four stages of forgiveness, benefits and dangers CBaS cover art

What is Forgiveness Quiz

Which of the following do you agree with?

If I forgive someone:

  1. I am condoning their behavior
  2. my relationship with him/her will certainly improve
  3. I won’t be angry about what happened
  4. I give up my right to feel hurt, angry, or sad. 
  5. I am willing or able to remain in a relationship with them.
  6. I haven’t really forgiven that person when I remember what happened.
  7. I should only have to forgive once (i.e., once I do it, I’ll never have to think about it again).

There are many definitions of forgiveness but I’m going to stick closely to the one offered by Susan Boon in the last episode. 

The definition that I work with, which is one of the more common ones in the field, which is that forgiveness is a process of motivational change, so a change in your motive towards the person who has harmed you. It’s a reduction in your motivation to avoid them or a reduction in your motivation to get, even with them, or take revenge and an increase in your benevolent motivations. So treating them kindly, or at least like a human being. There’s also been some discussion about how forgiveness involves replacing negative feelings with positive feelings. Not everybody agrees on that one, at least it’s the ideas out there clearly that forgiveness is a reduction in negative feelings towards an offender.

Benefits of Forgiveness

The benefits of forgiveness are both physical and mental. It can be a great coping strategy, helping you develop resilience.

Forgiveness lets you move on from painful memories and experiences, so they don’t define who you are. It can improve mental health. There are also health benefits such as a decrease in blood pressure and stress relief.

Several studies show that receiving forgiveness does not relieve guilt for perpetrators but can be helpful to victims. However, this is an area for further research as Susan mentioned.

What’s Not forgiveness

We’ve defined forgiveness but the concept can still be difficult for people. There is also the challenge that being pressured to forgive can have some detrimental effects such as:

  • guilt if person doesn’t seem sorry
  • forgiveness can be used as a weapon
  • tension from working through the stages
  • resentment from the situation
  • not useful when someone keeps doing the same thing over and over again


Psychotherapist Amanda Ann Gregory shares many of the same concerns about forgiveness that Susan and I discussed. In an article in Psychology Today, she shares 5 dangers of forgiveness:

  • Can make someone feel unsafe by diminishing the harm and wrongs. When people are pushed to forgive, that can feel like an attempt to negate the anger they feel and the harm they experienced.
  • Forgiveness tends to be about the perpetrator. Usually, self-forgiveness is a side effect rather than a focus of forgiveness, which can be very disempowering for trauma survivors.
  • There can be a feeling of blame if survivors do not want to forgive. This can increase feelings of shame.
  • It can be used as a tool to try to silence a survivor. Often, reconciliation and forgiveness are conflated and family members may think that you can be with the person who harmed you and let it go, i.e. drop any pursuit of retribution, amends or accountability.
  • Preemptive to try to avoid pain and the recovery process.

4 Stages of Forgiveness (from Enright)

Knowing the dangers and downsides, if you have a feeling of resentment or injustice that you want to work with, there are workbooks freely available on the internet. If you’re working through some heavy trauma, I recommend getting a therapist to help you work through the stages.

According to Enright, there are 4 stages in the forgiveness model:

  1. Uncover anger
  2. How were you wronged?
  3. What feelings are associated with the action(s)
  4. Decide to forgive
  5. feel your feelings
  6. decide whether you want to forgive
  7. Is the anger you hold harming you in some way?
  8. Work on forgiveness
  9. use compassion to consider how you might forgive
  10. write a letter if that helps
  11. release

There are other models such as Worthington’s REACH and the Biocybernaut Institute’s approach to forgiveness but many models are based on these basic 4-steps, and research has shown their efficacy.

When unjustly hurt by another, we forgive when we overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence, and love; as we give these, we as forgivers realize that the offender does not necessarily have a right to such gifts.

Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute

No one needs to ask your forgiveness in order for you to forgive. However, if you want to seek forgiveness from someone, here are 10 steps from psychologist Judith Eve Lipton as shared in Psychology Today:

The Forgiveness Protocol (or How to ask for Forgiveness)

by Dr. Judith Eve Lipton M.D.

1.  Say you are sorry.

2.  Make an inventory of how your behavior might have hurt or harmed someone. Ask that person if the list is complete, and correct your list to reflect a complete account of the costs of your behavior.

3.  Say you are sorry again. Be prepared to say this many times.

4.  Tell the other person exactly how you understand the costs of your behavior, and allow the other person to vent, elaborate, or reiterate as needed so that the other person really feels heard.

5.  Clarify with the other person if the behavior was a simple accident, a mistake, a mistaken calculation of costs and benefits, or a deliberate deed. This part is not easy and takes time and attention. “Thoughtlessness” is one of the most common sources of problems, and may reflect recurrent self-centeredness. Intentional acts of revenge or malice also require great insight to acknowledge.

6.  Humbly ask forgiveness. Describe your inner state of guilt, remorse, sadness, grief, anger, or whatever.

7.  Describe what you have learned from the incident. Show insight and awareness, or yourself and your mistake, and the other person and his/her pain.

8.  List what you will do or change to avoid a repetition of the incident.

9.  Clarify what penalties to expect if you make a mistake, or transgress again. Discuss what each of you will do to avoid repetition.

10.  Say you are sorry, yet again.

Example of Forgiveness

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I'm a curious problem solver.

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