Meaning Research

Counter-Therapeutic Myths that Prevent People From Forgiving

Kenneth E. Hart
Kenneth E. Hart, Ph.D.
Graduate Program in Clinical Psychology, University of Windsor


As a subscriber to the INPM, I invite you to think back to a time when someone did something wrong to harm you or a person you care for. Try to bring the details to mind. Maybe someone defamed your character or bore false witness against you or a family member. Maybe someone stole something you owned, or treated you with utter disrespect or disregard. Whatever they did, try to bring the circumstances freshly to your mind. Spend a moment introspecting. Get in touch with your true feelings. Are you still sore at the perpetrator? Does the person you have ‘forgiven’ still occupy your fantasies of retribution? If you’re still sore or if you have intrusive fantasies, you have not forgiven. Maybe you don’t feel anything. Maybe you’re numb. If so, you have not forgiven. Have you buried the hatchet? If you’ve forgiven them, do you still go out of your way to avoid them physically as you go about your life, or do you avoid them cognitively in your thoughts? Forgetting is not necessarily forgiving. This is because erasing a memory is not the same as healing it. If, when you bring the incident back to mind, and you find you’re still sore, this is not true forgiveness. Also, in true forgiveness the ‘victim’ has lost the motivation to avoid. They have also lost the desire for revenge. Are you sure you have truly forgiven? Some behavioural scientists go so far as to define forgiveness not just as a shift away from negative to neutral, but they see it as involving a movement past neutral toward a positive or benevolent attitude.

There is tremendous controversy among behavioral scientists about what ‘authentic’ forgiveness is. However, everyone agrees on one thing. It’s a shift away from angry interpersonal emotions and related aggression and desire to do harm. This essay discusses the various meanings that have been attached to the term ‘forgiveness.’ My goal is to describe popular misconceptions of the way different people interpret ‘forgiveness.’ To delimit the scope and boundaries I will only address the bestowing of interpersonal forgiveness at the level of one individual to another. Thus, societal-level forgiveness (eg., Jews forgiving the Natzis) and forgiveness of sins by God are beyond the present scope. My purpose will be to describe a number of culturally-based myths and misunderstandings that prevent people from seriously considering forgiveness as a legitimate coping strategy for responding adaptively to being victimized by interpersonal aggression. While there are a number of false beliefs circulating, they all share one thing in common. They block angry people who suffer under the terrible weight of grudges from experiencing “therapeutic” relief through the healing and restorative effects of authentic forgiveness.

While bestowing of forgiveness at the individual level will be the main topic for discussion, it is hoped that future columns in INPM will given attention to a much neglected related aspect of forgiveness: seeking forgiveness. Seeking forgiveness, if it is authentic, involves the private experience of guilt and remorse coupled with the public expression of contrition and the making of restitution. In its truest sense, seeking forgiveness is more than just mumbling “I’m sorry.” To do it right, one must be legitimately motivated to do something to right a wrong. “Mending fences” involves a very uncommon virtuous type of altruistic motivation that prompts people to make restitution. Readers who are interested in learned more about contrition and interpersonal repentance might profit from consulting literature published by 12-Step support groups concerned with promoting rejuvenation and recovery in the wake of an addictive disorder.

What is not widely appreciated is that 12-Step teachings represent a modern day interpretation of an ancient design for moral living originally called ‘First Century Christianity.’ It has only been within the last five years or so that behaviour and social scientists have begun to study the principles and practices of these wisdom teachings. Philanthropic organizations such as the John Templeton Foundation, together with federal funding in Canada and the USA has helped stimulate a much needed surge of empirical and theoretical work in the areas of forgiveness and 12-Step approaches to overcoming suffering due to personal powerlessness. Hopefully, future scholarship will contribute further to the continuing education of mental health practitioners concerned with applying and integrating 12-Step approaches to understanding and promoting interpersonal contrition and repentance.

Counter-Therapeutic Misunderstandings of Forgiveness

In October 2003, I attended an academic forgiveness conference in Atlanta GA. What I found, after listening to many of the leading scholars in the area, was a great deal of heterogeneity regarding the definition of word “forgiveness”. Different researchers meant different things when they used the term. This naturally caused a communication gap. Imagine how big the communication gap is between scholars and lay people. When you think about non-specialized audiences, it’s probably safe to extrapolate that lay persons are even more confused than scholars about what ‘true’ forgiveness is. One thing is for sure. In the popular secular psyche, forgiveness has a bad reputation. My experience is that the term has actually been stigmatized. Despite it being a virtue in Christian religion and other spiritual traditions, it’s devalued to a very great extent by our capitalist consumer culture. In the secular domain, the term quite often has an undeserved pejorative connotation.

The main goal of this essay is to share tips on how to cope with this stigma. As mental health professionals who presumably value forgiveness and recognize its therapeutic potential, we can’t just pretend that potential clients or members of the general public share our enthusiasm. Perhaps you have already noticed that there is a faction of people who are very strongly “anti-forgiveness.” My goal in writing this piece is to try my best to offer suggestions for ‘converting’ these non-believers. While I go about my task with missionary zeal, I realize the task is formidable. If nothing else, maybe this essay will give subscribers of INPM some new information they can use to bolster their own ‘public-relations’ campaign to undo the stigma linked to forgiveness.

Why is it that so many lay people just don’t want anything to do with forgiveness?. I believe this defamation of character of the reputation of forgiveness has a number of roots that run deep into the cultural psyche. Many people in the West just don’t think forgiveness is relevant to their lives or practical. Others see it as being unwise, foolish or unsafe. Still others don’t think its possible or feasible. Collectively, people who think this way can’t be blamed for eschewing forgiveness. For various reasons, they see it as a bad idea. Their minds are closed at the outset. Opening their minds, even a crack, can be quite a challenge. Through the readers of INPM, I hope that Part 1 of this essay can help stimulate the process of vindicating the undeserved reputation that forgiveness has had to endure. It is hoped that a more accurate picture of what forgiveness is will come from a discussion of it is not.

If forgiveness were a person, he or she would feel truly misunderstood! Allow me this opportunity to defend the honour of forgiveness and try and restore its reputation as a virtue. Whenever I speak to a non-specialized audience about my research on forgiveness, I assume there is great heterogeneity in understandings of the term. Actually, I assume the heterogeneity is in misunderstandings. For this reason, the first task I set for myself is to dispel as many of the myths and misconceptions as I can that shut people off at the outset from anything valuable I might have to say on the topic. My experience has taught me that there are a number of culturally-transmitted stereotypes that cause certain people to mistakenly think forgiveness is a bad idea, foolish idea, or pie-in-the-sky idea. People laboring under misconceptions find it extremely easy to think of reasons not to forgive. Although they might harbor terrible grudges and be profoundly miserable as a result, these cynical people are loath to accept ‘forgiveness counseling’ as a potential solution to what ails them. For these particular people, the mere mention of the word ‘forgiveness’ can raise serious red flags of suspicion.

Sometimes, when speaking to a mixed audience about forgiveness my solution is to start off my talk by speaking about anger and resentment counseling. Only later do I weave in the word ‘forgiveness.’ In this way, I try to do an end-run about their defences. If you’re speaking in public and are careful not to instantly alienate the angry cynics who are “anti-forgiveness”, you may be able to hook them into a more open-minded dialogue. If you get this lucky, it’s remarkable what you can learn. After talking with these people for a while you may learn they are often talking about apples while you (the speaker) are talking about oranges. Or, if you are British, the difference in understanding is one of chalk and cheese. I feel strongly that the continuing education task for people who speak to audiences on this topic is to try and come to some consensus on what forgiveness truly is (and what it’s not).

Given that the communication gap can often be very wide, lets go about trying to close the gulf. A number of bridges of common understanding can be built. One of the more popular counter-therapeutic stereotypes that put people off is that forgiveness is only something that saints and holy persons do. The common person, by implication, is exempted from having to forgive. Given that saints and enlightened beings are far and few between, people who mistakenly believe this stereotype will logically think forgiveness is irrelevant their own life and that it’s not personally applicable. To debunk this commonly held myth, I suggest that a person doesn’t have to be a religious fanatic to learn how to let go of grudges using forgiveness as a tool. Even agnostics can forgive. Probably atheists too, although it may take more effort. The clear advantage that religious and spiritually oriented people have is they value forgiveness more than their secular counterparts. Therefore, they might have more of an open mind and be more willing to try to forgive. But, do they have greater natural aptitude?

In terms of empirical research, the jury is still out on whether highly religious or spiritual people are more skilled at replacing an attitude of ill-will with an attitude of good-will. Certainly scripture admonishes them to do so. The trick is to know how. In terms of disclosing the nuts and bolts of how to forgive, the Bible only hints at the mechanics involved (eg., prayer). Some recent evidence bearing on the question of differential success rates (between religious and non religious people) comes from a recent randomized clinical trial that my colleague, David A Shapiro, and I conducted. In a five-month long test of two different forgiveness counseling programs, we found that grudge-holding clients who initially valued spirituality more were subsequently better able to forgive relative to clients who valued the search for the sacred less (we had only one atheist and one Buddist in our total sample of 62 clients). However, we also found a client’s initial level of spirituality was less predictive of treatment improvement than was their ability to adopt the perspective of their perpetrator. In other words, we found the personality trait of empathy facilitated forgiveness better than the quality of ‘intrinsic religiosity’.

In speaking with lay persons about forgiveness, I also have found there is a related misunderstanding about the ability (or inability) to forgive. Many people incorrectly believe you are either born with a personality that allows you to be able to forgive or you’re not with this ability. This myth leads many people to think that forgiving others is personally irrelevant due to a constitutional incapacity. The underlying faulty reasoning here is that forgiveness is not a skill you can learn to do. But people don’t inherit the ability to forgive or not. Like learning how to type, it’s something that you can learn (with patience, good instruction and practice).

When proposing in front of an audience that anyone can learn to forgive, there’s always a few people in the audience who respond with skepticism. In an appeal to the skeptics, I cite behavioural science research that has empirically demonstrated that everyday people can learn how to become more forgiving people. Proof that forgiveness is a skill that can be learned is mounting. Unfortunately, much of this proof is published in specialized journals. Thus, the evidence tends to be inaccessible to the general audience. For the interested lay person who wants to learn more about the practical nuts and bolts and mechanics of how to forgive, I recommend they get on a PC and search for popular audience books by Robert Enright, Mike McCullough and Everett Worthington. The beauty of these author’s self-help books is they consist of empirically validated approaches. Of course, for lay people who suffer from an addictive disorder, I suggest they can overcome their addiction and their grudges by attending a 12-Step program.

Although empirically validated psychoeducational intervention studies conducted by mental health professionals have only recently been conducted, these studies are encouraging because they have found results to suggest that it is indeed possible to teach people how to let go of stubborn and persistent grudges held against specific offenders. In this regard, my colleague Dr. David A Shapiro and I conducted research (see and click on ‘research’ button) in England and found evidence to suggests that forgiveness training programs can not only help let go of stubborn old grudges, they can also inoculate people against picking up new grudges. So, we found these programs can have both curative and preventative effects in terms of falling prey to the ‘cancer of bitterness.’ We have also demonstrated that spiritual well-being is enhanced in proportion to how much forgiveness and contrition one is able to experience.

As noted earlier, in October 2003, the John Templeton Foundation sponsored a scientific meeting in which leading academics from around the world converged to present their research on how to make people more forgiving. The interested reader is encouraged to visit for a synopsis of this work. From the ‘’ homepage, the research summaries can be found by clicking on the ‘Press Room’ button.

In addressing skeptics about their concerns that forgiving others is a rare ability that only selected others have, I typically rebut the idea by saying that, while anyone can learn to forgive, it is indeed more difficult for some types of people. So, there are individual differences in aptitude (and desire). Narcissistic people, for example probably find it difficult because they lack two key therapeutic ingredients. First they lack desire or willingness. Psychologists would say they fall in the precontemplation stage of change, meaning they lack motivational readiness to grant emotional ‘pardons’ to others who have been guilty of causing them to suffer. Second, narcissistic people lack the ability to walk a mile in the shoes of the person who offended or harmed them. Indeed, many behavioural scientists define the extreme egocentricity of the narcissist as the flip side of the ability to experience empathy for others. The narcissist can only see situations from their own point of view. Mental health practitioners are only now beginning to devise ways to enable these people to shift their perspective and see through the eyes of others. “Emotional Intelligence” is not something that arrogant people have an abundance of.

If you combine a marked lack of perspective taking with a conceited sense of special superiority and special entitlement (“sainthood” syndrome), it’s easy to see why these types of people are often unable to move beyond the stage of blaming others for being wrong. In part, these people get stuck at the finger pointing stage because they have trouble empathizing with the frailty and flawedness of others. My own theory is that the narcissist fails to fully appreciate the imperfection of others because of a distorted self-concept which makes them blind to their own shortcomings and their own character flaws. For this reason, they simply are unable to bring to mind instances in the past where they have hurt others and asked for forgiveness. It seems clear enough this type of memory should increase both the willingness and ability to forgive.

Only future research will show whether lack of humility is a barrier to moving beyond the blaming stage of interpersonal victimization. The logic seems compelling enough. Relative to victims who see themselves exclusively as sinless saints, victims who have a more realistic appreciation of their own imperfections and bad decisions are probably better able to appreciate that other people too make stupid mistakes and recklessly cruel choices. Relative to their non-humble counterparts, a humble victim is probably much better at seeing how they themselves can sometimes do the wrong thing and cause others to hurt. In this way, they might find it a bit easier to identify with and understand another’s aggression. Because they’re more aware of their imperfections, a humble person is also likely to be aware of how fortunate they have been in the past (when they sinned) to have received other people’s forgiveness.

As part of a dataset I am currently working to analyze, I am testing the theory that the humble victim is likely to forgive. My hunch is that this is because of they are advantaged when it comes to capacity for perspective taking, empathy and compassion. Along this line, INPM subscribers are referred to a seminal book chapter on this topic entitled “The Victim Role, Grudge Theory, and Two Dimensions of Forgiveness” (Exline & Baumeister, 1998). In addition to discussing five major barriers to forgiveness, these authors also highlight the idea that a victim’s ability to forgive their perpetrator is proportional to their capacity to imagine they too could victimize others.

The topic of compassion, sympathy and perspective taking is important, and I would like to address it a bit more before moving on to a discussion of additional misperceptions that impede people’s readiness to entertain forgiveness as a legitimate coping strategy for dealing with hurt feelings. In this connection, I once heard a wonderful speaker who talked about forgiveness as a solution for anger-related problems generate by interpersonal aggression. In a humorous but serious way, the speaker related a metaphor involving slapstick comedy of the silent screen era in which one actor would “pie” another actor in the face for laughs. He made the metaphorical point that people in everyday life do this to each other routinely, but no one thinks its funny when they’re at the receiving end. What I’ll never forget is the distinction the speaker drew between angry people in contemporary society who are “pie-throwers” and angry people who are “pie-catchers.”

As an aid to understanding forgiveness and contrition, the visual metaphor is a brilliant pedagogical device. It teaches, in a memorable way, that there are perpetrators of interpersonal aggression (pie-throwers) and that there are recipients of this aggression (pie-catchers). However, the speaker’s take-home message was that victimized people who have the most difficulty letting go of grudges after they are harmed find it far too easy to sympathize and identify with the role of pie-catcher. At the same time, they find it far too difficult to sympathize and personally identify with the role of pie-thrower. The speaker argued that the best way for a pie-catcher to let go of the hurt towards the pie-thrower is to simply spend time recollecting instances in which they themselves had thrown pies at others. Mental health professionals need not wait for empirical validation of this theory to make use of the suggestion in their clinical practice.

In terms of other myths and misunderstandings, an important public relations task for mental health professionals who interact with people who have grudges is to convince them they should forgive. While some people think they can’t forgive, others mistakenly believe they shouldn’t forgive. Being able to and wanting to are different things and both can be impediments to bestowing forgiveness.

A number of related myths and misunderstands conspire to cause grudge holders to think they should not forgive. First, some people who harbour grudges think certain types of offences are inherently not forgivable. To justify their refusal to forgive, these reluctant people often cite extreme cases that are statistically rare (eg., rape and murder of children, instances of domestic violence involving wife battering). My experience with this type of objection is that people have a confused idea of what true forgiveness is. They see it as mutually exclusive or antagonistic to legal justice. While forgiving another always results in an emotional ‘pardon’, it does not necessarily lead to a legal pardon where the other is exempted from assuming legal responsibility for their wrong actions. Angry victims of criminal violence can work towards legal justice while at the same time working to move out from under the emotional burden of bitterness. These people should realize that just as they were victimized by their human assailant, their own bitterness represents an emotional assailant that need not continue to re-victimize them.

Closely related to the idea that justice is undermined by forgiveness is the idea that victims who forgive are condoning or justifying the wrongful actions of the perpetrator. In cases of authentic forgiveness, this is simply not true. As a starting point, true forgiveness always assumes the existence of a deep hurt that is both unfair and unjust. If there is no deep harm or if the harm is not serious in magnitude (eg., being at the receiving end of a thoughtless practical joke), there is no need for forgiveness. Also, if the aggression on the part of the perpetrator is truly deserved, then again there will presumably be no need for forgiveness.

Another popular dysfunctional belief that serves to block people from bestowing forgiveness is the idea that you shouldn’t forgive unless the perpetrator first apologizes and expresses contrition or makes restitution. The idea that others must merit our forgiveness is deeply engrained in the western psyche, and represents yet another psychological barrier to the forgiveness of others. Actually, research bears out that not receiving an apology is a barrier (see People do indeed tend to hold onto their grudges and fan the flames of their resentment in response to whether or not they have received an apology. Although true forgiveness is not held hostage by unrepentant perpetrators, it’s difficult to convince people they should forgive under such circumstances.

False pride probably plays a role in this barrier. However, a much bigger reason for the widespread reluctance to forgive people who don’t seem contrite is the belief that this type of forgiveness is not prudent, wise or safe. According to this line of thinking, it’s only logical to expect that an enemy will repeat their hurtful actions against you if they receive signals that they (falsely) interpret as indicating the harm they did in the past has been “excused.” Thus, fear of adverse consequences can block people from becoming motivationally ready to forgive.

To rebut this type of logic, mental health practitioners need to educate the public on two matters. First, forgiveness does not necessarily consist of a victim approaching an enemy to say “I forgive you.” In our own research that has involved teaching angry ex-alcoholics (who were at high risk for relapse) how to forgive, we were careful to teach them that there are two modes of forgiving others. First there is the inner experience of forgiveness and secondly there is the public expression of this inner shift. They need not both co-occur simultaneously. Just as our ex-alcoholic clients learned, lay people everywhere need to learn the public expression of forgiveness can sometimes be dangerous and ill-advised. Our own clients needed to be carefully taught to discern whether their perpetrators were remorseful or not. If the perpetrators were judged not to be contrite, we encouraged our clients to move toward “silent” forgiveness in the form of a softened and more sympathetic heart. Thus, for ethical reasons of protecting the safety of our clients, we sometimes encouraged them not to go public with their new sense of benevolence.

On the other hand, when our clients were involved with perpetrators who were sorry, we encouraged them to move toward a more complex type of forgiveness. This alternative type of forgiveness involved both an inner attitude shift (from malevolence toward benevolence) and an outer expression of this shift in the public domain.

To summarize, behavioural scientists believe forgiveness is an adaptive coping response to aggression even when the aggressor does not earn it or merit it. It’s a misunderstanding to think you should not forgive someone who has not yet apologized. For this reason, true forgiveness is not conditional. True forgiveness is something you give as a gift. In the same way that others don’t earn gifts that you give them, they don’t need to earn your forgiveness. This means others can’t hold you hostage in your efforts to bestow forgiveness. Certainly mental health professionals who work with angry people need to encourage their clients to let go of their bitterness. At the same time, these same clients need to be cautioned not to communicate their equanimity to unrepentant offenders, lest the offender misunderstand and view the client as condoning the harm. If this was to occur, it might set the stage for further re-victimization of the client. Obviously, great care needs to be taken to avoid this from happening.

Very closely related to the fear of forgiveness is the misunderstanding that ‘forgiveness’ is synonymous with the term ‘reconciliation.’ Unfortunately, this is a very widespread misunderstanding, particularly among Christians. If the two concepts were indeed the same it would be easy to see why forgiveness has such a bad reputation in our society. This myth has incorrectly lead lay people and professionals alike to draw the ridiculous conclusion that forgiveness researchers are advocating that victims of spouse abuse should remain in abusive relationships and try and reconcile with their unrepentant aggressors. Such a misunderstanding was forcefully brought to my attention to by a feminist colleague who works tirelessly in the area of social justice as an advocate for the welfare of women who had been brutally victimized by their partners. The message I received from this colleague was that the women she worked with should not be encouraged to forgive their perpetrators. She felt strongly it would be unethical of me to teach these women to overcome their grudges using the tool of forgiveness. I replied by saying some of our own research clients found themselves situations similar to her battered wives, and that we never encouraged them to reconcile. Had we done this, it would have been like telling our clients they needed to become best friends with their worst unrepentant enemy. It’s no wonder that forgiveness has such a bad reputation.

In our forgiveness counselling research that taught people how to become more forgiving, we went to great lengths to assure our clients that forgiveness is different than reconciliation. First of all reconciliation requires both people’s cooperation. Forgiveness, however, is something a victim can do by themselves without the cooperation of the perpetrator. Thus, while bestowing forgiveness may open the door to reconciliation, reconciliation is more complex. It requires mutual consent by both parties. Importantly, true reconciliation involves true remorse and an expression of contrition and a demonstration of repentance on the part of the former perpetrator. Only in this way can trust be restored. At the same time, overlaid on this is a public expression of forgiveness on the part of the former victim. True reconciliation involves a forgiving victim and a repentant perpetrator.

A nice benefit that comes from understanding that forgiveness is different than reconciliation is the opening up of the possibility that you can forgive people who have died or who have disappeared from your life.


In conclusion, mental health professionals should become much more alert to the many ways in which forgiveness is so easily misunderstood. Having this awareness is important because not discerning the difference between pseudo-forgiveness and authentic forgiveness contributes to a lack of motivational readiness to change in people who stand to benefit from learning to forgive. Psychologists and other behavioural scientists who are truly dedicated to serving others by helping to reduce their suffering should try and educate potential clients and the general public about what forgiveness really is. If we can sustain a good public relations campaign, it might increase the willingness of people to avail themselves of treatment services.

What I have done in this essay is similar to what our forgiveness counsellors did in our research study involving ex-alcoholic clients who had come to us for assistance in letting go of their grudges. By virtue of their pre-existing membership in 12-Step groups for addiction recovery, all of the clients who came to us valued forgiveness as a virtue. I had expected that teaching these people how to forgive would be like preaching to the choir. I was surprised to find this was not the case. Despite the importance our clients ascribed to learning how to forgive, many of them held unfounded beliefs and misunderstanding. Thus, our counselor’s first task was to achieve a consensus about what forgiveness was and dispel myths about what it was not. Over the course of a five month period, we gave our clients 10 group counselling sessions. In the very first session, we spent time dispelling counter-therapeutic myths that might have gotten in the way of treatment adherence. Our fear was that clients who had distorted idea about forgiveness might drop out prematurely. So, to disabuse them of their wrong ideas we gave them our ‘debunking curriculum”. Much of what I have described in the current essay was based on debunking material given during Session 1. For further details, the interested reader is referred to the 1998 chapter mentioned earlier by Exline and Baumeister.

I hope that INPM subscribers will find some of this material to be useful for their own purposes. I encourage you to take what you need and leave the rest.