Untangling Forgiveness, Unforgiveness, Reconciliation and Revenge

cover art for episode with Susan Boon on forgiveness, unforgiveness, reconciliation and revenge

Although researchers may not agree on forgiveness, they generally agree on what it is not. Unforgiveness can also be a deliberate choice. In this episode, Susan D. Boon and I discuss forgiveness, unforgiveness, reconciliation, and revenge.


Susan D. Boon is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary. A social psychologist by training, she is passionate about the topic of personal relationships and has a particular fascination with their darker sides. Together with her students, she has been investigating a broad range of topics in the field of personal relationships since 1992.

Dr. Boon trained under the supervision of Dr. John G. Holmes (University of Waterloo) and Dr. Brendan G. Rule (University of Alberta). She is indebted to both of them for their mentorship and inspiration!

We recorded this episode on DATE.

Maybe I’m not so clear on what forgiveness is, but I think I know what forgiveness is not

Susan Boon

Your Challenge Invitation

Think about your own forgiveness profile. Consider what transgressions you’ve done that you’ve wanted forgiveness for or gotten forgiveness for. Use that to add care into your own process of deciding when and if to forgive another person.

You can connect with Damianne on the Changes BIG and small website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. You’re also invited to join the Changes BIG and small Facebook community.

I believe that forgiveness is not always possible. There are some things that are unforgivable. – Susan Boon

Similar Episodes

Timeline of the Chat

[01:38] Defining forgiveness and unforgiveness
[06:36] What forgiveness is not
[12:16] The pressure to forgive
[14:55] The process of forgiveness
[25:22] Does forgiveness take two people?
[27:00] What if you’re not ready/able to forgive – Unforgiveness
[31:31] The Flip Side of Forgiving and Forgiveness
[33:22] Does self-forgiveness help?
[36:19] Who has the power or right to forgive?
[38:19] Forgiveness and revenge
[39:34] What we mean by revenge with forgiveness
[42:38] Invitation/Challenge

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People often confuse forgiveness and reconciliation. – Susan Boon

Who gets to judge and why do they get to judge and who gets to forgive and who doesn’t get to forgive? Susan Boon

Transcript of the Episode

[01:38] Defining forgiveness and unforgiveness

[01:38] Damianne President: And it autocompletes to unforgiveness is like drinking poison. Unforgiveness is a sin. Unforgiveness hurts you more than the other person, and so on and so forth. I can kind of see a lot of connections to religion with this topic, but I want to know how do you think about forgiveness. What is forgiveness from your perspective?.

[01:59] Susan Boon: Just start off with a really, really difficult question. I don’t know if you’ve spoken to enough researcher to figure out that few of us agree, rather, we tend to disagree on what things are. 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 motives 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, but at least it’s the ideas out there clearly that forgiveness is a reduction in negative feelings towards an offender. Often people seem to assume that you can’t forgive and get even. You know that you’ve got to choose one or the other.

I guess what I have is a very, very complex relationship with the topic of forgiveness. And because I also study revenge and I study unforgiveness and, I’m not one of those people that’s going to say that forgiveness is a correct move in every instance. And I think there’s a lot of misinformation or flawed beliefs out there. And I’m saying this, not just in the general public, but also among researchers, I think we tend to confuse reconciliation with forgiveness. That’s something that’s very, very common in people who don’t study the topic to believe that in order to forgive, you’ve got to I’m sorry.

 People often confuse forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s a very, very common belief that in order to forgive someone, you’ve got to be willing to maintain a relationship with them or continue to be their friend, or perhaps the married to them, depending on the nature of the particular racial relationship that you have with the person that’s hurt you. There’s disagreement. There are people who studied forgiveness who believe that that is true and correct, but I think it’s more common for people to think no can. There’s different kinds of forgiveness. What a complicated answer to the simple question that you asked, right?

You can have sort of an interest psychic or in personal within yourself, forgiveness you deal with your feelings about what’s been done to you and how you were harmed. But you don’t necessarily have any further contact or any communication with your friends. There’s no reconciliation need to ever communicate to that individual that you’ve forgiven them. It’s something that you do for yourself..

Then there’s an interpersonal kind of forgiveness, which would involve that communicating, restoring or maintaining the relationship possibly reconciliation. So what is forgiveness? I think it’s actually complicated. It doesn’t sound like a tough question, but it actually is. There’s a lot of different views about what it is.

Like I said, I have sort of complex relationship with myself. I’m not sure that I always know what forgiveness is. sometimes I wonder whether we, as so-called experts, ought to be telling people what it is. Perhaps that’s not our job, although there may be value in helping them to separate some assumptions.

If a person feels it can’t forgive because they feel they have to stay in a relationship with that person and yet they would benefit from moving on and letting go of the hurt, then maybe it would be helpful for them to know that you don’t have to have anything to do with them. You don’t have to ever speak to them again. You don’t ever have to have contact with them again, if you can manage that in your day to day interactions. It’s enough for you to let go of the negative emotion, you know, that can be forgiving. According to some scholarly views, that would be considered forgiveness.

[05:36] Damianne President: I am not surprised because on the one hand, part of why I ask that question is because I’ve had conversations about forgiveness with many people. And we don’t agree on what it means. The point you brought up about the confusion between forgiveness and reconciliation resonates with me because that’s often the points where somebody will say, oh, but if you truly forgive, then you’ve forgotten what they’ve done to you and you can continue.

[06:01] Susan Boon: No, no,

[06:03] Damianne President: The other side is you can forgive and you could also be like, okay, this is not good for me. I am going to separate from you. I don’t need to remain entrenched in, in facts of, of.

[06:18] Susan Boon: yes,.

[06:18] Damianne President: am hurt or I do not need to continue the hurt wishing you harm..

[06:24] Susan Boon: yes..

[06:25] Damianne President: So when I think about what are the components of forgiveness, maybe we could break it up into. There are different things that that research look at when they look at forgiveness. 

[06:36] What forgiveness is not

[06:36] Susan Boon: Can I say one other thing. Maybe I’m not so clear on what forgiveness is, but I think I know what forgiveness is not. There’s some great articles. There’s a fantastic article by a very prominent forgiveness researcher. And he says, you know, here are the things that forgiveness does. And I think there’s general agreement that this viewpoint is correct.

And I’m hoping I get to remember all of them, but it’s not excusing. It’s not concern, you know, there may need to be consequences. And if those consequences involve cutting off communication with the person, cutting off interaction with the person and being the relationship with the person, you know, so be it.

So it’s not excusing, it’s not condoning. It’s not saying it’s okay. But thinking about how many times when someone apologizes to you, that’s what you tell them. It’s kind of like that, you know, when someone apologizes, you want I’m so sorry. I did this, there the script for the victim’s responses.

It’s okay. I was maybe sending the wrong message in some cases that, you know, what you did was not okay. And maybe we can come back and talk about that later if the conversation sort of meanders into the revenge territory or the numbness territory. But it’s not condoning, it’s not excusing, it’s not reconciling.

We’re pretty clear on some of the things it’s not, although again, like I said, with the reconciliation, you will sometimes see people sort of losing track of that as they start talking further about forgiveness. What it isn’t, we’re fairly clear on what it is. Not everybody’s as quick to agree, but that’s my perception of the literature in any case.

[08:12] Damianne President: I’m just imagining kind of this Venn diagram of all of the different definitions of forgiveness and those three that you mentioned of not excusing, not condoning, not reconciling being.

[08:25] Susan Boon: Not forgetting,.

[08:26] Damianne President: of those circles circles,

[08:27] Susan Boon: not forgetting. It’s when you said you have to forget. I forgot that one. I forgot to say it’s not forgetting. Ha ha. But yeah. It’s not condoning, it’s not excusing, it’s not reconciling, it’s not forgetting.

[08:39] Damianne President: So then that brings us to, if we know kind of what forgiveness might entail and what givenness, doesn’t entail, then are there times when forgiveness is necessary and other times when forgiveness is not even possible?

[08:53] Susan Boon: You’re going to find disagreement among people on, on with respect to the, you know, you guys, you’re probably not gonna be saying that a lot. I think is it necessary? I think it kind of depends. Like, what are your goals for your interaction? If you’re going to have any for your continuing interaction with the person who’s wronged you and you know, maybe it’s an important consideration here too, is what are your beliefs?

If you believe it’s necessary, then it may for you be necessary. I’m going to say, I think I know that there’s research that supports the view that is sort of widely. I believe that forgiveness is not always possible. There are some things that are unforgivable. And I mean, often it’s really, really serious things like murder and sexual assault and sexual abuse, abusive children, and war crimes and atrocities and things like that.

Most people believe that it’s not possible to forgive that at the same time. There are people who do forgive those kinds of things, or at least believe they forgive those kinds of things. So it’s like on the one hand yes. On the other hand, no. Some people seem to be capable of doing it, but other people view it as outside the realm of possibility.

So I don’t know if that answers your question, but for some individuals, yes. Maybe for many people, there are some things that cannot be forgiven and should not be forgiven in our own research. We found that it doesn’t have to be sexual abuse. There are much milder things that happen that people will say that’s unfair. So you kind of have to consider in the context of the relationship. That’s why I was asking earlier, like, you know, what are your goals or desires for that relationship if you don’t need or want continuing contact with that person. And you’re not feeling if you’re not focused and, and continuing to experience lingering negative emotion, that’s impairing your ability to move forward and carry on with your daily life.

If it’s not interfering with your other relationships, if you’re not finding yourself absorbed or constantly experiencing thoughts, ruminative thoughts about the, the offense, then I think you don’t necessarily need to forgive me, but you’re talking to someone who, like I said, at the very confused, I see these things, I don’t necessarily see them as mutually exclusive. I’m not one of those people is gonna say forgiveness is the only, all the time best option, regardless of the circumstances,.

[11:26] Damianne President: people who will do that..

That’s also why I wanted to talk to you because I liked the fact that you broadened the conversation about forgiveness and unforgiveness, instead of just what often comes up is that, which is that you must forgive and you’re holding your own self back. If you don’t forgive you.

And I think that can be very difficult for people to hear and to accept because sometimes as you said, we might experience that something is unforgivable. So then what does that say about it? That were even more wrong or more bad were even worse than of a person than, than maybe the offender. If we can forgive them. It’s kind of a really awkward space to be in when people are saying you have to forgive. 

[12:16] The pressure to forgive

[12:16] Susan Boon: Yeah and that experience of being pressured to forgive when you’re not ready, that can be really, really uncomfortable and harmful. I think when we first started our research on unforgiveness, it was inspired by conversations that one of my honors students who was having, she was volunteering at a local distress center and she would have telephone conversations with individuals who had been abused as children, or really, really serious things like that.

And they would call up and they’d need someone to talk to. And part of what they were dealing with was not just the legacy of the abuse or whatever the really, really serious transgression was, but also other people’s insistence that they needed to forgive. You know, why aren’t you over this yet?

Why can’t you let it go? It’s awkward for the family because you won’t be in the same room with so-and-so, with the abuser. And they were experienced in this pressure and being told you’ve got to forgive because it’s unhealthy not to. Well, I’m not going to say, if the jury is out, I think on, we don’t know yet whether there may be. We have some evidence that points to the possibility that if you can not forgive, but also not hold the negative emotions and you’re not constantly thinking about it. It’s not really good evidence, but we have some very, very tentative. Is it that you might be fine? It may not be unhealthy to choose not to forgive. It may be that, that motion and the inability to sort of get your thoughts away from, from what you’ve suffered, that may be the unhealthy part..

But if people are telling you that this is the only way to move forward and you simply cannot do so for some reason, or you do not believe that what was done to you can be or should be forgiven. And where are you when you’re in the face of this kind of pressure?

So I think it’s those kinds of experiences really led us to explore the idea that maybe, you know, what is unforgiveness, what’s the experience like? And isn’t always a bad idea, a sin, like you were saying, and, and harming yourself, like you said, at the beginning,

[14:15] Damianne President: I think that when forgiveness becomes most challenging personally, is when I can still see imprints today whatever that transgression is. So I think that maybe forgiveness is easier when it’s a complete action is constrained in time, but there are lots and lots of incidents where that is not the case where you to learn to live with the impact of whatever it is that somebody else did to you, which is what you’re being called on to forgive. So I can see that being very challenging. 

[14:55] The process of forgiveness

[14:55] Susan Boon: Yeah. So one of the things you’re making me think of there is, you know, back to what is forgiveness? Well, it is a process. It is a process and it occurs over time. And you may on any given day at any given moment, your thoughts may return to an offense that happened maybe years ago. And, you know, your motivation to be benevolent towards that offender could take a dive and nose dive on that day as you’re having those thoughts. Or if you continuing to struggle with long-term outcomes associated with what was done, I mean, really serious transgression, but you said they don’t just end with a single act. But they have long standing repercussions.

You may have to deal with those every day for the rest of your life, depending on what that actual was. So, you know, in a case like that, it would make complete sense. If there’s variation over time, peaks and valleys in your towards the offender and your ability to sort of and forgiving, be forgiving, even want to forgive. And there may be pockets..

You may have forgiven, but what we’re thinking is there still, and we’re not the only ones there may still be POS. Uh, view where, where that’s not completely the case, you know, like overall you’re figuring maybe you want to forgive. Maybe you’ve decided to forgive, but you may still have some thoughts and feelings that where you have not completely worked through.

[16:16] Damianne President: And I think, especially in situations where you want to maintain a relationship with somebody and you’re also working through forgiveness, then there are other emotions, I guess, or characteristics such as trust. so those are also not stable. Whereas if you feel trusting of that person in a moment, you can be like, I am committed to this process of forgiving and showing up.

So that puts it in a way that has been of a lens. And at other times it could be like, I’m not really sure that I trust this person. And so I I’ve experienced this myself where I may set an intention, but then actually doing the work that with that intention is more challenging because, well, one, it takes a lot of self-management I guess, order to consistently do these behaviors. And two, I don’t feel the same way about that person with all the intersections of emotions from a day-to-day basis.

[17:24] Susan Boon: Yes. Yes. There, there’s some thinking. I mean if you relied solely on how you felt about forgiving the person and you never made that conscious intention to forgive, you might never get there. So there’s some thinking that you can decide to forgive and hopefully your emotions will come in line with that.

As you behave in a more forgiving fashion or more charitable, maybe I use that word sometimes forgiving to me as sort of baggage that charitable may not do. You know, you can try to try as far as possible to give them a little bit of the benefit of the doubt as you’re moving forward, try to trust them in small ways and small places and see if they’re gonna, you know, deserve that trust.

And over time you may be able to build up you know, more benevolence, more trusting feelings towards that individual and that feelings may come in line with the decision to trust. But I think for a lot of people, though, those feelings have a huge impact and they do vary. They can vary depending on what’s been done to you and, and what it may mean.

 And transcriptions have symbolic or they can have some ball with me. Maybe it’s not such a big thing, but it’s the last straw, you know, it’s, it’s it’s yeah long succession of things. No one of them may be big, but they accumulate and it’s like just another piece of it is that it’s not just that you did X, but it’s that in doing X, you have demonstrated how little you value me, how unimportant my needs and preferences are towards you.

Does. I mean, even small acts, like in that sense, I think that’s why we were finding that in our study, some people were saying they couldn’t forgive fairly mundane, mild kinds of transgressions that might sometimes have been because there were symbolic value to those behaviors. It was like, yes, here we are.

Again, another instance of this.

[19:22] Damianne President: Yeah. And for listeners, I think the important thing to also mention here is that often people think about forgiveness. Like you said, we’ve bigger things. So maybe somebody who was loyal or somebody cheated on a partner, but this types of transgressions, whether we need to forgive somebody actually happens across the board in relationships.

So whether it’s your coworker or a family member, a friend, or a romantic partner in any relationship that you’re having with all the people, there could be a time when you feel hurt. When you feel somebody has done something against you, where you may need to work through

[20:06] Susan Boon: absolutely

[20:07] Damianne President: trust of forgiven them in some way.

[20:09] Susan Boon: absolutely. Romantic relationships are not the only relationships that people have. We put a lot of value in them as in, you know, so for sure, in our Western cultures, at least if not in other cultures as well, that doesn’t mean that the only place where people hurt each other and we found in some of our work that here’s one thing to remember too, is that the sort of most significant relationships in our lives also tend to be the places where we’re most often wronged or hurt.

So it’s the very people that we care about most probably expect the most from are most likely to hurt us and therefore lead to a situation where maybe we need to consider forgiving or other people are pushing us to consider forgiving. So all kinds of relationships. And we found that some of these more important ones, I was saying that, you know, we have sort of expectations or standards people who care for us and love us should value us and they shouldn’t treat us wrong. So then sometimes when they do. It kind of heightens the pain. It feels like need even bigger betrayal. It’s like this is a person who loves me is somebody who’s been my friend for 20 years, 30 years, you know, and then they do this and it’s like, who is that person? You should know better. Right. You should know better and should care more.

[21:24] Damianne President: Yeah.

[21:25] Susan Boon: You should care more. And so that’s part of I think that symbolic value idea, like it takes on an added meaning or significance because this person who should’ve known better did this. And then it really challenges us to challenges our ability to believe that the person cares and values us the way that we thought they did.

[21:47] Damianne President: I have a very small example and we didn’t necessarily walk through it in terms of forgiveness, but I remember having a good friend that I used to spend hours within a week and there were two or three weeks while I was busy she kept asking me to do things. And I kept saying no. And at some point I could sense this distance.

And with that, it’s always kind of hard, right? Because it’s like, okay, am I feeling guilty? So I’m sensing the distance, does the distance really exist? But we had a conversation and it turns out that she. Thinking whether or not I was concerned about something with them. trying to avoid her for some reason, and it could very easily have just grown, whereas we don’t talk about it.

stops inviting me. I get resentful and so on and so forth where just having a conversation. I don’t know that it was forgiveness here, but understanding, and I think that they’re, they can be friends or close, close sisters..

[22:49] Susan Boon: Yeah..

[22:50] Damianne President: In this case, really kind of helped smooth the path for us to be able to having a healthy friendship those types of situations come up over and over and over again.

[23:03] Susan Boon: Yeah. And like you said, it’d come up in all kinds of relationships. We are a profoundly social beings and I think we’re hardwired to develop relationships of some depth and some quality in some intensity with just about anybody that we interact with on occasional occasions.

There’s research looking at what they called peripheral relationships, peripheral interactions, like with your barista, with your hairdresser, with people you don’t see too often, but you have that kind of connection there. There’s sort of a, even there, like when you suddenly have to get your haircut, but a new person, kind of like a different thing.

You’ve got to kind of rebuild that relationship, right? If your usual barista’s not there, the person doesn’t know what you want. Like even these little interactions where we’re prone to developing feelings of, you know, kind of a relationship they seem to have more impact than we realize.

That’s one of the things with COVID that really got lost. People may have steps to try to maintain their closer relationships or the relationships with people. They encountered more often in their lives with these little, you know, the bus, beside the person and in the coffee shop. And the hairdressers, those kinds of had a lot of those ended, but we tend to form relationships, whatever they may be with our coworkers, our animals, you know, our paths, with the celebrities and characters in books and and film and things like that. sort of naturally prone, most of us, to developing a sort of sense of affiliation or affinity for other people, particularly the more often that we see them.

So yeah, you know, it, it, there’s all kinds of relationships in which things can go wrong. And it’s not always because the person meant to do something, but like you were saying there like that, sometimes what’s clear to one person isn’t clear the other person. And because you raised the issue with the individual, you were able to communicate your way past it.

But if you haven’t done so. Or it, wasn’t the kind of relationship where you felt comfortable doing so, it might just have ended because of that. Or she may have been very upset and thought that you were angry with her or avoiding her and, you know, that could have had definitely a negative impact on your interactions moving forward.

[25:09] Damianne President: Yeah, that happens so much nowadays with online dating online relationships too, and people might ghost you and then you. Say wondering what did you do wrong.

[25:18] Susan Boon: Yeah.

[25:19] Damianne President: knows whether it was you or something else

[25:21] Susan Boon: Yeah..

[25:22] Does forgiveness take two people?

[25:22] Damianne President: Back to the topic of forgiveness, one thing I’ve wondered about, and I go back and forth in terms of deciding whether this is possible or not. I wonder, if you want to forgive somebody and continue to have a relationship with them, do they have to be part of your process of forgiveness? you need to have a conversation with them or can you do this all on your own?

[25:43] Susan Boon: I think it depends. I say yes, you can do it all on your own. Assuming they did something or didn’t do something, whatever it may have been that hurt and upset you, if you don’t address it with them, it could happen again..

Quite frankly, even if you forgive them, it could happen. Even if you communicate to them that you’ve forgiven them, it could happen again. So you might want to have a conversation. It potential risk with that is sometimes people don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong. Like you may see offense and they may not see an offense. If you then go and say I forgive you for when you did this and they’re like, well, I didn’t do anything, I don’t think it was wrong, it’s definitely awkward, right? If you’ve ever been in those sorts of situations, that could be a very awkward situation.

So, you do not need to communicate to the person, even if you want to have continuing interaction with them. But if it’s likely that they will repeat the negative behavior that that you to that sense of being wronged, may want to communicate with them. You may have a conversation about what is it that they did that bothers you?

[26:51] Damianne President: Right..

[26:51] Susan Boon: You can address sort of the discrepancy in between the two of you in terms of how you’re responding to that, behavior. 

[27:00] What if you’re not ready/able to forgive – Unforgiveness

[27:00] Damianne President: What I sometimes think is if there is something that might be a repeated behavior, then how could my response set better boundaries in that moment? So I need to plan for it ahead of time. Or can I develop strategies where I’m going to be more competent at setting boundaries?

[27:24] Susan Boon: So that’s where I’m going to say something here that maybe lots of people will disagree with. That’s one situation where possibly unforgiveness may be a better response depending than forgiveness.

If you have a conversation in which you say, you know, I can’t forgive you yet, or I won’t forgive you yet because you need to know that that behavior hurt, that behavior is wrong, it’s upsetting and I’m not ready to do that. You know, I’m not in a place where that can be something that I can feel..

Holman Lozano is a graduate student at a university here in Canada, and he’s done some absolutely fascinating research on unforgiveness and he describes it as a moral position that’s between forgiving and revenge, but allows the person who’s unforgiving to communicate a clear message that the behavior that happened is unforgivable or that at least you are not prepared or ready or able or willing to forgive it yet. Doesn’t mean you wouldn’t maybe someday be able to forgive, but he’s arguing that there ought to be space given to people to be unforgiving and not this pressure that you’ve got kind of, you know…..

Much of the literature seems that if you’re not forgiving, then you’re holding a grudge it and possibly you’re engaging in revenge. His idea is this is something that’s sort of a middle ground. His view is actually quite politically motivated and oriented. And he’s thinking of the truth and reconciliation commission and some of the things that haven’t been done in some countries where victims and perpetrators have gotten together, and there’s kind of the idea is that everybody should be aiming for forgiveness.

 What he’s concerned about is that when does he give a space for people to say, look, that was so wrong, it can’t be forgiven and find some other way to, without going as far as revenge, some other way to deal with this.

[29:23] Damianne President: Yeah. And when you were talking, what came to mind was I think it was one of the Chicago seven who was wrongly imprisoned. I think it was on Oprah and he was talking about how he’s not going to forgive the person whose lies got him into prison. He was very firm in his position that he is not aiming to forgive. And I think the conceptualization of unforgivable forgiveness actually being a deliberate choice is important for people to consider. What if it’s okay for you to make this choice? I find personally that when I make a choice, whether it’s something that other people consider as good or bad, it frees up so much mental space because otherwise you’re just in this cycle of deciding, which is very emotionally and mentally taxing.

[30:21] Susan Boon: And what Holman says, too, is that when people are pushing you to forgive, it’s often more for them than for you. They’re uncomfortable with the fact that you haven’t forgiven. It’s kind of none of their business in a sense, right? You need to do the work. And if you decide that you think is the best move for you is not the forgiveness instance given what has been done to you, I don’t see a point in pressuring you.

I mean, if you were struggling with if, it was negatively affecting areas of your life, then you need to get some help maybe to find a way to cope with things so that you’re not depressed or anxious or unable to work because you’re constantly thinking about this or it’s, it’s ruining your relationships with people. But, I don’t know that that has to involve forgiving or even, you know, interventions designed to forgive.

Our society values forgiving and idealizes forgiving. But maybe it isn’t appropriate in every situation. Maybe people need to be given time to get to that point. And it’d be nice if society was willing to do that. 

[31:31] The Flip Side of Forgiving and Forgiveness

[31:31] Damianne President: What’s the most interesting area of your research at the moment?

[31:37] Susan Boon: We’ve started looking at forgiveness from the perspective, kind of flipping it on its head. We’ve been talking about it entirely so far in this conversation from the viewpoint of the victim. Lately we’re beginning to pursue research looking at that from the perspective of the perpetrator.

 There’s a small, but growing body of literature on this, but it’s really a neglected area. The focus has been for a bunch of obvious reasons and maybe some other reasons that aren’t so obvious, the focus has really been on the experience of the person who’s been wronged or harmed. And we’re now trying to understand what is that experience when you’re the one who’s perpetrated the wrongdoing and what’s involved in your decision to make amends to seek forgiveness. And what is the experience like when you are not forgiven?

We’re trying to understand, well, what’s it like in a situation where you’ve done something, you can’t undo it. So it’s done and you’ve harmed someone and they’re not willing to forgive you because sometimes that happens. Maybe it’s justified, maybe it’s, you know, less justified. What’s it like to be in that position?.

I was deeply inspired by the movie Seven Pounds. I don’t want to blow anything for listeners, but the main character in this movie spends a great deal of effort, let’s put it that way, trying to redeem himself for an accident that he caused that resulted in the loss of, it might’ve been seven people’s lives, incredible length. It speaks to the issue of self forgiveness too. And what’s it like when you can’t forgive yourself; maybe other people will forgive you, but you can’t forgive yourself. 

[33:22] Does self-forgiveness help?

[33:22] Damianne President: Yeah, the question I was just writing as you were talking was does the forgiving yourself help if other people can’t forgive you?

[33:30] Susan Boon: I really wrestled with that. If there are unforgivable transgressions, does that mean that there are unforgivable people, you know, if I’ve engaged in some kind of behavior is itself unforgivable, does that make me unforgiveable?

I love redemption stories. I love movies and television and books and things where people can…. I’m not sure why I’m drawn to them so much, especially since they also study revenge and forgiveness, which seems kind of antithetical to redemption. Maybe it’s another piece of this larger puzzle, but I like to think that you could do something heinous, but if you then spent the rest of your life trying to make up for that, that you could be, do I want to say forgiven, but that you could be redeemed?

Are those the same things? I guess I’m not I’m thinking of Les Miserables, Rob and John who not admittedly he didn’t well, he did, he did steal; he did steal the candlesticks. So I guess that that is a real wrong. He really did do it. But he kind of spends the rest of his life trying to be a good person because the priest extended mercy, undeserved mercy to him. So he then lives this life of where he’s trying to do the best for everybody that he encounters. It turns a whole new leaf, but I don’t think he ever forgives themselves or not fully there. Well, since I’ve read the book, um, my thinky struggles with it and forget, I’m not sure if you, if you’re familiar with the reference.

[35:00] Damianne President: I’ve read it and I’ve even seen Senate perform debate on, remember the, all of the details.

[35:08] Susan Boon: I mean, stealing candlesticks in the grand scheme of things is not such a, not such a big crime. Well, some people wouldn’t forgive you for it. Right. They wouldn’t. But I think if people accidentally, say in a car accident maybe you were driving unsafely, but you certainly never intended to harm anyone, but you do.

[35:25] Damianne President: And maybe even not driving on safely, but road conditions and….

[35:28] Susan Boon: yup, yup, yup, yup.

Yup. You know, I mean, yes, sometimes. Sometimes it’s to no fault of your own, you, unfortunately, are the person in control of the vehicle. If someone dies, maybe the family of the person who is killed doesn’t forgive you, what’s it like for you? I bet you live the rest of your life struggling. Many people I think would, would struggle to recover from that as the person who did the wrong accidentally. It’s even worse, I suppose, if you knew darn well that what you were doing was wrong and you did it anyways, you know, doing a high-speed road, race down the road for some reason.

 I wrestle with what would it be like? And that kind of person, if they’re not forgiven, redeemed themselves, despite…

I’d like to think, yes.

[36:19] Who has the power or right to forgive?

[36:19] Damianne President: And I think that about that, even in smaller context, too, just in terms of people making mistakes and the nature of mistakes nowadays, especially with social media being so public and being sometimes seemingly permanent. When you make a mistake, do you, as you said, what does redemption look like? What does making amends look like if, if somebody believes in that process and when do you get to move past, when does society, when does your own judgment allow you to move past.

[36:55] Susan Boon: Well, you raise a really, really interesting issue there, which is also who do you need to seek forgiveness from? Because with the whole social media thing, everything has become so public. One of my students wrote teaching a course on forgiveness and revenge and they had a paper and they want a students wrote about cancel culture and, and was suggesting it’s become more of a bullying kind of a thing.

And it’s like, you know, if you know, you’ve wronged, some person acts, it gets all over social media. Do you apologize to person X alone? Do you apologize to all of your followers and any sort of social media, the internet broadly? Who gets to judge and why do they get to judge and who gets to forgive and who doesn’t get to forgive?

I mean, do we have the right to cancel someone when we’re not the victim? My understanding is that in the Jewish faith, the only person who can forgive is the person who was directly wronged. Now, I don’t know if that also means then that the only person who can hold a grudge and be angry and unforgiving is the person who is direct harmed, probably not.

But it raises that sort of issue of who do we get to be mad at and what happens when we’re the person who makes a mistake? Do we feel a little bit differently when we get canceled than when we’re quick to cancel other things.

[38:13] Damianne President: Yeah. Yeah. Then there’s that righteous indignation and that sense.

[38:18] Susan Boon: Yep.

[38:19] Forgiveness and revenge

[38:19] Damianne President: a sense of ownership where ownership is not necessarily even, or, yeah..

I want to just briefly touch on very early in our conversation. You said some people think that you can’t forgive and get even, and this goes kind of into your research about revenge.

So my question is, well, can you? Can you forgive and still get even.

[38:46] Susan Boon: Yeah, we think someone there’s some research out of Australia with married couples who said they did both. I suspect that they happen in a particular order, that you probably get even first and then you forgive. It’s interesting this idea that somehow you forgive there shouldn’t be consequences associated with it or that you can’t punish.

I don’t think it works well with sort of like what real day every everyday life is like. And absolutely, we’re definitely finding that people, they’re sometimes more able to forgive once they know that they’ve sent a clear message, that behavior hurts. If it was wrong, I won’t stand for it. And it was inappropriate. And there’s some research that suggests that forgiveness doesn’t send that message very clearly because it doesn’t tend to come with consequences. 

[39:34] What we mean by revenge with forgiveness

[39:34] Susan Boon: When I say revenge, I use revenge with a little R. I’m not talking about, you know, taking axes to and

[39:41] Damianne President: And not slashing all the tires…

[39:43] Susan Boon: yeah, slashing tires and burning their house down and physically harming people.

 We study what we call everyday revenge. So it’s sometimes as simple as giving someone the cold, or the silent treatment, or they were late for some important events so the next time something event relies on you being on time, it’s kind of a little bit right back at you. So pretty mild, mundane kinds of things. And you know, some of that is probably going to send a clearer message to the person..

I mean, I can be very, very careful how I say this here. I’m not suggesting that revenge is the best way, and you should always use revenge or punishment, whatever word you want to use there to communicate when you don’t like how you’re being treated. But there is some evidence, at least in relationships where there tends to be a fair bit of bad behavior, if you forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive, guess what? The behavior tends to continue to persist. So there needs to be some sort of day of reckoning or some clear communication. And if you’re not so good at talking it out, then maybe you want to use some kind of behavioral signal instead, which could be something like a little bit of the silent treatment or it can take all kinds of different forms. You have to be careful.

[41:00] Damianne President: I’m smiling because I thought, oh, I’m not a revengeful person, but now that you’ve explained a little R revenge, I’m like, oh, okay, yes, there have certainly been episodes when I have taken revenge, often to the knowledge of the other person, like, I’m not going to talk to you for….

[41:18] Susan Boon: yup. Yup,


[41:21] Damianne President: I’m upset or whatever.

as the case maybe, and before we can walk before we can work through and we can talk through, or we can forgive or whatever. I need to have my moment of whatever I think the consequence is. And I think, yeah, that’s interesting, that idea, because I think what it relates to is the sense of justice, making amends, or whatever..

[41:47] Susan Boon: Yeah. Yes.

[41:49] Damianne President: I mean, forgiveness all fine and great, but often it’s kind of entwined with emotions around, well, I still feel, I feel wronged and I can’t get to forgiveness until I feel like I know something will change. And how do I know something will change because you need to do this, or I need to do that, or whatever the case may be..

[42:12] Susan Boon: Yeah, cause I’m confident you have a clear understanding of what you did wrong, you know, or what I’m upset with whether it’s something you did wrong or not, I’m confident you understand why I’m reacting like this, why I’m sending a message. You’ve received and you’ve correctly understood my message. And hopefully we’re on the same page and it’s your choice whether to continue to enact that behavior or not. But at least I know you know.

[42:38] Invitation/Challenge

[42:38] Damianne President: Yeah. And the other side of forgiveness, although it doesn’t always come up, but then there’s also the element of apology and what does a good apology look like, which is not something we’re going to get to at all into today. But think that might be interesting for listeners to think about.

Our time is winding down. We’re almost up. So is there anything else that you want listeners to take away from our conversation?

[43:02] Susan Boon: I guess maybe the one thing that I would want to leave people with is this is a really complex. The whole issue of forgiveness is really, really complex. One of the things I find really challenging is sort of this understanding, and when we study these things, we tend to study them as a snapshot. We bring somebody into the labs, they tell us about a time you were wrong, and they tell us about the time they were wrong. And what I’m not sure people think about is what came before. We might know what came after, but we don’t know what came before. And there’s a lot of talk in the forgiveness literature about humility.

We talked about mistakes earlier. I mean, sometimes we make mistakes. In case I appear to be arguing that people should be vengeful or unforgiving, I think as you’re contemplating, can I forgive? Should I forgive? Will I forgive?Depending on just how severe the wrongdoing is, I would maybe encourage people to think about the times that they’ve needed forgiveness, just to bear that in mind. Cause we all make mistakes. We all neglect on occasion for one reason or another to consider what’s best for other people when we make decisions. Or at least, you know, certainly I do. I’m not a Saint and I routinely engage in behaviors. I realize afterwards, oh, you know that wasn’t a particularly kind gesture; that wasn’t a thoughtful or a considerate gesture.

We’re busy or preoccupied, or maybe I just really want something and I go for it. And I may even know that what I’m doing is going to hurt someone. So if you’ve ever been in that situation yourself, as you’re contemplating, does forgiveness fit in the context that you’re presently dealing with or doesn’t it?

Maybe just think back if you’ve ever needed forgiveness. How would you feel if you hadn’t been forgiven? And again, I’m not trying to suggest that people should always forgive in those kinds of circumstances just because you would want to be forgiven. Can I have a bit of humility as you’re considering your options. At least you won’t have that sort of self righteous indignation.

I mean, registering indignation is one thing, but I think self-righteous holier than thou kind of indignation, I think things might work out better if when we’re hurt, we also remember that we’ve hurt other people. And again, you know, I do think there are legitimate occasions where forgiveness is probably not the best move or at least you’ve got to do some work first. The other person’s going to do some work first. Maybe you need to go for counseling, whatever it may be. Maybe it’s simply unforgivable. I’m not talking about a case where something is unforgivable, but if perhaps you in any way have contributed in some small fashion to what went before that may have led to the offense, or if you’ve just been in situations, similar situations and you wanted to be forgiven, maybe then just let that inform your thinking at some level. I think that that’s what I’d want.

[45:50] Damianne President: Thank you. Yeah, I think that’s a very nice invitation as it, as they think about their own forgiveness profile. Maybe you can consider what transgressions you’ve done that you’ve wanted forgiveness for or gotten forgiveness for, and use that to care into the process..

Our society values forgiving and idealizes forgiving. But maybe it isn’t appropriate in every situation. – Susan Boon


So it’s the very people that we care about most probably expect the most from are most likely to hurt us and therefore lead to a situation where maybe we need to consider forgiving or other people are pushing us to consider forgiving. – Susan Boon

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