I am a victim of what currently is called “micro-aggressions.” This is what I mean: I am a descendant of people from India, but I was born and raised in the United States. Sometimes people ask me, “Where are you from?” I find that kind of presumptuous. Can I forgive people for such micro-aggressions?

Yes, if you have been offended by another’s actions, you should feel free to go ahead and forgive. In other words, you need not get others’ permission to forgive. This is your decision. Even if your peers say that you should just let it go, you can make your own choice here. If you are feeling resentment and consider the questions unjust, then forgiving those who ask the questions is reasonable.

For additional information, see: Forgiveness: An Offshoot of Love.

To me, forgiveness has to involve at least some degree of trust toward the one I am forgiving. This, of course, makes forgiving difficult because, in some cases, to trust is to be vulnerable again to the other person’s unfair actions. What are your thoughts on the interplay of trust and forgiveness?

Trust is not a necessary condition to forgive. As a moral virtue, forgiveness is: a) a conscious awareness that one is trying to be good to the one who was not good to you; b) a softening of emotions from deep anger to compassion, and c) actions that express kindness, respect, generosity, and love toward an offending other(s). This does not necessarily mean that the kindness occurs directly toward the other because reconciliation and forgiveness differ. You can say a kind word to others about the offending person without being in direct contact with the one who offended you, if the other’s behavior is dangerous for you. Forgiveness is unconditional (occurring whenever the forgiver chooses) whereas trust is earned as offending persons show, by genuine remorse and repentance, that they have changed their hurtful behavior. You can forgive and wait on the issue of trust.

For additional information, see: Forgiveness Defined.

I am newly married and my wife seems to have some suppressed anger from her childhood. Here is what I mean. At first, she talked about how idyllic her childhood was. Yet, over time, she has begun to develop nightmares about some of her interactions with her parents. These are not just nighttime fantasies because, as she looks back now, she is seeing some ignoring by the parents and putting-her-as-second best within her family of origin. What do you suggest?

In my book, The Forgiving Life, I recommend an exercise that I call the Forgiveness Landscape in which you begin to think about all of the people who have ever been unjust to you. You rate what the injustice is and how deeply that injustice hurt you. You then order these people from the least-severe hurt to the most-severe hurt. You start with the least-severe hurt and begin the forgiveness process with that person. Once you finish the forgiveness process with that one person, you move up to the next person, and then the next until you are experienced enough with forgiveness to start forgiving those who have been the most hurtful to you. This exercise may prove worthwhile for your wife. In other words, she does not start with the parents. As she forgives others, who are less hurtful to her, then her psychological defenses toward her parents, in which she may have been denying the degree of hurt, may change so that she sees the deeper hurt that she has. At that point, she may have the strength, the resolve, and the expertise to forgive the parents. At that point, the nightmares may end. I wish both of you the best on this forgiveness journey.

For additional information, see: How to Forgive.
To order Dr. Enright’s book, see: The Forgiving Life.

In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you make a distinction between approaching the forgiveness process with “willingness” versus “willfulness.” You seem to favor “willingness.” Yet, to me “willfulness” shows me that I am in control of how I feel now, rather than my offender controlling me. Why do you discourage willfulness.”

I emphasize willingness over willfulness because we are not always in complete control of our emotions. For example, you cannot at this precise moment will yourself not to feel anger. You can distract yourself or engage in “self-talk” to reduce the anger, but you still are not in complete control of your emotions at a given time. Thus, I advocate being open to change, but not to grow discouraged if you still need to work on those emotions that need your attention, such as unhealthy anger or even hatred. Being willing to change is not the same as “willfulness.” The latter suggests that you can will a deliberate alteration now in your emotions. Willingness, on the other hand, while still focused on your free will to be rid of unhealthy emotions, does not expect instant change in these emotions.

For additional information, see:  Learning to Forgive Others.

I have challenged the importance of forgiveness in my previous questions. Thank you for your thoughtful replies. I have one final question for you regarding my skepticism about forgiveness. It seems to me that as I try to forgive, the other receives all of the “getting” and I, stupidly, do all of the “giving.” Am I correct in saying that there is no balance here?

Because forgiving is centered in the moral virtue of mercy, you, as a forgiver, do have an interest in alleviating the other’s pain or even misery, caused in part by the unfair behavior. Thus, you are right that in forgiving you are “giving.” Yet, here is where I think your reasoning has a fallacy. You are thinking in “either/or” terms. By this I mean that you seem to be reasoning this way: Either I forgive or I seek fairness, but I do not do both. Under this circumstance, yes, you are right, to forgive is to be a giver who may not get anything back. Yet, I would urge you to think in “both/and” ways. As you forgive, then seek justice. In this way, you are both giving and seeking to right a wrong, or get something back that is important to you and possibly to your relationship with the other person. This balances forgiving and justice and thus you are not “stupid” when you forgive.

For additional information, see: Forgiveness: An Offshoot of Love.

Is the Offer of Forgiveness Done for Me or for Others?

The question posed in this essay centers on my goal in forgiving.  Is the goal of forgiving to help me or is it to aid the one I am forgiving and others?  The answer can get very confusing because as we muse on this idea of the goal, at least two possibilities emerge. (Actually, there are more than two, but for the sake of clarity, we will focus only on two here).

Let us make a distinction between a primary goal and a secondary goal.  As an analogy, I may have as my goal the winning of a tennis match and so I am motivated to become physically fit.  The physical fitness is not the primary goal, but instead is a secondary goal that could lead to the primary one of winning.

It is the same in forgiving.  Sometimes forgiving is the primary goal and sometimes forgiving is the secondary goal.  When a primary goal, forgiving is offered by people for the sake of the other person who acted unjustly.  I want good for that person, even though I have been hurt by that person’s actions.  I, thus, am motivated, not by self-interested goals, but by the altruistic goal of betterment for the other.  This is a primary goal because this is what forgiving actually **is.**  It is the offer of goodness, as an end in and of itself, toward others who acted unjustly.


“When forgiveness is a primary goal, it is the offer of goodness toward others who acted unjustly.”

Dr. Robert Enright


When forgiveness is a secondary goal, then we have a different endpoint, at least for now, than the other’s betterment.  In most cases of forgiveness as a secondary goal, we desire to use the process of forgiveness to feel better.  We are hurting, possibly feeling unrest or anxiety or even depression.  We want to be rid of these and forgiveness offers a scientifically-supported path to this healing.  Thus, we forgive for ourselves and not for the other.  This is a secondary goal because it does not focus on the essence of forgiveness, on what forgiveness is, but instead focuses on forgiveness as a vehicle for advancing the goal of one’s own health.

As an analogy, suppose a person gets into a car to go to work.  Driving the car is not the primary goal.  It is a vehicle that gets one to the primary goal of going to work.  Forgiving is the vehicle for health in this case.  This usually is not a selfish goal, but instead a self-interested goal.  To use another analogy, if a person has a throbbing knee and she goes to the doctor for relief, this is not selfish but instead is a sound self-interested goal.  Going to the physician is secondary to the primary goal of walking pain-free again.

When forgiving others is the primary goal, it is showing an understanding of what forgiving is by definition.  To forgive is to reach out to the other for the other’s sake.  When forgiving is the secondary goal, there may or may not be a deep understanding of the essence of forgiveness.  We would have to probe the person’s understanding: Is the self-interest the primary goal so that the person defines forgiveness as a vehicle for self-betterment?

We have to be careful not to conflate using forgiveness as a vehicle to promote health and the actual essence of what forgiveness **is.**  If we mistakenly conflate the two, equating forgiving with emotional relief, then our definition of what forgiveness is becomes only a self-serving activity, which then moves forgiveness away from the fact that it is a moral virtue, something good for others as well as the self.  Forgiveness, then, is only a psychological self-help technique, not a virtue.  Virtues when practiced well become part of the person’s life, part of who the person actually is.  A self-help technique never goes that far but instead is used for a while and then is discarded.  We need to distinguish forgiving as a secondary goal and as a primary goal to keep its definition—what it **is**—as accurate as possible. 

In summary, if we want to forgive for our own emotional relief, this is being motivated to achieve a secondary goal, and a good one.  If we want to forgive for the sake of the other, this is being motivated to achieve a primary goal, and preserves the accurate definition of what forgiving **is.**

Robert

When I forgive, do you think that I can trust the person in certain areas but not in others?

Yes, you can begin to trust someone in certain areas but not in others as you forgive.  As an example, suppose that Person A has a serious gambling problem.  These actions have hurt you.  Yet, the person is a good worker who gets the job done when asked to do so.  If Person A asks for a monetary loan, it would not be in your interest (or in Person A’s interest) to loan the money.  At the same time, if Person A’s work record is strong and you need this person to do a certain job, then relying on Person A to do and finish the job is not unreasonable, given the past behavior.  You can forgive the compulsive gambler for not paying back your loan and, at the same time, not trust the person in the one particular area of finances.

For additional information, see What is Forgiveness?