Emotional Health

Dr. Moffett on Emotional Health: Before Forgiving

Jane Moffett is a doctorate-level clinical social worker with advanced certifications in trauma. She works in New York City as a psychotherapist and Area Director for the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, as well as Clinical Director for the  Integrative Trauma Clinic at the National Institute of Psychotherapy. She has long had an interest in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality and in mind-body practices. We are calling on her 28 years’ experience as a psychotherapist to speak to women in the second half of life who hope to find meaning in adversity and to develop practices for serenity.—Ed.


Many of the really interesting people I know have had to cope with adversity for a period of their lives. It might have been in childhood, or as adults through a traumatic loss, illness, or betrayal that could not be repaired. In facing these challenges, they had to develop the internal resources to move toward whole and dynamic lives, leaving the unhappiness behind them.
Frequently there is a point when such people are weary of thinking about the old angers and hurts, and consider forgiving the person or people who in some measure perpetrated the harm. While forgiveness might have spiritual undertones for them, the motivation is to cut their emotional ties with the memories and people still binding them to the past.

A word of caution: forgiveness is not a shortcut to a happy life. It’s unlikely to offer you that hoped-for release into peace of mind without your having carefully thought through the legacy of the transgression—the losses, the wasted time, the roads not taken.  Conversely, carrying the hurt and anger through life too often ties you forever to the people or events at the origin of the pain. If it is safe for you to have a relationship with these people in the present, there may be further reason to consider forgiveness.

Should forgiveness eventually occur, it happens through a perspective enhanced by insight and the passage of time; or from a spiritual perspective, through grace—the unexpected release into serenity and peace; or, lastly, through the slow journey of self-healing. Forgiveness through any of these channels can be life-changing.

This article is not about how to forgive, but rather an exploration of four steps to take before forgiving. It has been my clinical experience with patients that taking these steps sometimes clears the pathway for forgiveness. These steps have many permutations, so you might take them as  a jumping-off place for your own thinking about forgiving someone.

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Step One
Have you ruled out forgiveness because the act might mean that you must minimize the harm that was done to you or others, or that you can’t pursue justice? Recent clinical research on forgiveness (analyzed in Exploring Forgiveness, by Enright and North, and Trauma and Recovery, by Herman) argues that forgiveness is not pardoning, condoning, excusing, coercing, forgetting, or denying the injustice and pain the injury has caused. These researchers do not see forgiveness as equivalent to reconciliation. Rather, forgiveness is the capacity to hold two subjectivities—the reality of one’s own suffering and loss, and an understanding of the perpetrator’s life experience and choices, however flawed. And in holding both realities, relinquishing resentment, anger, or desire for revenge without asking for something in exchange, and with the full knowledge that compassion is not required.

Step Two
Is forgiveness a one-way process, given that you know  you may never get an apology, or  is it a two-way process, in which the perpetrator’s remorse and reparations are important to you? Both pathways are discussed by Christian and Jewish theologians in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, by Simon Wiesenthal.
From a psychological perspective, when the act of forgiveness is a one-way process it is fully under your control and not dependent on another’s remorse. Secondly, the person you are forgiving need not be consulted or outwardly forgiven.

From this viewpoint, you chose to forgive for your own serenity, and it is not meant to exonerate perpetrators from  taking responsibility for their actions. Forgiveness in this context is letting go of thoughts of revenge and resentment.

For others, forgiveness is a two-way process and may not be considered unless the perpetrator has apologized. A year ago I heard former anti-apartheid activist Father Michael Lapsley speak on forgiveness. In 1990, he received a letter bomb from a covert wing of the apartheid movement and lost both hands and the sight in one eye. A deeply compassionate person, he led “Healing of Memories Workshops” that led to the founding of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town, South Africa. This is a man whose life’s work has been in part about restoring human dignity, and yet he was very clear that he could not forgive the people who sent him the letter bomb. His reasoning was straightforward and unapologetic: no one had come forward to apologize, to offer reparations of any kind, or to help pay for his medical expenses. For Father Michael, forgiveness is a bilateral process and cannot be given without remorse and an attempt at repair.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, Father Michael Lapsley speaks with Amy Goodman about forgiveness.

Step Three
Have you forgiven yourself? In conflictual relationships, serious illness, or traumatic accidents, there may be regrets. Is it possible that you made the best choices possible under the circumstances or with the information and maturity level you had? Take time to review and honor the creativity and resilience you found to get through those difficult times. Can you accept your own humanity, and forgive yourself by understanding that your behavior and choices may have been the best you could do in difficult circumstances and without the life-understanding you have now?

Step Four
Before one can forgive, it’s important to think through the character and emotional makeup of the person or people you are considering forgiving. This is not to suggest that the person deserves your pity, or that his or her behavior is somehow exonerated by having had trauma of his or her own.  As a clinician, I believe we are each responsible for knowing our dark side and understanding our own capacity to cause harm. Sometimes, understanding why and how a person has done what he did to you helps you know how different you are.

Speaking to this point, Jadranka Cigelj—herself a survivor in Serbia at the Serbian Omarska internment camp—pursued justice by documenting testimonies of Bosnian rape victims. She said, “One day you wake up and the hatred has left you, and you feel relieved because hatred is exhausting, and you say to yourself, ‘I am not like them.’”  It is that last line that is so freeing—because, mostly likely, your values, your life choices, and your relationships are not like those of the person or people you are considering forgiving.

Very few of us get through life without an untimely loss, a damaging relationship, or something we so wish could be undone. Part of resolving those painful memories is finding a way for them to take up far less space in our life—through therapy, through spiritual work, through our own effort to live and love with our full self . . . and perhaps through considering forgiveness.


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  • Emese B September 5, 2015 at 10:38 am

    Great article. I found the concepts in Step 2 very important. Sometimes what we truly need is a one-way forgiveness, an internal process through which we can make peace with what happened. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everything but it helps us move on with our lives and release our resentment and anger.

  • Miki Conn July 5, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Closing in on age 70, I have had many opportunities to forgive and have done so — including being raped in college, the death of my son by a drunken driver and painful responses by others to his death. BUT, the one that I am wrestling with now is a very personal and yet public attack by a colleague I trusted. Living in a small city, I see this person from time to time. We avoid eye contact, being in the same place at the same time, we don’t speak and in my heart I wish that he could suffer the pain he has caused me to suffer. It seems forgiveness is easier if it is not a personal betrayal but distant, like an act of nature or someone you have no real connection with. When you co-exist in the same social circles, its much harder. I hope that time will make forgiveness possible, but right now I seem to be stuck in the anger, desire for revenge and at the same time, avoidance.

  • Mickey July 3, 2014 at 11:48 am

    I can’t thank you enough for this article. It is a subject dear to my heart. I have a book published by a Lutheran ministry. It’s called Seventy Times Seven. The idea and practice of forgiveness has helped me move on, experience serenity and peace in my life. If someone makes me angry, if I feel one of my family members has been treated unfairly, I recite the phrase: In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive [person’s name] for their sins. Sometimes I get a frisson down my arms when I’ve said this. The point is that for me forgiveness freed and continues to free me from the debilitating effects of emotional turmoil.
    This article is wonderful. I’ve sent the web address to some friends to share this information. Many more thanks.