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4 Exercises for Cultivating the Mind of Forgiveness

These exercises can help develop cognitive competence in forgiveness.

Key points

  • One aspect of forgiving involves thinking carefully about who the offending person actually is.
  • This re-thinking of who the other person is takes time and detailed thinking about this person.
  • As you examine the offending person's life history, you might be surprised at how wounded this person is.
  • As you carefully examine this person's life, you may begin to see inherent worth and value in this person.

When you forgive those who have hurt you, part of the process is to engage in thinking exercises in which you slowly begin to see the inherent worth of the one who hurt you. In this post, I will lead you through four such exercises that may assist you in seeing and acknowledging this built-in worth of the one who was unfair to you—not because of what happened, but in spite of this. The exercises have been used successfully in research.

Note that in the vast majority of cases in which I have been involved, either in therapy or research, the one who forgives knows, personally, the one who was unfair. The exercises below are based on this assumption of knowing the other, though at the end, I suggest a cognitive approach to forgiving if you do not know the one who harmed you.

Prior to these exercises, you should be sure that you understand what forgiveness is and is not, and examine some criticisms against forgiveness to be sure you want to move forward with forgiving.

Cognitive Exercise 1: Viewing the Person as an Infant, Child, and Adolescent

Imagine this person first as an infant. This baby will have many challenges ahead, and cannot even roll over without assistance. This little person asks for very little—only to be loved and to have basic needs met. Because this little person now shares a common humanity with all people in this world, we can say that the infant possesses inherent worth that need not be earned.

Source: Evgenyatamanenko_Dreamstime

Next, consider what you know of this person's childhood. You might ask others who know this person if you need more details. What wounds did this child receive from others? This child that you're imagining does not deserve to be wounded.

Next, as best you can, try to get information on what adolescence was like for the one who hurt you. One developmental feature of adolescence is to establish one’s identity—what is important to this person and why. Was this person hurt by others so that the sense of identity was hurt, leading to confusion or conflict?

Cognitive Exercise 2: Viewing the Person in Adulthood

An important developmental marker in young adulthood is to begin forming a meaningful partnership with another. If a person brings wounds from the early years into young adulthood, then the new partnership may have more conflicts than either person anticipated. Can you see a wounded person who wounded you?

This next point is very important: These exercises are not meant for you to start excusing the wrong. What happened to you was wrong, is wrong, and always will be wrong. The key issue here is to see a person from a wider-angle lens, seeing the difficulties faced in the past that may now have spilled over to you.

Next, consider middle adulthood. A central developmental marker of middle adulthood is to make a contribution in the world of work and to provide for the next generation. If this person was stumbling because of wounds suffered earlier in life, what is this person's inner world like now? (Some of you might be saying, “But the one who hurt me is not yet in middle adulthood.” If this is the case, please imagine what middle adulthood might be like once the one who wounded you reaches this stage of life and is still very wounded.)

Ljupco_ Dreamstime
Source: Ljupco_ Dreamstime

Erik Erikson, in his classic work Identity: Youth and Crisis, states that a key developmental feature in later adulthood is integrity, or the state of being whole in a psychological sense. Integrity can be in tension with despair, the living with regrets that are now difficult to change.

Even though the one who hurt you may not be at this stage of development yet, what will their life be like if they don't seek forgiveness from you and others wounded by unjust actions? Do you think that your forgiveness of this person, when you are ready, might help to change how this person begins to live life so that the elderly years are more positive for the one you have forgiven?

Cognitive Exercise 3: Seeing This Person as Influenced by Power

There are two ways that people use power: One can either seek power over others, or use power to help others. Might the one who hurt you be engaging in the former, perhaps as a result of others having used power against this person?

Again, this is not asked so that you excuse what this person did to you. Instead, it is asked so that you can get a clearer view of the wounds this person carries and gives to others, including you.

Cognitive Exercise 4: Putting the Pieces Together

Who is this person who hurt you? Is there more to this person than the wounds against you? Do you see that both of you share woundedness?

Both of you also have built-in or inherent worth; both of you have great value. Might such perspectives have the result of softening your heart, even a little, toward this person? If so, this is the beginning of forgiving.

When You Do Not Know the One Who Was Unfair to You

If you are unfamiliar with life’s details of the one who hurt you, then I recommend what I call the global and cosmic perspectives.

From the global perspective, think about what you hold in common with the other. You both are vulnerable to other’s injustices. You both need good nutrition. When either of you are cut, you bleed. Both of you will pass away one day.

You share a common humanity, in short. Therefore, you share inherent worth that cannot be taken away.

The cosmic perspective is for those who have a transcendent or religious belief. In this perspective, you can see that both of you are loved by God or another higher power. Both of you might end up sharing a kind of eternal life together. What, then, might be your response to this person now?

You can go into greater depth in these and other exercises in Enright (2015). Enjoy the journey of forgiving, which is a gift to those who hurt you with many benefits to you as the forgiver.


Enright, R.D. (2015). 8 keys to forgiveness. New York: Norton.

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