Forgiving someone or even yourself can be extremely difficult, especially when there is a history of abuse, violence, or other trauma. Only you can decide whether forgiveness is worthwhile or even warranted. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean excusing the behavior, nor does it mean forgetting. Forgiving another person doesn’t have to lead to trusting that person again or reconciliation. Many people find that the most beneficial aspect of forgiving another person is the sense of peace and closure it can bring to the person doing the forgiving.
There is no “right way” to forgive. Some people may offer forgiveness in person (perhaps in a safe or public environment), while others may decide to forgive without ever telling the other person. Some may forgive over the phone or in writing.
Those who choose to forgive without informing the other person may opt to do so with the support of a therapist.
The concept of forgiveness as an aspect of psychology and therapeutic treatment is still fairly new. However, since the 1990s, multiple studies on forgiveness have been published. For some mental health providers, forgiveness began to be known as an integral part of the process of therapy.
Many people who pursue therapeutic treatment have been wronged by others or may have aspects of themselves that they are unhappy with. With the help of a therapist, people are often more likely to understand what forgiveness is and is not. They may also be more able to explore their feelings regarding an offense—whether they were affected by it or committed it—and thus begin the process of forgiveness.
Not forgiving or holding a grudge may lead to anger, bitterness, and emotional unrest, and a person's mental health can be affected by the potentially harmful emotions that often result when forgiveness cannot be achieved. A therapist can help a person better understand the situation in which the person was wronged, develop empathy for the offender, and explore the possible benefits of forgiveness.
A therapist might also help facilitate a conversation about whether reconciliation with an offender may be beneficial or harmful. Counseling that promotes forgiveness has been shown to have a positive impact on a person's ability to achieve forgiveness, and this therapy often also treats stress, depression, anxiety, and other issues at the same time.
A therapist might also, as part of the process, help a person to develop greater empathy for both the offender and people in general, if the person appears to lack empathy. Therapy to promote forgiveness has been shown to have a reductive effect on both the negative feelings harbored toward an offender as well as desires for revenge.
Because every situation is different, therapy for forgiveness rarely follows the same script. Types of treatment that can help with forgiveness include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Group therapy
- Alternative approaches such as mindfulness exercises, yoga therapy, and acupuncture
In some cases, prescription medication in combination with therapy may be advised.
Journaling, the therapeutic act of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings in writing, can be a powerful tool for exploring feelings of forgiveness. Some people may write a letter but never send it to the person they are forgiving, instead opting to tuck it away for their own reference. Others may prefer to have a “release ceremony” of some kind, perhaps by burning the letter, sending it up in a helium-filled balloon, or sending it to the bottom of the ocean.
Just as greeting cards are popular because they tend to express what we want to say more elegantly than we are able to in the moment, some people find inspiration for forgiveness in timeless quotes spoken or written by others. Here are some examples of popular forgiveness quotes:
“To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
―Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
“Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
―Corrie ten Boom
“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
“An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind.”
People who consider themselves religious or spiritual may derive comfort from prayer, from biblical or other passages, or from teachings on the topic of forgiveness. Some therapists who are religious or spiritual even specialize in working with faith-based populations. If working with a mental health professional with a certain belief system is important to you, you may be able to ascertain their views from their online writings, directory profile, or by calling the therapist and asking specific questions.
Healing of many issues is enhanced by like-minded support. If you are struggling with forgiveness and you practice a certain religion or faith, you may consider reaching out to leaders or trusted others in your church or faith-based community for guidance.
- Forgiveness of parents, classmates: Melina, 19, enters court-ordered therapy after being charged with stalking and harassment. Her therapist discovers she has been following and taunting several classmates who bullied her in high school, threatening to vandalize their cars and homes. Melina at first does not express regret for her actions, stating she "did not actually do anything" and telling the therapist that they should be held accountable for bullying her. The therapist asks her more about the bullying and discovers she was teased because of her weight and her clothing, and that her parents did nothing to help her, other than encourage her to "lose weight and wear more makeup." Melina reports symptoms of depression and feelings of anger toward the world in general, and she tells her therapist that she hates her parents because they ignored the issue and she wants them to "suffer." Over several sessions, the therapist works with Melina, first pointing out that if she does anything to her classmates or parents, she will likely go to jail, which will only harm her. They then explore Melina's resentment, the therapist acknowledging both the wrong done to Melina and the unfairness of her parents' indifference and the perpetrators' going unpunished. The therapist asks Melina to consider the possible reasons her classmates may have been unkind to her without denying their cruelty or excusing it, and he helps her to understand that she can let go of her grudge and anger and forgive her former classmates for her own benefit. He also helps her to realize that she can forgive her parents without excusing their inaction and that it may be helpful for her to share her feelings with her parents, rather than holding them in as a grudge, in order for her to understand their behavior. Over the next several sessions, Melina is able to develop her sense of empathy and achieve a level of forgiveness, and she tells the therapist that she now realizes her attempted retaliation was not a positive choice. As she begins to have less anger toward her former classmates and her parents, she makes the decision to invite both of her parents to a therapy session in order to find a greater sense of peace with the past.
- Forgiveness of self: Jason, 27, pursues therapy after being unable to move forward from a failed romantic relationship. A year earlier, he had engaged in repeated manipulative and emotionally abusive behavior with his girlfriend at the time, prompting her to end the relationship after eight years together. He didn’t handle the breakup well, and she cut him out of her life completely and threatened to get a restraining order if he continued to try to contact her. He honored her wishes, but in the aftermath of the breakup, he is beset by guilt and sadness over having caused the person he cared about most to think of him as dangerous. In therapy, he begins to develop empathy for his ex and the position his behavior put her in. He accepts responsibility for his actions, but with the help of his therapist, he also begins to understand that his behavior was the result of unresolved attachment issues from childhood. While not excusing his behavior, this breakthrough helps him make peace with the past so he can bring healthier ways of relating into future relationships. Although forgiveness from his ex might never come, he learns to forgive himself so he can release what happened and allow himself to move forward.
- Forgiveness Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/forgiveness
- Jacinto, G. A., & Edwards, B. L. (2011). Therapeutic stages of forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 21, 423-437.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, November 4). Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692
- Wade, N. (2010). Introduction to the Special Issue on Forgiveness in Therapy. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32(1), 1-4.