When I was dealing with my first marital infidelity case for therapy, the idea of forgiveness stuck out like a sore thumb – so crucial, yet ever so difficult. Since then, I have found this process of forgiveness to play a large role in my work with clients, and hence this blog.

The notion of forgiveness, when proposed is often met with raised eyebrows and looks of incredulity. Very often, I have come to realize that ‘forgiveness’ per se has varied implications for different people and in order to progress, it becomes important to clarify what it actually means.

Although I am a strong believer in stating what something ‘is’, rather than ‘is not’, I feel compelled to do otherwise in this context. Quoting from researchers who have explored the psychology of forgiveness, “Forgiveness is different from pardoning (which is, strictly speaking, a legal concept); condoning (which involves justifying the offence); excusing (which implies that a transgression

[or mistake] was committed because of extenuating [excusable] circumstances); forgetting (which implies that the memory of the transgression has decayed or slipped out of conscious awareness); denial (which implies an unwillingness or inability to perceive the harmful injuries one has incurred); and reconciliation (which involves the restoration of a fractured relationship)” (Enright, & Coyle, 1998; Freedman, 1998).

Well, would you believe that? Forgiveness in its actual sense does not involve all these other aspects, of which I’m sure many of you would have linked forgiveness to! With that out of the way, let’s examine what then does this magical term forgiveness actually mean. To me, forgiveness is an internal process of choosing to let go of negative emotions (that we feel towards the offender), with the purpose of attaining inner peace. It may not be easy nor may it necessarily be that we want to forgive the other. However, often I hear people express the desire to not get affected by a person’s behaviour or presence, or the memory of past, and well, one of the only sure ways of being able to move forward and find peace is through the process of forgiveness.

I was once asked whether forgiveness was a sign of weakness, and truth be told, when I was younger, that is what I believed. I had a crazy idea that stubbornly refusing to acquiesce or forgive, was a symbol of strength! Well I couldn’t have been more wrong! By harbouring the anger, sense of injustice, sadness, pain, feeling of betrayal in our hearts, we are clinging on to a heavy burden that actually weighs us down so much that happiness is a distant goal. The sensible way forward would be to let go of those unpleasant emotions that are chaining you to your past, which in actuality necessitates inner strength.

As mentioned earlier, just because you forgive, it does not mean that you wish to forget about it, nor may you want to reconcile with the person in question. Forgiveness is done for one person only, for yourself, and to stress this again, it is for yourself that you forgive the other, for your own healing to take place. But how to we forgive something that is ‘unforgiveable’, you may ask me – and to this, I have several comments. The first is, do any of us have the right to state what deserves forgiveness and what doesn’t – where do we draw the line between minor offences and major ones? And even if we do draw this arbitrary line, secondly, how does ‘not forgiving’ make the situation any better? Are we punishing the offender by denying them our forgiveness? Does the lack of our forgiveness make a difference to them, and if it does, will it facilitate healing and recovery? I think not. No, I believe that viewing forgiveness from what the offender ‘deserves’ is looking at the situation upside-down. We need to be able to look at how forgiveness makes a difference in our quality of life and emotional wellbeing.

This brings me to another relevant area of discussion which is self-forgiveness. As human beings, it is our right to make mistakes, but sometimes we feel an error we have committed is unforgiveable. This usually results in an overpowering sense of guilt. Now recognizing an error, feeling remorse about it and wanting to make amends are signs of positive mental health (and as you can imagine, necessary to maintain interpersonal relationships). However, repeatedly punishing yourself for the same, constantly berating yourself on what ought to have been done differently and relentlessly holding on to past regrets is not going to change what happened. In hindsight (when we look back), the “right” thing to have been done may look quite obvious, but it is important to remember that our circumstances, thinking, emotional state and awareness were all different then, than they are now. Moreover our inability to forgive ourselves and move on, leads to personal distress (or even overcompensation) which can further affect our quality of life and interpersonal relationships. Instead by letting go of the regret, we can open our eyes to how we can learn from our faults and progress with our lives meaningfully.

To conclude, as a child of this universe, you deserve to be free – the freedom to make mistakes and acquire learnings from them, the freedom to love (yourself and others), and the freedom from the hurts of the past in order to taste the joy of the present. Undeniably, all of us have the freedom to choose to forgive…