Forgiveness has often been a recommended course of action for personal well-being, growth, and improved relationships. Forgiveness is a part of many world religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism (Domino, 2009). Many people who have been wounded have heard the well-intentioned advice to “forgive and forget,” to “let it go,” and to move on.
When addressing issues of “unforgiveness,” it is important to understand what the individual’s experience has been, and what forgiveness means to them personally. The lived experience of the wounding event as well as the individual’s understanding of forgiveness are important to explore to capture the depth and breadth of the experience. Although psychology has become increasingly interested in the forgiveness process, there is no consensus on “what forgiveness is and what processes facilitate or impede the ability to forgive” (Crosgrove & Konstam 2008, p. 2). One aspect of forgiveness that seems to be universal is that the forgiver is viewed as strong and virtuous (p. 2) as forgiveness requires a “willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior” (p. 3). Additionally, because the wounding can be a “narcissistic injury,” the person forgiving will likely have a strong sense of self (p.3).
What most researchers agree on is that forgiveness is not condoning, forgetting, or excusing the wounding. Indeed, “forgetting, if it precedes forgiving, is always evidence of underlying pathology or a dysfunctional coping style” (Crosgrove & Constam, 2008, p. 6 ). Condoning implies a wiliness to overlook the offense as if it were unimportant. Excusing the offense overlooks it without making mention of it, and justifying the offense may “generate reasons for not holding the individual accountable for his or her behavior” (Crosgrove & Constam, p. 4). Authentic forgiveness requires that one acknowledge the wrongdoing, and hold the offending party accountable and the actions condemned. Crosgrove and Konstam state that “condemning is integral to the decision to forgive which in turn allows the individual to forgo feelings of anger, resentment, and hostility” (p. 4).
Crosgrove & Konstam (2008) propose a different type of forgetting that is based on Nietzsche’s concept of “active forgetting” (p. 7). Active forgetting is a “purposeful attempt to relegate the past as the past.” In active forgetting, one makes a mindful choice to reject being bound to the past and remain “fully engaged in the present moment” (p. 7). When a person remains focused on the past, it makes moving forward into the future a nearly impossible. Nietzsche’s balanced approach to active forgetting is evened out by active remembering—that is, a mindful choosing of when to forget and when to remember. Thus, by “choosing when and when not to invoke the past, one is no longer chained or haunted by it” (p. 7). Active forgetting is the empowered choice to reject ruminating on the wrong and to move forward into a more affirming future. The wronged individual is then able to move forward in their life, and even in their relationship with their transgressor, without carrying unresolved feelings from the past (p. 8).
Forgiveness, ultimately, is a choice. It is a decision to release others and oneself from past hurts and to move forward into the future. It is also a decision to continue holding onto negative feelings from the past and allowing those feelings to impact the present moment. Forgiveness is ultimately an act one does for oneself; as Louis Smedes says “forgiveness is setting a prisoner free, and discovering that prisoner was you.” When wronged, it is important to acknowledge the pain of the wrongdoing; to count the cost of the offending actions, and then to take up the “last of the human freedoms; to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Frankl, 1984).
Crosgrove, L. & Konstam, V. (2008). Forgiveness and forgetting: Clinical implications for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 30(1), 1-13.
Domino, C. (2009). The law of forgiveness: tap into the positive power of forgiveness-and attract good things to your life. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group.
Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Pocket Books.
— Lisa Vallejos