do, but I know in my heart that it is more often than not the right thing to do.

  • ginny

    December 7th, 2016 at 9:42 AM

    even though someone may have hurt you in one fell swoop that does not mean that forgiveness can come quite that easily. it is likely that is going to take much more time to get over that hurt than it ever took for them to inflict it.

  • Pate

    December 8th, 2016 at 10:33 AM

    I would much rather live with forgiveness in my heart than I would hatred, that’s it.

    Forgiving someone when they have done wrong by you is not an easy thing, but it feels so much better than holding onto old hurts and pains.

  • Sonia

    December 9th, 2016 at 11:15 AM

    I suppose that the one thing that you have to ask is how would you want to be treated by this person if you did the same thing to them? I think that more often than not when we are honest we would have to admit that it feels so much better to be around one another when you can both forgive and forget.
    This is not always going to be the easy thing to do and I am not saying that everyone is always going to be worthy of getting over something quickly. But I do know that it hurts a lot more to hold onto all of the negativity than it does when you can simply be done with it and move on from it.

  • Jay

    December 10th, 2016 at 1:04 PM

    Very informative article. My therapist and I were just talking about this very subject. In my opinion some things are just not forgivable and some people don’t deserve it either. For me the word/concept is overrated, depending on the issue. What helped me with a devastating lifetime of being raised by a very inadequate mother, was to come to understand why she was they way she was. That seemed to ameliorate much for me. When someone, very consciously/intentionally sets out to manipulate, lie and con you gaining tremendous satisfaction from your pain, all the while “playing dumb”, that is unforgivable and sadistic. It took me decades to come to this understanding and acceptance. At times, I still get filled with rage towards her for what she took from me and want revenge and the mourning is not complete. But, it would not matter to her because there was nothing authentic about her. She was not capable of love. The concept of healing through understanding has worked wonders for me. I hold much sorrow and sadness due to my high level of sensitivity, but I accept this and am trying to honor my feelings and experience.

  • macY

    December 11th, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    The one thing that it never is is the end of the issue. I would like to say that I can always forget as easily as I forgive, but there is always something there lingering in the back of my mind, and it just gnaws at me most of the time. Do you think that this means I am actually failing to forgive when I think that I am?

  • Dillon

    December 13th, 2016 at 2:31 PM

    There is a misconception that forgiveness is supposed to totally wipe the slate clean. And I can see why you might think that but I don’t. I think that it is something that has to be earned, and that does not mean that you then have to forget about what was done to you.

    I guess it means more that you have t stop letting that hurt you, get past that and try to move forward but I think that you are probably just blind if you refuse to see the hurt that someone has caused you.

  • vry

    December 14th, 2016 at 2:27 PM

    it is more about how it lets you feel free again instead of what it does for the other person

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