The Real Meaning of Forgiveness


Once we forgive, it’s hard to get the painful and bitter feelings out. When it comes to forgiving perpetrators of childhood trauma, usually our parents and sometimes our siblings, one needs to address the injury before forgiveness, so that we can heal. A confrontation needs to happen, even if we only talk to, scream and yell at an empty chair. Otherwise, we bury the pain in order to forgive, and that means that we violate ourselves to forgive another. This is bad ethics.


If it is not possible to tell your offender your feelings, you need to find a way to get those feelings out, even if it is only to an empty chair. I have facilitated the empty chair work with the parent standing behind the chair, hearing and witnessing their grown child’s release of pain. This is very powerful healing technique, when one has a truly loving parent. It is one way to accelerate healing. This parent, a true parent, was willing to hear the pain she caused in order to heal her child. That was good ethics and the mom, deserved and earned forgiveness. 


Another essential part of addressing an injury is raising the bar for allowable behaviour in our lives. When we raise the bar, we make a decision about how we will allow others to treat us, as well as how we expect ourselves to behave. Ethics are essential to mental health. We need to establish standards of right and wrong, as well as natural consequences, even when we are dealing with family. 


When someone has injured us and shows remorse, including making efforts to change, it is incumbent upon us to forgive them, especially if they accept our new values or new rules.

Forgiving is for our own relief and it is investing in the growth of others. Forgiving proves that it was the behaviour to which we objected, not the person. It proves that we need to see change and higher standards in our life.


When we don’t see an effort to change, then forgiveness is just for us, not them. First, we don’t want our bodies eaten up with bitterness that never gets released. Second, we don’t even need to tell the other party we have forgiven them, because we need to establish and maintain our bar for how we want to treat others and to be treated. We don’t let someone close to us again who hurts others without remorse, because they will do it again. Refusing to be injured again is ethical. To tolerate bad behaviour is unethical. When one refuses to change, I believe it is best to pull away, even if it makes for a superficial relationship or none at all. It is important that the other party know that the pulling away is not grudge behaviour but logical behaviour to protect one’s self, especially when the issue has been raised with no positive results. 


Refusing to forgive someone who has made amends and has worked hard to change means we have become invested in retribution rather than growth. 


Principles of Forgiveness


Forgiveness is for you. It will make you feel better.

Holding a grudge is a choice born of a belief system that someone did something to hurt you, and if you forgive them, that makes their actions acceptable.

Holding a grudge will not give you satisfaction or make the other person better. It has no use value. It only hurts you. Oprah Winfrey tells the story of a grudge she held against a woman. She hated her and wished her ill. One day, she saw her get out of her limo with shopping bags, all smiles, greeting and being greeted by others, looking happy. It hit her that she had been doing all that suffering, and the other person had not been hurting. 

Actually, grudge holding is a choice to seek retribution over self-correction. This judging person would rather blame than see their perpetrator self-reflect and self-correct. They don’t want to lose their right to keep on judging and blaming. A grudge holder is invested in “making wrong” more than making the other party or the world a better place.

If a person who is being blamed cannot do anything to escape the damning mirror of their worthlessness, no matter how much remorse they express or try to make amends, they cannot grow or self-correct. It is a very rare person, if anyone, who can self-correct or grow in a condemning environment.  Usually, the person gets progressively worse, not better.

Holding a grudge is also the result of not expressing feelings, only thoughts or judgments. We are emptied of our resentments when we talk about them, especially our feelings. When one holds a grudge, but doesn’t talk it out, they invest in making things worse. They get worse. The other person gets worse. The choice to bury the feelings and truth, creating acting out behaviour, is a choice to be worse and do worse than how they were treated. They become worse than the one they blame.

People who don’t express feelings are invested in a kind two-track justice, one for their parents and themselves and another for the rest of the world. They are pro-parent. They don’t tell the truth about their parents treatment of them. They would rather idealize a bad parent than tell the truth about how hurt they had been. When we have parents who are self-absorbed, we are trained to not complain about them, but we are cocked on a hair trigger to blame others for the same thing. These people have one standard for themselves and their parents and another standard for others.

Judging another person and maintaining the position (rather than outgrowing it) that we were innocent victims inflames the resentment. Judging and blaming are not ways to “express our feelings”. Truly expressing our feelings, so we can heal, is a description of the pain we experienced. This cannot happen by someone who is judging and blaming or keeping their feelings to themselves. Eventually, the drive for retribution is multiplied and exacerbated by the repression of the feelings and the growing judgment of the offender to the exclusion of self-reflection.

Forgiveness comes from a realization that we are all mistake-makers, and we all can learn from our mistakes. None of us are an exception. This is actually what we humans are designed to do here in our lifetime. We are here to self-reflect on our childhood and transcend. Some of us do. Some of us don’t and pass our injuries on. 

Those of us who don’t self-reflect and self-correct leave a legacy of scapegoating that turns into a chain reaction.

Those who do not learn from their mistakes are preoccupied with blaming and are unsafe.

We should only forgive and stay with someone who self-reflects and changes.

To believe otherwise is to believe that some are born superior or different and others inferior and different. This is not true.

These people also believe people never change. This is not true.

Yet, forgiveness is a function of empathy, since one realizes, “It could have been me that made that mistake”.

Narcissism allows some people to have a double standard. “Maybe I make these kinds of mistakes, myself, but it doesn’t matter. No one gets to make such mistakes with me, especially against me. In that case, it is a betrayal.”

We are all designed to betray one another eventually, because we are designed to represent ourselves first. Having consideration for others is work, and we all make this “mistake” time and again. Of course, some are more considerate than others, because they have seen better behaviour, been treated better and have empathy, because they experienced empathy as an infant and small child.

The way to tell who we can trust is whether they show remorse or self-reflect when you bring the issue up to them. If they do neither, they may not be safe to trust.  

People who don’t forgive a person who is truly remorseful are unsafe. Stay away.  

Vengeance and retribution are a vicious cycle.  Only unhealthy, injured children, who had to grow up, think in these terms.

Those who don’t have much empathy can still learn the ethics of forgiveness, even if only for their own sake.

If someone does not seem willing to learn his or her lesson, we still don’t hold a grudge (for our sake). We move on.


Healthy people consider that they are responsible for everything that happens to them as adults. They don’t blame. They consider that people treat them the way they do, because they have done something to invite that treatment. They try to figure out what their part is. If the person is unreasonably blaming, we can see that the issues are more about their childhood than our actions (which triggered an old injury and poor coping mechanisms), and it isn’t personal. Then, it’s time to let go, until they do the work on themselves.