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What Is Forgiveness?

Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Certified 

You’ve heard of forgiveness, but what does it actually mean? Harpercollins’ Dictionary (1989) defines “to forgive” as “to grant pardon for or remission of an offense, granting pardon to a person, ceasing to feel resentment, and canceling an indebtedness or liability.” However, forgiveness tends to be more complicated when it’s applied to real-life relationships.  

Marriage and family therapist Bren Chasse described forgiveness from an evolutionary standpoint. He reports that “in early times, it allowed groups to minimize conflict and helped support, foster, and preserve cooperation so that groups could function effectively, thrive, and achieve the goals necessary for their survival. In short, group members needed each other, a fact which didn’t change when a wrong had been done. They had to learn to deal with wrongs and stay alive (Chase, 2021).” In this context, forgiveness was needed in order to survive. Is forgiveness as important and vital today?

Defining Forgiveness

Researchers cannot agree on one specific definition of forgiveness (McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen, 2000). However, there are some similarities across their efforts to define forgiveness. Consider these definitions:

  • Enright, Freedman, and Rique (1998) define forgiveness as a “willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us…”
  • Exline and Baumeister (2000) state that forgiveness is “a canceling of a debt by the person who has been wronged or injured.”
  • Denton and Martin (1998) claim that forgiveness involves “two people, one of whom has received a deep and long-lasting injury that is either psychological, emotional, physical or moral in nature; forgiveness is an inner process by which the person who has been injured releases him-or herself from the anger, resentment, and fear that are felt and does not wish for revenge.” 
  • Hargrave and Sells (1997) write that forgiveness is “a process that occurs over time in which the individual who has been injured becomes less angry, resentful, fearful, and interested in revenge.” 

The commonalities in these definitions consist of a focus on the forgiver’s perceptions and emotions in relation to the one whom they are forgiving. Do they feel less angry? Do they no longer require vengeance or payback? If so, this person may have forgiven the person who wronged them. 

Experiencing positive emotions about the person who has wronged you is also a part of forgiveness. McCullough et al. (1997) claim that a forgiver is  “decreasingly motivated to maintain estrangement from the offender, and increasingly motivated by conciliation and goodwill for the offender.” In addition, Enright, Freedman, and Rique (1998) define forgiveness as “fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love towards him or her.” These definitions suggest that forgiveness entails not merely a diminishment or absence of negative thoughts and emotions towards one’s wrongdoer, but an experience of positive thoughts and emotions towards, and even possible engagement with, one’s wrongdoer. 

What Does Forgiveness Look Like?

How do you know if you’ve experienced forgiveness? According to these definitions, you would notice a change in your perceptions and emotions related to your wrongdoer. Your perception of the person who harmed you may change from needing revenge to wishing them well. Your emotions may change from anger and hurt to peace and acceptance. These are signs that you might have experienced forgiveness. 

Forgiving is not easy. In fact, it can feel impossible. Many people work on forgiveness while participating in individual therapy. Yet, you might want to consider participating in couples therapy or family therapy with the person who has harmed you, if this is a possibility. These experiences may help you to get closer to experiencing forgiveness. 

If you would like to start counseling, Symmetry Counseling provides individual, couples, and family therapy. Contact our intake department today to be connected with a Chicago counselor


Chasse, B. (2021). Healing from Trauma Does Not Hinge on Forgiveness. Good Therapy. Blog Post. Retrieved from

Denton, R. T., & Martin, M. W. (1998). Defining forgiveness: An empirical exploration of process and role. American Journal of Family Therapy, 26(4), 281–292.

Enright, R. D., Freedman, S., & Rique, J. (1998). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness (pp. 46–62). University of Wisconsin Press.

Exline, J. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Expressing forgiveness and repentance: Benefits and barriers. In M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament, & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 133–155). Guilford Press.

Hargrave, T. D., & Sells, J. N. (1997). The development of a forgiveness scale. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 23(1), 41–63.

Harpercollins (1986). Forgive. Williams Collins English Dictionary Digital Edition.

McCullough, M. E., Pargament, K. I., & Thoresen, C. E. (2000). The psychology of forgiveness: History, conceptual issues, and overview. In M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament, & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 1–14). Guilford Press.

McCullough, M. E., Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Rachal, K. C. (1997). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2), 321–336.

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