Is Forgiving for the Self or for the One Who Offended?
There is a difference between why we forgive and what forgiveness is.
Posted March 29, 2019
So frequently I hear this: Forgiveness is for you, the one who was injured.
I think this actually can be a distortion of what forgiveness is. To make this clear, let us make four clarifications.
Clarification 1: One's initial motivation to forgive does not define what forgiveness is. Many people, when they decide to forgive, are motivated by their emotional pain. They are hurting and they want relief. This is honorable. As a medical analogy, if a person's elbow is in great pain after a fall, the seeking of medical help is important. The person is seeking help for the self. If we focus on this typical example, then the conclusion might be: Forgiving is for the self. To make such a conclusion, we have to be centered on motivation rather than on what forgiveness actually is.
Clarification 2: When people take the time to forgive, the science shows that they experience considerable improvements in their self-esteem, sense of hope for the future, and significant decreases in anger, anxiety, and depression. As one example, we did a study of people who were in court-ordered residential drug rehabilitation (Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004). We randomized them into one of two groups: a forgiveness intervention with traditional drug rehab or a control group which was only the traditional drug rehab. All participants were clinically depressed. The treatment lasted for six weeks, with twice-a-week treatment. At the end of the intervention, those who had the forgiveness intervention went from clinically depressed to non-depressed and their fear of going back into drug use declined sharply. In contrast, those in the control group, while they decreased in depression, remained clinically depressed and their fear of going back into drug use was much higher than those in the other group. It again appears that forgiving is for the self. To make such a conclusion, we have to focus on the consequences of forgiving, on what happens after forgiveness occurs, and not on what forgiveness actually is.
Clarification 3: When people engage in self-forgiveness, they are trying to be gentle with themselves in spite of breaking their own standards. Even though they are disappointed and perhaps angry with themselves, in self-forgiveness they welcome themselves back to the human condition and see that they have built-in worth, not because of what they did, but in spite of this. It appears for the third time that forgiving is for the self. To make such a conclusion, we have to focus on what forgiveness is within the narrow range of forgiving the self only. Forgiving is extended oftentimes to other people, not just to the self, and so self-forgiveness is a special case of forgiving and not the entire picture. Forgiving, then, is much broader than the process of applying it to oneself only after letting oneself down.
Clarification 4: Here is where we must distinguish among four issues: a) what happens before one forgives in motivation; b) what happens after one forgives in focusing on consequences; c) what one is doing when forgiving the self; and d) what forgiving actually is, what its essence is. To forgive is a moral virtue, as are justice and patience, as examples (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). All moral virtues are concerned about goodness toward others. Justice as a moral virtue is not primarily for the self but for all with whom you come into contact directly or indirectly. Patience is restraint in one's language or actions directed toward those who may be irritating you. Yes, one can be fair or just to the self and patient toward the self, but these are not the primary goals of either virtue. They are outwardly directed to others. It is the same with forgiveness because, like justice and patience, it too is a moral virtue. The endpoint of forgiving is to reach out in goodness directly toward the one or ones who have been unfair to you. If your boss is disrespectful to you, your offer of forgiveness is directed toward the boss as you try to see his humanity, bear the pain of what happened, and to offer, as best you can, a kindness that is rather heroic under the circumstances. The thought is toward the boss (he has worth); the actions are toward the boss (I will try to be kind even though I am angry).
We now are ready to answer the question: Is forgiving for the self or for the one who offended? In its essence, in the definition of what forgiveness **is,** we see that to forgive is for the one who offended and not for the self. Forgiveness is an insight and action deliberately engaged for the other's good. That one's initial motivation may be for a self-seeking (not a selfish) reduction in pain does not alter the definition of forgiveness. That the scientifically-supported consequences of forgiving are emotional relief for oneself does not alter the definition.
Forgiving involves a paradox: As you reach out to another (or others) who hurt you, it is you who so often experiences benefits. These benefits must not be confused with what forgiveness **is.** Why not? If we start to define forgiveness as a self-serving (not a selfish) activity, we take away its characteristic of being a moral virtue. We reduce forgiveness to a psychological technique that can be occasionally applied and then discarded. As a moral virtue, forgiveness requires continual refinement and growth through practice. Moral virtues are to become a part of our very lives, a part of who we are as persons. We should not lose sight of that so that we do not put it aside. In the putting it aside for only occasional use, we fail to grow in this vital virtue that can improve persons, families, and communities.
Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.
Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: APA Books.