Forgiveness: A Complicated Word and a Constructive Practice

On October 29th, we will be offering a webinar titled Forgiveness in Psychotherapy: New Research on a Promising Approach.  In this training, Steven J. Sandage, PhD, LP, Beverly J. Long, & Richelle N. Moen will discuss recent advances in theory, research, and intervention strategies related to forgiveness along with diversity and other clinical considerations necessary for healthy practices of forgiveness. Scientific research on forgiveness has intensified over the past twenty years with nearly two thousand empirical studies including more than fifty treatment studies. This research shows that, in general, forgiveness is positively associated with mental and physical well-being.  Please visit this link to get more information and to register.

We share the following guest blog from them about Forgiveness as a preview.



Forgiveness: A Complicated Word and a Constructive Practice

Picture the following scenario (Features of this clinical description have been altered to protect anonymity.): Midway through an intake session, a client rather provocatively says, “There is one word I ask that you never use with me in therapy … Forgiveness,” he slowly and deliberately explained, “Please don’t ever use the word forgiveness with me.”

This was a man who had suffered physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse throughout his childhood and adolescence at the hands of his father, a well-respected minister, before he took flight during his college years and cutoff all contact.  As you may have guessed, the father often followed his enactments of abuse with manipulations about how his son was required to forgive him based on their religious faith and warnings that God would never forgive him if he became bitter.  For this client, the word “forgiveness” had become contaminated with traumatic connections to pain, helplessness, shame, and coercion.  This was magnified during his time in the military when a counselor, perhaps well-intentioned, told him in the first session he would need to forgive his father if he ever hoped to achieve mental health.  This client’s move in that first session described above was more than simple linguistic boundary-setting – it was an empowered stance of insisting on relational safety while simultaneously offering a clue about some of the complicated associations in his trauma template.  At the same time, he was pursuing therapy because he was trying to form a healthy relationship with his partner and their young daughter and recognized he was frequently dysregulated by anger and reactivity he could not control.  The therapist respected his boundary and did not use the term forgiveness until the client used it himself in the third year of therapy.  Ultimately, the term was not as important as the progress he made in managing his anger and reactivity in his current relationships and healing related to the shame and rage triggered by his abuse history.

The possibility of “forgiving” perpetrators raises an incredibly difficult set of issues for some people while seeming like an outright absurdity to others.  Clinically, we are struck by the fact that less dramatic dilemmas of forgiveness unfold for many of our clients on a regular basis in everyday relationships they care about and are trying to sustain.  The client above is a good example – he loved his partner and did not want to remain bitter at him for days after each conflict, but he lacked skills for coping with intense anger and the underlying emotions of anxiety, shame, and sadness and had no internal working model for repairing conflicts.

Forgiving others involves soothing a demand for revenge or internal avoidance and (potentially) moving toward an attitude of goodwill toward an offender.  Forgiveness can be an internal process that may not involve reconciliation or continuing relational interactions at all, although studies have shown forgiveness is particularly important for repairing conflicts in relationships we want to maintain.  Tragically, resentment and bitterness can become a pattern for some people rooted in neurobiological templates that generate highly reactive responses whenever the stress of interpersonal conflict unfolds.  Forgiveness represents an alternative to seeking revenge or simply dissociating awareness of a conflict and requires managing the anxiety that naturally arises when someone hurts or offends us.  The process of forgiveness is multi-faceted and, over time, may lead to compassion or goodwill toward an offender even if we decide to cutoff contact.

Over the past twenty years, scientific research on forgiveness has grown exponentially with around two thousand studies now available.  The overall picture that emerges from this mountain of research suggests that, while there can be a functional value to anger in certain situations, it is deleterious to most people to remain in a chronic state of hostility and cross-situational unforgiveness.  Hundreds of studies also show positive associations between forgiveness and various indicators of mental and physical health.  We can now safely conclude that, generally-speaking, forgiveness is a constructive practice and good for our health (Worthington et al., 2007).

But there are some important caveats to this optimistic story about forgiveness and health.  First, forgiveness is not a “microwaveable” practice.  Like mindfulness, self-awareness, mentalization, healthy communication, and many other capacities of psychological maturity, forgiveness rests on the development of patterns of (a) emotion regulation and (b) self-other differentiation.  So, one does not become a forgiving person overnight.  However, a recent meta-analysis of fifty-three forgiveness intervention studies shows (a) it is possible to learn skills in practicing forgiveness, and (b) growth in forgiveness tends to include the added therapeutic benefits of reduced anxiety and depression and increased hopefulness (Wade et al., 2014).  Clearly, there are interventions available for those who are motivated to work on forgiveness skills.

A second caveat is that forgiveness is not a “generic” practice.  The opening clinical anecdote illustrates ways in which the meaning of forgiveness can be shaped by religious, cultural, and relational influences – for better or for worse (e.g., Sandge & Crabtree, 2012; Sandage, Hill, & Vang, 2003).  We have found that clients bring diverse perspectives and concerns to the topic of forgiveness.  For some, it is reassuring to learn about the “secular” psychology of forgiveness and to realize practicing forgiveness does not necessitate religious commitments.  Other clients are motivated to try to integrate psychological understandings of forgiveness with teachings and practices within their own spiritual or religious traditions.  Cultural values can also come into play, such as clients from collectivistic cultures who cannot resonate with an individualistic emphasis on “forgiveness is something you do for you” but can forgive based on empathy and concern for others.  Valuing these kinds of diversity dynamics can lead to a flexible approach to forgiveness interventions and also enrich our understanding of human communities and the incredible tapestry of forgiveness practices.


Sandage, S. J., & Crabtree, S. (2012). Spiritual pathology and religious coping as predictors of forgiveness. Mental Health, Religion, and Culture, 15, 689-707.

Sandage, S. J., Hill, P. C., & Vang, H. C. (2003). Toward a multicultural positive psychology: Indigenous forgiveness and Hmong culture. The Counseling Psychologist, 31, 564-592.

Wade, N. G., Hoyt, W. T., Kidwell, J. E. M., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2014). Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82, 154-170.

Worthington, E.L., Jr., Witvliet, C.V., Pietrini, P., & Miller, A.J. (2007). Forgiveness, health, and well-being: A review of evidence for decisional versus emotional forgiveness, dispositional forgiveness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30, 291-302.