Marisa Mauro

Marisa Mauro Psy.D.

Take All Prisoners


The Art of Second Chances: On Forgiving, Forgetting and Letting Go

Art of Second Chances: On Forgiving, Forgetting and Letting Go

Posted Jan 10, 2010

Sometimes people screw up. As imperfect beings charged with the power to manipulate, lie, cheat and steal and the emotional sophistication to feel jealousy, heartbreak and outrage, this is to be expected. And so we sometimes find it in our hearts to empathize with the offender and forgive or love them and forget. We award second chances and some of us are filled with so much empathy or love that we give third and fourth chances. Still other times we do not and the offender must lay down in the bed he made.

In our personal lives I am sure that the majority of these decisions are based upon feelings - the raw and blinding emotions of love, lust and fear to name a few. But second chances are not limited to family, friends and lovers and in fact often flood our more objective world. Maybe you are a boss whose employee has failed to meet your expectations or maybe just a guy who got bad service at the corner market. You will, consciously or not, evaluate the offender's worthiness of a second chance.

Psychologists working in prisons and forensic practices are often called upon as experts in second chances. We attempt to objectively and rationally recommend second chances that are very emotionally charged. Sometimes even the legal system appears wrapped up emotionally in a case or a defendant and defers to a psychologist for recommendation. Should the offender receive a second chance, for example, at probation, childcare, or parole or should he or she not? Referred cases almost always seem to have strong emotional components - a very young, very old, sick or tearful offender, young children with no foreseeable alternative guardian, etc. The offender hoping for a second chance is usually tearful and offers remorse and promises to change. They arrive with pleading parents, distraught letters from children or character references from community leaders. Our job is to weed through their emotions and ignore our own in order to come to some objective version of the past and present to foretell the likelihood of a more positive future.

Yet try as we might to objectify them with standardized measures, these decisions cannot be made with the same exacting certainty as a logic proof. Looking at the data of someone's life and taking into consideration all that we know about psychology does not result in the beautiful clarity of an if, then statement. I can, for example, never say with certainty that if a one-time abuser takes anger management and gets sober, then he will never abuse again. What my recommendations do amount to though, is an educated guess. The best guess from an expert on human behavior, and when called for, second chances.

Before getting to my recommendations, I am assuming that if you are thinking about giving a second chance that you have decided that the offense is worth forgiving. This might seem obvious, but some people seem to believe that forgiveness is not theirs to give. So here is my best educated guess regarding second chances. It is based on my own clinical work and knowledge of psychology.

  • One, always remember that the best predictor of future behavior is past behaviors. After all, the basis of all empirical knowledge is the proposition that the future will tend to resemble the past. So ask yourself is behavior which must be forgiven an aberration, a continuance of increasingly poor actions, or more obviously a pattern to be expected?
  • Two, is the offender genuinely remorseful? This is difficult to assess at times as very manipulative people use false remorse and tears for forgiveness, pulling on your pity strings. Look closely, is the remorse for the pain they have caused you, or is it really just for themselves and what they have lost.
  • Three, do they have regret for their actions?  Challenge them, tell them why what they did is wrong. Do they accept it or attempt to justify?
  • Four, examine their insight into and judgments about the cause of their problem or offense. Ask, if they could go back in time, what might they do differently? Then find out the reasons for their response. Do they accept blame and have a reasonably objective view of themselves, or do they blame others?

Once in possession of this information I encourage you to review it with your most objective eye and with awareness that your emotions will always cloud your decision. In the end you will make a choice that is based upon one of three versions of what is right or best - what is right for you, the offender or ‘us'.