I have read the journal article by Suzanne Freedman and you regarding forgiveness by incest survivors. To be honest with you, I find those case studies unrealistic. So, I cannot see how it is possible for anyone to forgive someone for such acts. Can you convince me otherwise?

The science we report in that article on forgiveness interventions for incest survivors shows in a statistically significant way that the research participants improved substantially in their psychological health, including being healed from psychological depression. As you are skeptical, most of the incest surviving participants in that study initially were skeptical, saying that they did not think it was possible for them to forgive. Nonetheless, once they voluntarily agreed to work on forgiveness with Dr. Freedman guiding them, they were able to complete the forgiveness process with excellent psychological results. In other words, initial skepticism is not an indication of a final decision or a final outcome. Skepticism can aid us in asking the difficult questions and waiting until we receive reasonable answers, but skepticism need not be a final answer, as we saw in this study.

For additional information, see Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors.

I hear so often, “Forgiveness is for the forgiver.” Is this correct? If so, it seems that forgiveness is a selfish act.

To forgive another person out of the motivation to help the self is not the only kind of motive people have for forgiving. Yes, it is one such motive, but not the only one. In the case of “forgiving for the forgiver,” the one hurt by another is motivated, usually, by a desire to be free from a persistent and uncomfortable resentment. Forgiveness can reduce or even eliminate that resentment and so this is a motivation for good self-care. This is a self-pertaining motive and not necessarily a selfish motive. Other motives for forgiving include helping the offending person to change, improving a relationship, and being faithful to certain religious beliefs that encourage forgiveness.

For additional information, see Why Forgive?

My brother owes me some money. Recently, he came to me asking if I would forgive him, with the understanding that he no longer would owe me the money. Something does not seem right about this. Am I supposed to cancel the debt when I forgive?

Your brother is confusing forgiveness with legal pardon. To pardon is to cancel a debt that is rightly owed. To forgive, in contrast, is to try as best you can to offer goodness toward your brother. Both are merciful, but they are not the same. You can forgive and not offer legal pardon (cancel the debt).

You can forgive (offer goodness) and at the same time present him with the I.O.U. And if you forgive him first, you are likely to present that slip to him with graciousness and gentleness rather than with anger.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

I was hurt in a 5-year relationship and now I am hesitant to get into any other relationship. Does this lack of courage on my part suggest that I have not forgiven the one who hurt me?

The issue here seems to be one of a lack of trust. You may or may not have forgiven the one with whom you were in a relationship for the 5 years. Even if you have completely forgiven, you still may lack trust and this is not a sign of unforgiveness. It is a sign that you know hurt is possible when you commit to others. Forgiveness can help with taking the risk and at the same time your using common sense in the new relationship, along with sincere acts of trustworthiness by the other, should help to slowly create a trust with the new person.

For additional information, see 8 Keys to Forgiveness.

5/14What happens when someone is repressing the memory of a grave injustice? For example, if a woman was molested as a child, and she cannot remember the incident. How can she ever forgive and be emotionally freed from this? The unconscious mind is a difficult aspect of human psychology and it is the quality of our unconscious mind, unaccessible as it is to us, that has prompted this question. There indeed are aspects of the self that some people do not remember, especially if there has been trauma. We can repress the memory. Repression is like shutting off the light so that you no longer can read a journal entry, forgetting its contents. Repression is a form of psychological defense against anxiety and is not necessarily a bad thing in the short-run if we need to re-group in order to move ahead in life. Yet, if there is unresolved trauma and we do not deal with it, this can be like the pebble in the shoe—a constant low-grade annoyance that will not let us rest. Sometimes it can cause great distress and we have no clue why we are feeling distress. My best advice on this fascinating question is this: Deal directly with the deep hurts that are accessible to you. Forgive as best you can. Then be vigilant in asking the question, when you are ready, “But what else is in my past that has hurt me?” As you gain both strength through forgiving and proficiency in the forgiveness process, this can engender in you a confidence that you will not be overcome by traumatic injustices. This further aids you in lowering—slowly and across time—the psychological defenses such as a rigid repression that block the memory. As a person, for example, forgives her father for Injustice A, B, and C, eventually she may be ready to tackle the issue of sexual abuse. Having confronted injustice that may have surrounded the sexual abuse and having grown in confidence that she will not be crushed by her own anger, that which is unconscious may become subconscious (just below the level of consciousness). It is here that fleeting aspects of that repressed memory may enter into consciousness, allowing the person to finally confront the abuse. One more point involves false memory. It can happen that a person thinks he or she was abused and this is not the case. This, then, becomes a horrendous injustice against the accused. The false memory is centered on unhealthy anger, now displaced inappropriately onto someone who does not deserve it. The practice of forgiveness for genuine injustices against those who truly have been unjust to us can reduce unhealthy anger, making the displacement of anger into a false memory less likely.

The unconscious mind is a difficult aspect of human psychology and it is the quality of our unconscious mind, inaccessible as it is to us, that has prompted this question. There indeed are aspects of the self that some people do not remember, especially if there has been trauma. We can repress the memory. Repression is like shutting off the light so that you no longer can read a journal entry, forgetting its contents. Repression is a form of psychological defense against anxiety and is not necessarily a bad thing in the short-run if we need to re-group in order to move ahead in life. Yet, if there is unresolved trauma and we do not deal with it, this can be like the pebble in the shoe—a constant low-grade annoyance that will not let us rest. Sometimes it can cause great distress and we have no clue why we are feeling distress.

My best advice on this fascinating question is this: Deal directly with the deep hurts that are accessible to you. Forgive as best you can. Then be vigilant in asking the question, when you are ready, “But what else is in my past that has hurt me?” As you gain both strength through forgiving and proficiency in the forgiveness process, this can engender in you a confidence that you will not be overcome by traumatic injustices. This further aids you in lowering—slowly and across time—the psychological defenses such as a rigid repression that block the memory.

As a person, for example, forgives her father for Injustice A, B, and C, eventually she may be ready to tackle the issue of sexual abuse. Having confronted injustice that may have surrounded the sexual abuse and having grown in confidence that she will not be crushed by her own anger, that which is unconscious may become subconscious (just below the level of consciousness). It is here that fleeting aspects of that repressed memory may enter into consciousness, allowing the person to finally confront the abuse.

One more point involves false memory. It can happen that a person thinks he or she was abused and this is not the case. This, then, becomes a horrendous injustice against the accused. The false memory is centered on unhealthy anger, now displaced inappropriately onto someone who does not deserve it. The practice of forgiveness for genuine injustices against those who truly have been unjust to us can reduce unhealthy anger, making the displacement of anger into a false memory less likely.

For additional information, see: Choose Love, Not Hate.

I have heard the term “false forgiveness,” but I am not sure what it is and how can I make a clear distinction between the false variety and the real thing?

False forgiveness in essence is not about a moral response to someone who has hurt you. It is more about power than leveling the moral playing field (seeing the other and the self as precious, unique, special, and irreplaceable). There are two kinds of power-plays that someone practicing false forgiveness might show: 1) dominating the other person by constantly reminding him or her that, indeed, you have forgiven….and plan to do so tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that. You keep the other under your thumb by reminding them of how noble you are and how ignoble they are; 2) being dominated by the other person by giving in to unreasonable demands, hastily reconciling, letting the other have power over you. True forgiveness is gentle and kind, honoring the humanity of the other person and the self. It does not dominate or allow others to dominate in a relationship.

For additional information, see What is Forgiveness?

It seems to me that mercy and forgiveness are different. In mercy, one person is higher than another and has pity on the one who is hurting. In forgiveness, you level the moral playing field and each are equal in their humanity. Would you please clarify for me?

Actually, forgiveness is a moral virtue that flows from mercy and mercy flows from the moral virtue of love. Yes, you are correct that when a person is showing mercy toward another, the one who is merciful is helping someone in distress. This, however, does not at all make the one who extends mercy somehow higher in humanity than the one who is in pain. They are equal as **persons** even though their **circumstances** differ.

So, to summarize, love in the Greek sense of agape, is to serve others for the others’ sake. In the serving, one may have to endure pain and persevere and actually suffer in such serving. This, in other words, does not put the one who is serving in a higher position. Mercy is a particular form of love in which the one showing mercy tries to alleviate the pain of another, which can cause the mercy-worker to feel pain and experience humility in the serving, thus leveling the moral playing field in that this is one person helping another person. Forgiveness is a special case of mercy in that the forgiver tries to serve the offending person by alleviating his or her pain, misunderstanding, and even moral weakness by helping the one who caused pain and who may be in pain because of the unjust action. In each case of love, mercy, and forgiveness, the moral virtue is one **person** serving another **person or persons** and each is equal in their personhood.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.