The Fundamentals of Forgiveness: What Forgiveness Is and Is Not

The Fundamentals of Forgiveness: What Forgiveness Is and Is Not

A fellow writer-friend once publicly shared her contempt for forgiveness. Why, she said, should she have to forgive her cruel, abusive father when he’s the one who is so f-ed up? It’s not fair. I’m the victim. Why should I do the work? How can anyone suggest absolution for that evil man? He deserves to suffer.

Unfortunately, most people think my friend is right. She is right about one thing: the way her father treated her is not fair. Only maturity and acceptance confers freedom from the sadness the revelation that life can be unfair deals to us all at some point in our lives. The rest of the assertions, however, reflect pervasive misunderstandings about what forgiveness is and what happens when we attain it.

To begin to see the boundaries and substance of what forgiveness is, we need to understand what it is not. This is crucial because the misinterpretations illustrated in the statements made by my fellow writer are why we live in such a vengeful world and why choosing to forgive can be so hard to do. The more clarity we have, the more willing we are to do the work.

What forgiveness is not

There are three broad beliefs underlying all of the misgivings about forgiveness discussed here: Not forgiving is wrong; forgiving creates risk for the forgiver; it is about the other person or their actions. All of the items in the list below fall into one of these categories.

We should all explore for ourselves why we might confuse some of these ideas with forgiveness. After some examination, it may become clear that much of it arises out of fear and the instinct to defend one’s position rather than what is real or true. Hopefully, with some reflection, you will find that none of these conflations stand up against interrogation.

Ten things forgiveness is not:

  1. Condoning unfair or unacceptable behavior
  2. Letting someone off the hook
  3. Tolerating injustice
  4. A sign of weakness
  5. Victim-blaming
  6. Forgetting what happened
  7. Compromising your values
  8. Trust or reconciliation
  9. A negotiation
  10. Inherently religious

Condoning unfair or unacceptable behavior

One of the most common mix-ups is the belief that if we forgive somebody, we condone their behavior. If you are working on forgiving someone with whom you are still involved (family, friend, mate), it can be helpful to set clear boundaries that may be more restrictive or stringent than normal. If the person you are forgiving feels entitled because you have chosen to forgive, it is imperative to clarify that the harmful behavior is unacceptable. It is also advisable to reduce or eliminate communication about the work you are doing if that is feasible. Trying to rebuild trust and redefine the terms of a relationship at the same time as trying to forgive can make the process much more complicated. Ask for space and keep clear boundaries, and there will be no question about whether or not you are condoning what they did.

Letting someone off the hook

When you think about that expression—letting someone off the hook—it’s pretty striking. I imagine a person with a fishhook in their cheek flailing around like a fish out of water.

But, is that what the person who hurt your experiences? Does your resentment or shame cause them to flounder? I suppose it is possible if you’re in relationship with them or in the same community that you can position yourself in such a way—the noble victim—to cause them discomfort. And, it’s even possible that that retribution brings you a sense of relief or control.

It is more probable that the person is indifferent to your suffering. The inquiry one might make at this point: Is the disruption, oppression, and upset I feel worth the possibility that they will feel bad for what they did? If your answer is yes, I encourage you to first focus on self-love and compassion and come back to forgiveness when you have suffered enough.

Tolerating injustice

There’s no doubt anger compels action, and action leads to change. The question is, how do you relate to your anger? Does it drive you to seek justice and make a positive difference, or does it consume you and harm your relationships? If it inspires you, now may not be the time to forgive. Each of us has to make that appraisal for ourselves. Forgiving will release the anger—that’s literally the process—so if you rely on rage to motivate you, it might be best to hold onto it.

Another option would be to outline clearly your intentions and values and see if another source can inspire you. Maybe take time now before you begin to decide what you’ll do. Passion and a plan can go a long way toward creating change too.

A sign of weakness

Anyone who thinks forgiveness is a sign of weakness hasn’t done it. It takes courage and stamina to move on from the most painful experiences in a life. This confusion probably comes from the idea what a forgiving person is susceptible to mistreatment. It is likely true that a naturally empathetic person is more apt to overlook bad behavior. This will either be a lifelong blessing for everyone or if they are taken advantage of, the beginning of a journey through real forgiveness that requires a level of self-reflection and honesty that inevitably leads to clarity around who they choose to be and what they will tolerate.


How can anyone suggest absolution for that evil man? That forgiveness is victim-blaming comes from the idea a victim should be obliged to forgive. This is most frequently connected to religion but could be an issue in any sub-culture in which those harmed are expected to pardon those who have hurt them. At least one obvious and well-documented issue that arises in such an ethos is ongoing abuse and control of the victimized group. It is essential to parse the difference between moral coercion that demands exoneration to maintain the status quo and genuine forgiveness. By all means, stand up against unjust systems that compel anyone into subservience but don’t let that stand in the way of liberation. Real forgiveness is empowerment because it frees us from the rumination and emotional torment that comes being harmed and provides the opportunity to redefine the relationship we have to what happened. There is no blame in that.

Forgetting what happened

Have you ever noticed the extraordinary composure of someone sharing a trauma they have fully processed? Or the insight they might be able to bring forth? They haven’t forgotten what happened; they just relate to it differently. Forgiveness won’t help you forget, but it will reframe the relationship you have to the memories.

Another fear around remembering what happened is that if we release our mental and emotional attachment, we might make the same mistake again. This is an understandable fear before you begin the journey. But, you will quickly see that tapping into a deeper relationship with your past makes creating boundaries and expressing needs easier, not harder. You can release the suffering and still maintain the strength gained by overcoming.

Compromising your values

I both forgave my mother and recognized that some of the things she did and did not do when I was a child were not consistent with the parent I aspire to be. There is no connection between the values demonstrated when the harm occurs and who you are today. The need to forgive often comes up when there is a breakdown between our values and what happened.

Trust or reconciliation

Forgiveness is also not explicitly about trust or reconciliation. We may rightly never trust someone who has caused us harm, nor may we necessarily wish to have a relationship with them—but we can still forgive. Trust requires believing that the other person(s) will behave differently. Reconciliation demands shared agreements and compromise. They are more difficult than forgiveness and not always possible because it’s not up to us alone. Luckily, forgiveness is always possible if we are willing and patient.

A negotiation

I spent years trying to break my mother down. I wanted her to admit her mistakes and was willing to burn my life to the ground to get that admission. Realizing this was one of the most potent insights I had before forgiving her. I wanted so badly to prove to the world that she was wrong, and I was right. I almost died trying to prove the point. When I accepted that my mother would likely never express her remorse for the impact of her choices, I became free to move forward.

Forgiveness is an inside job. We don’t need other people’s buy-in or even their genuine remorse to forgive. There is no question that an expression of remorse can make it easier, but at some point, we all have to decide just how much power we are willing to give away.

Inherently religious

Whether we are conscious of it or not, religious philosophy influences us. Part of that dogma is the idea that we should forgive. Pressure to forgive before a person is ready or when they may be unsafe is one of the reasons we incorrectly believe forgiving abides unacceptable conduct; or that the person extending mercy is weak. The gesture in such circumstances is not true forgiveness because to forgive is to embody empathy for the wrongdoer and love and compassion for the self. Abiding unfair treatment is not a reflection of self-compassion or love. Knowing if and when to forgive is a personal decision that any outside authority should not decree.

Another problem that arises for people of some traditional faiths is the belief that God grants forgiveness. And, while I believe grace happens, expecting it is a little like planning your retirement based on winning the lottery. It’s possible but is that a gamble you’re willing to take while you continue to suffer? The forgiveness we are talking about requires effort.

What forgiveness is then…

So, with what are we left? What is it if forgiving someone is not about what they have done, who they are, or your relationship? If it’s not transactional, then what’s the point?

We are left with the authority to choose whether or not this is a step we want to take. We are left with the responsibility to do the work. Ideally, we all have everything we perceive we need from the world to choose to forgive. More likely, that will not be the case. What we do have, however, is a marked path forward. This journey has been plodded by many who know it is worth it, and you can do it if you choose to.

The journey of forgiveness leads you toward a full expression of who you are. And it will be challenging. It may require releasing some, or all, of your past ideas about forgiveness, even if you think you’ve already done the heavy lifting. It requires a determination that will transform the idea of who you are and what you are capable of.