Research into the importance of forgiveness has increased substantially in the past decade or more (Macaskill, 2012; Strelan & Covic, 2006).
Psychology in the past steered away from moral and religious concepts such as forgiveness, and only recently has shown an interest due to findings that it has an effect on one’s wellbeing, and especially on emotions (Person, 2007). She stated that the “ability or inability to forgive has primary psychological meaning in adjudicating both relationships and emotional life that extends beyond the province of religion” (p 390).
However, despite this new interest there are many views on what forgiveness is, who benefits from it, and the outcomes that are gained from this process. When I, as a psychologist, ask people, “If I forgive someone for something, who does it help the most?” most will acknowledge, “Yourself.”
In my webpage on PTSD and war veterans, I wrote about my father and his traumatic experiences during World War 2, and how he for many years after, would wake up screaming in the night remembering the horrors of being a POW in the Japanese Thai-Burma railway slave camps. He was there for 3 years, and came out weighing just 37 kilograms. He was able to recuperate physically over a number of years, but his mental and emotional trauma took much longer.
The Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (2013) stated that “of those who do experience PTSD symptoms and do not receive treatment, 40 to 56% continue to have PTSD symptoms decades after the traumatic event.”
The Benefits of Forgiveness
That there are definite benefits to forgiveness is certain.
For those who may remember the movie “The Railway Man”, Colin Firth plays the part of Eric Lomax, an engineer and British officer who is captured in Singapore and sent to the same Japanese prisoner of war camp in Thailand as my father. Lomax was tortured by the Japanese intelligence for building a radio receiver from spare parts.
After the war he continued to suffer from the trauma of his wartime experiences. With the help of his wife Patti (played by Nicole Kidman) and best friend Finlay, Lomax plans to find and confront the main perpetrator, who appeared to have escaped prosecution as a war criminal. Lomax tracks down the man responsible, and seeks him out with every intention of “repaying” the Japanese officer – possibly even killing him – and thereby ending a lifetime of bitterness and hate (or so he thought).
But when he confronted the officer, he found he could not punish the Japanese man, saying he could not repay him using the very methods by which he was treated. Instead, he walked away.
Sometime later Lomax wrote to the Japanese man, saying he had forgiven him, and wanted to meet him again, and this time, bring his wife with him. When Lomax saw him on the railway in Thailand, the two men embraced. Forgiveness had been completed and the men were friends for the rest of their lives.
My father also went through a forgiveness process. But until then, for years after the war, he would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, saying he could see all the nightmare scenarios over and over in his dreams. This went on for more than 15 years after the war. He told us as children he hated the Japanese and told us never to buy anything Japanese.
Then in the mid 1960’s he became a Christian, and was able to start forgiving the Japanese. He then began to see the lighter side of the war, and started telling stories about the railway experience which may still have been difficult, but definitely lighter. He became known to his family and friends as the “master story teller”. Towards the end of his years he even bought a Japanese car, a Mazda!
The Power of Forgiveness
Strelan and Covic (2006) indicate that forgiveness works for many people most of the time, and provides psychological and mental health benefits. Interventions are successful in reducing anger, resentment, dysfunction, distress and bitterness.
However, their review on forgiveness concludes that there is still little empirical evidence supporting a definitive model of forgiveness. Even though there are a number of tests that have been developed, there is still a wide range of different definitions of forgiveness, and there have been few attempts to validate it.
Macaskill (2012), who tested and validated a measure (Forgiveness of Self and Others Scale), found that forgiveness was related to mental health and life-satisfaction: “anger was the only significant predictor of other-forgiveness, while anxiety, shame, and anger were associated with self-forgiveness” (p. 28).
Types of Forgiveness
So are there different types of this process? I believe that there are two types: false and true forgiveness.
False forgiveness is where a recipient or victim of a hurt or abuse says “I forgive you but will never forget what you did to me”. This is a frame of mind whereby one continues to live with grievances, even years beyond the event which caused the pain. This therefore imprisons both the victim and the oppressor with a view of, and continuous experience from, the past.
In effect this form of forgiveness is saying: “I hold you in prison forever because of what you have done to me. I will try to get over it but I will never forget – even if you change.” The problem with this sort of forgiveness is that just as a jailer is required to remain outside a prison to make sure the prisoner remains in jail, in effect they will always remain tied to each other, but where neither is free.
This appears to be related to false apology: when someone says they are sorry but do not mean they are really sorry, and just don’t like the outcomes from their behaviour, and the effect it has on the other person, who then reacts to that original behaviour, often negatively. These people will then most likely continue with the original behaviours – and again say they are sorry when the other responds negatively.
When true apologies are given, there is always a change in the behaviour, and the intentions that instigated it. So this may be more related to unintentional behaviours than to intentional behaviours, where the person was unaware of possible consequences. If I am sorry for doing something I was not aware of affecting another person does that excuse me? Yes, more than if I hurt another intentionally. But as Person (2007) notes, the alternative to forgiveness is punishment. “Ironically”, she writes, “both forgiveness and punishment attempt to put an end to something that without intervention could go on endlessly” (p 390).
Person (2007) relates a story of a little old Jewish man in a train near Warsaw, sitting with three young businessmen in a compartment. They were having fun and became quite noisy playing a card game. They invited him to play with them, but he politely refused. They then started to tease him, even pulling on his beard and throwing his hat out the window. Not soon after the train arrived at the station, and he stepped out after the young men.
He was welcomed by a large crowd, who honoured him as an esteemed rabbi, a famous holy man, renowned for his compassion, and work with leaders such as Martin Luther King. The young men came over to him and expressed their sincere apologies – “Please forgive us. We didn’t know who you were.” He responded with “But I can’t. You did nothing to me. The man who must forgive you is the little old man on the train with you, the one who had no name.”
True forgiveness indicates that “Based on your remorse and indication of changed behaviour towards me, I let go of everything you have done to me in the past, and live today with a fresh beginning. I will treat each moment from this place of fresh beginning, where we are both committed to experiencing and behaving from a place of love and compassion. And if this happens again I will let you know that what you are doing is completely inappropriate, and recommit to making the changes discussed previously.”
True forgiveness thus allows both to be free to get on with life. Those involved in the altercation may still have some scars for some time after the experience, but they will also have the greatest opportunities for healing. Now they really experience the present moment afresh. This perspective will also offer possibilities where the perpetrator may even become a friend, albeit one who shared the same experience from different sides of the same coin, and therefore both can learn and grow from it.
This perspective is like a stream flowing down rocks as rapids – sometimes it hits rocks but will continue flowing, ultimately towards a more peaceful existence. The former, false forgiveness, is like a damned stream that has nowhere to go, is always fixed in place, with only a little water allowed out every now and then.
When I worked in pain management, where participants attempted to gain from Government or insurance payouts, they attempted to make their injuries last as long as they could, or to increase the severity of their injuries. In most cases they wanted to move on with life. But some participants admitted they wanted to keep the status quo, and I told them their healing psychologically would be delayed while they held onto a focus on injury, rather than on healing.
The examples highlighted earlier in this article of the POWs show the effect true forgiveness can bring the forgiver – greater peace of mind and wellbeing, and healing from past suffering.
In her review of forgiveness, Person (2007) stated that all relationships are subject to hurts, some intentional, some unintentional. Forgiveness is sometimes freely offered, and other times in response to a request for an apology (a major mode of forgiveness). Yet I know in my work with couples, apologies can sometimes sound “cheap and hollow”, especially when the aggressive behaviours are repeated over and over. This reveals a lack of behaviour change, which is the preferred outcome of forgiveness.
Salvage and Restoration
Hargraves (2001) describes two outcomes of forgiveness that are pertinent here: salvage and restoration.
Salvage is the use of forgiveness to gain insight into how to keep the damage done in the past from continuing to affect one’s life, now and in the future. He provides a metaphor: salvage of a ship that has struck an iceberg and sunk. If the damage is too large, the ship will never be restored to a seaworthy condition. But there are things that can be salvaged from the ship to use in other ships.
Also, lessons learned from the accident will serve to avoid future mishaps. In other words, some relationships are too damaged to be repaired and made useful again. Often, the person who caused us hurt is not trustworthy and may hurt us again. Or, the person who was relationally irresponsible may have died or be otherwise unavailable, in which case it is not possible to restore love and trust by reengaging in the relationship.
However, the victim can learn to recognize the interactions that were damaging and prevent them from happening again. Salvage in the work of forgiveness does not restore love and trust to the damaged relationship, but it does help ensure they will not re-occur in future relationships.
Restoration differs from salvage in that it requires the person who has been wronged in a relationship to put himself or herself in a position where love and trust can be rebuilt by the person who perpetuated the hurt.
Again, using our ship illustration, a ship hits an iceberg and sinks. This time, if the hole is not too large or the water too deep, the damage can be repaired and the ship refloated. Although it was damaged, the ship can be returned to the service for which it was intended.
So after a severe violation has taken place and the relationship has “sunk,” the victim and victimizer work together to restore love and trust and make the relationship functional again. This, of course, involves risk, as the damaging acts may reoccur. Trust in the relationship is at risk. For restoration to result, the victimized person must be given legitimate reason to believe that the wrongdoer accepts responsibility for the injustice and hurt he or she caused, while promising to refrain from further such actions.
The Importance of Forgiveness
As we have seen in the examples of the movie “The Railway Man”, and the wartime trauma and experiences of my own father, true forgiveness can bring the forgiver greater peace of mind and wellbeing, and healing from suffering such as post traumatic stress disorder.
There appears to be little or no positive outcome in maintaining anger and bitterness against perpetrators, while there seems to be a highly significant benefit in forgiving them.
When others appear to be the cause of our suffering, especially when this experience of suffering lasts for years after the event, the responsibility for hanging onto that suffering then falls on our own shoulders. Whether relationships are salvaged or restored depends on the ability of each person to use forgiveness to move on with greater understanding for future positive relationship experiences.
Author: Dr Peter Noordink, BA, Grad Dip App Sc, PhD, MAPS.
Dr Peter Noordink is a Brisbane Psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in areas such as pain management, aged care, suicide prevention, improving self-worth, teenage issues, and helping middle aged men and women deal with the problems of midlife. He uses a very gentle approach to explore issues which are currently impacting on one’s general and psychological wellbeing.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. (2013). Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Melbourne, Victoria: ACPMH.
- Hargrave, T.D. (2001). Forgiving the devil: Coming to terms with damaged relationships. Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
- Macaskill, A. (2012). Differentiating dispositional self-forgiveness from other-forgiveness: Associations with mental health and life satisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31 (1), 28-50.
- Person, E.S. (2007). Forgiveness and its limits: A psychological and psychoanalytic perspective. Psychoanalytic Review, 94(3): 389-408.
- Strelan, P. & Covic, T.(2006). A review of forgiveness process models and a coping framework to guide future research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25 (10), 1059.