Choosing to Forgive: Therapeutic Stages of Forgiveness

“The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

We have all experienced events in our lives when we have held onto painful emotions such anger, sadness, guilt, and shame. Sometimes painful emotions are directly outwardly towards others, accompanied by experiences such as blame, resentment, doubt, or anger. These are times when we feel that we have been wronged by another and are faced with the choice of how to respond to the real or perceived transgression(s), what personal responsibility we are willing to take for it having occurred, and whether or not to forgive. Other times we may experience ourselves as the transgressor, filled with guilt, shame, self-doubts, or sadness. In these times, we also must make the choice of how to respond to the situation – not only by asking for forgiveness – but ultimately through engaging in the soul-searching process that leads to authentic self-forgiveness.

Forgiveness has been a cherished value within many world religions for centuries. Religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity have all placed importance on forgiveness, although there is variation in the ways these religions conceptualize and address forgiveness. Some studies have indicated that individuals who consider themselves to hold religious or spiritual beliefs place greater value on forgiveness than those who do not claim to hold such beliefs. However, the benefits of forgiveness can certainly be experienced by those who do not hold religious or spiritual beliefs. From a spiritual perspective, the process of forgiveness involves actively transforming resentment or anger through forgiving others.

Teachings about the transformative power of forgiveness extend beyond religious and spiritual traditions into modern social support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). An important aspect of this support group’s philosophy is that true forgiveness is integral to authentic healing from addiction – indicating that one is released from carrying the burdens of guilt, shame, resentment, fear, sadness and anger (Kurtz & Ketchum, 1992). This process of forgiveness takes a holistic approach to changing one’s lifestyle, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and reaching a place of self-compassion and forgiveness towards self and other.

Scientific inquiry into the process of forgiveness began as recently as the late 1970s, focusing on the ways in which self-forgiveness may help individuals process internal grievances/internal conflicts. While there is considerable debate amongst researchers as to how to conceptualize forgiveness of self and others, consider the following definitions… slow down and mindfully notice what resonates with your experience.

What is Forgiveness of Others?

“To forgive, truly forgive, involves letting go of the feeling of resentment and of the vision that underlies that feeling – the vision in which we see ourselves as being offended against, the vision of self-as-victim” (Kurtz & Ketchum, 1992, p. 222).

“…forgiveness should be differentiated from ‘pardoning’ (which is a legal term), ‘condoning’ (which implies a justification of the offense), ‘excusing’ (which implies that the offender has a good reason for committing the offense), ‘forgetting’ (which implies that the memory of the offense has simply decayed or slipped out of conscious awareness), and ‘denying’ (which implies simply an unwillingness to perceive the harmful injuries that one has incurred)” (Enright & Coyle, 1988, p. 8).

Luskin (2002) considers five aspects inherent to forgiveness: (1) it is a learnable skill, (2) it benefits the forgiver, not the offender, (3) it is an opportunity to assume control over the situation and reassert personal power, (4) it is an action that enables the individual to take ownership of personal feelings, and (5) it is an opportunity for personal healing.

“Forgiveness is the process of shedding the self-as-victim belief and asserting personal power that leads to healing for the person choosing to forgive. This [choice] to take personal responsibility for oneself and forgive the other person leads to an enhanced sense of self-efficacy” (Jacinto & Edwards, 2011, p. 426).

What is Self-Forgiveness?

Self-forgiveness has been described by Flanagan (1996) as a process that leads to the following four outcomes: (1) a belief that you have atoned for a wrongdoing, (2) the end of self-punishment that results from allowing personal flaws to hurt others, (3) authentic insight into a need for personal change, actively changing behaviors, and consequently feeling better about yourself, and (4) the very act of forgiving yourself allows you to believe in yourself and others once again.

Try to reflect on the concept of self-forgiveness as a process, recognizing that the majority of the journey occurs internally and involves working through complex, distressing, and potentially painful emotions. Common emotions that are identified, understood, and processed include guilt, anger, shame, depression, self-blame, anxiety, self-hatred, grief, or regret. The culmination of this process involves letting go of the painful emotions directed toward the self and ultimately replacing them with self-compassion, kindness, love, gentleness, and empathy.

Four Therapeutic Stages of Forgiveness and Self-Forgiveness

As you begin your personal journey, consider the following four therapeutic stages of forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Notice what stage you may naturally be moving through at this point in your process, and notice what the next steps may be for you as you continue to move toward peaceful resolution and acceptance.

(1) Recognition

This step involves taking a step back into your mindfully observing self and noticing that self-forgiveness is an option that has the potential to release painful pent-up emotions and negative core beliefs about yourself. Through this conscious awareness, you may gain insight into the specific situation that warrants self-forgiveness and notice any ways that you may be placing unjustified blame onto others. This process of recognition is most likely to occur after you have spent time ruminating about the event(s) that have resulted in the unexpressed or painful emotions (anger or blame toward another, guilt or shame toward yourself, etc.). There is often a sense of unexpressed emotions toward the person you feel has wronged you or toward yourself that results in a general feeling of “unfinished business.”

(2) Responsibility

At this stage, there is a readiness and willingness to assume responsibility for the incidents that have led up to the need for forgiveness. Even when in the position of forgiving another, this stage still applies by assuming responsibility for any personal actions and/or inactions that may have contributed to the transgression (caveat: when the transgression is abuse by another, taking personal responsibility for that abuse is unjustified). In this stage, the idea is to move toward increased understanding of how the event(s) unfolded so that an authentic sense of empathy and understanding can accompany taking on responsibility. Part of this process involves awareness of the inherent imperfections of all humans and opening oneself up to compassion.

(3) Expression

The third stage involves active and authentic expression of the emotions that have been brought up as a result of rumination. The idea is not to move backward into unproductive rumination and blame, but rather to reencounter those difficult emotions from a place of greater awareness, responsibility, and compassion. Moving through this stage in the process of forgiveness may involve an internal self-dialogue, wherein you actively engage with those negative emotions from a place of greater understanding, accountability, and empathy. It may also involve a dialogue with a person you choose to forgive, addressing difficult emotions from the same foundation of awareness and compassion, but from a different point of view. Flanagan (1996) explains that actively expressing transgressions and emotions at this stage in the process facilitates the process of “rejoining the community.” Consider this stage as having reached a point of recognizing what has transpired, taking appropriate personal responsibility, developing compassion for all parties involved, and ultimately choosing to welcome the person back into your life/relationship/community with open arms and an open heart.

(4) Re-creating

The final stage of forgiveness of self and others involves active development of a renewed and redefined image of oneself or the relationship with the other person. Reaching this stage in the process of forgiveness indicates radical acceptance of all that has transpired, acceptance of justified personal responsibility, encounter and expression of authentic emotions from outside the ruminative cycle, and development of compassion for self and other. Most importantly, an internal choice has been made to forgive, accompanied by an outward expression of forgiveness and a willingness to recreate a meaningful life and/or relationship. This process of renewal is about meaningfully integrating the past into the present moment… giving renewed direction to the future.

The process of forgiving yourself or others can be simple, complex, or somewhere in between… depending upon the ways that you mindfully assess the situation, assume appropriate responsibility, move through difficult emotions, and develop compassion for yourself and others. Ultimately, you retain the choice of how you wish to respond to any given situation. As you continue to practice trusting the heartfelt intuition of wise mind – integrating reason with emotion – there is no situation too complex, confusing, or difficult to face. When you become centered into your true self, take stock of the big picture, the transformative power of forgiveness becomes more clear. When you choose to forgive, all you truly have to lose is resentment, anger, self-doubt, sadness, and guilt. You can become free of those emotional weights and allow your heart and mind to guide your path toward lightness in spirit, compassion, and acceptance.

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Jacinto, G. A., & Edwards, B. L. (2011). Therapeutic stages of forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment21, 423-437.

Featured image: The prayer by TaMiMi Q8 / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on May 12, 2012 at 11:11 am

    The thoughts about what forgiveness “isn’t” were very clarifying for me.
    I hope you write more about this topic. Forgiving yourself and taking responsibility… much to think about.

    Thank you, Laura. Wonderful article.

  2. Timilehin on August 13, 2012 at 3:13 am

    What is God’s judgemental principle in forgiveness? Thanks a lot for the article

  3. Dr.Anthony silva on May 22, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    Wonderful text really enjoyed.more practical,and easy to understand….thank you

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