Psychology of Forgiveness: How Letting Go of Spite Allows Us to Move Forward

Psychology of Forgiveness: How Letting Go of Spite Allows Us to Move Forward
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

The psychology of forgiveness is also a form of detachment. It refers to an entire act of courage in which people leave aside the grudge that eats away at them, that they are captives to, in order to accept what happened and to allow us to move forward.

It is also a restructuring of the “I,” a psychological path to repair damages and negative emotions to find inner peace little by little and day by day.

Each time we look for research and references with respect to the psychology of forgiveness, we mostly find works and documents related to personal growth, the study of morality and even the world of religion or spirituality. But are there scientific studies on what forgiveness means, how to forgive and what it requires of us physically and emotionally in order to take that step?

The weak cannot forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.

-Mahatma Gandhi-

The answer, obviously, is “yes.” In fact, the American Psychological Association has multiple works and investigations on what constitutes forgiveness and what does not, and how our historically conflict-ridden societies have not always been able to advance in this sense. It is a dimension that in turn is key to our mental well-being.

In fact, and this is convenient to remember, many of us can have a chip on our shoulder, a problem with some fact in our past that diminishes our current happiness. In turn, it diminishes our potential capacity to build a much more satisfying present. Somehow, we keep a small share of resentment toward something or someone that we would need to let go of in order to start healing.

Forgive in order to avoid personal wear and tear

The best way to delve into this area of psychology is by differentiating what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiving, in the first place, does not mean telling someone that what happened at any given moment was fine or not. Nor does it mean accepting the incident or reconciling with the person who harmed us. And it especially does not mean we need to force ourselves to feel closeness or pity toward that person.

The psychology of forgiveness, in fact, offers us the appropriate strategies for us to be able to take the following steps:

  • Assume that things happened in that particular way. Nothing that happened at that particular moment in our past can be changed. Therefore, we must stop thinking about or imagining how things could have been if we had acted otherwise. This causes us to lose energy, courage and health.

To forgive is to learn to “let go,” to reinvent a new “you” that assumes the past but that finds strength to take advantage of the present.

The psychology of forgiveness tells us in turn that we are not obliged to understand or accept the values or thoughts of the person who harmed us. To forgive is not to offer clemency or seek justifications for what we suffer. We should never give up our dignity.

  • It is more about facilitating the mourning of resentment, of taking off layers of anger, the intensity of despair, and that blockage that prevents us from breathing. For this, it is necessary for us to stop hating the person who harmed us.

On the other hand, there is an important aspect that we usually forget. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of any relationship, be it a partnership, friendship, etc. Remember that not everyone sees things the same way we do. In fact, there are as many perceptions, approaches and opinions as there are days in a year.

Sometimes, we assume certain actions are affronts or acts of contempt when it is really a simple disagreement or misunderstanding.

Thus, and in order to stop seeing betrayals where there are none, we must be able to expand our sense of understanding and our capacity for forgiveness.

Psychology of forgiveness: key to health

Dr. Bob Enright of the University of Wisconsin is one of the most celebrated experts. After more than three decades analyzing cases, conducting studies and writing books on the subject, he has concluded something that can draw our attention. Not everyone can achieve it; we are not all able to take the step to offer forgiveness. The reason for this lies in the belief that forgiveness is a form of weakness.

This is a mistake. One of the best ideas in the psychology of forgiveness is that doing it, taking that step, gives us the opportunity to integrate new values and strategies against stress and anxiety within ourselves. It also allows us to advance with more freedom in the present. Forgiveness is an act of courage and strength.

Also, Dr. Enright reminds us that there are many reasons to take the step toward forgiveness. The best pertains to our health. There are many studies that show the close relationship between forgiveness and the reduction of anxiety, depression and other disorders that completely reduce our quality of life.

The person who, day after day, remains trapped in a memory cycle, in the rickety tower of resentment and in that persistent hatred toward the past, develops chronic stress from their unhappiness. Nobody deserves to live this way. There is no emotion more toxic than anger combined with hatred.

Let’s put into practice some of the following strategies to facilitate the path of forgiveness:

  • Forgiveness is not forgetting, it is learning to think better, understanding that we are not obliged to facilitate reconciliation, but to accept what happened without feeling “weak” taking that step. To forgive is to free ourselves from many burdens that we do not deserve to carry for life.
  • Spite takes away our energy, our spirit and our hope. We must therefore learn to forgive in order to survive, to live with greater dignity.
  • Therapeutic writing and keeping a diary can help us.
  • We must also understand that time by itself does not help. Letting the days, months and years pass will not stop us from hating or forgetting what happened. Let’s not leave for tomorrow the discomfort we feel today.
  • Forgiveness is a process. This is something that we must also understand. Maybe we can never completely forgive the other person, but we can download a good part of all that resentment to be able to “breathe” a little better.

To conclude, as we can see, the psychology of forgiveness is a very broad field and has a very close relationship with health and well-being. It is a discipline that offers us fabulous strategies to apply to any area of our lives, our work and daily relationships. Forgiving is therefore one of the best abilities and virtues to develop as human beings. 

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.