Given the mental and physical health benefits of forgiveness, how is it usually approached in psychological treatment? Despite hours of reading, I still don't understand, and can't even pinpoint why not. Please remark the following assumptions which restrict my definition of 'malefactor' to forgive:

1. The malefactor fails to repent or rue in any way, such as Mutsuhiro Watanabe (who tortured Captain Louis Zamperini about whom I write below) or the Holocaust perpetrators.

2. I ask about genuine forgiveness of the malefactor, and not merely forgetfulness.

3. The malefactor recognised his/her actions' turpitude but still wilfully executed them.

This question was motivated by such virtuous paragons as Ms Eva Kor and Capt Louis Zamperini, the latter of whom advised someone else by citing Mark Twain:

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

I recognise the futility in simply remaining enraged about past injustices, so I'd argue that one should act to resolve this resentment, such as by apprehending and punishing their captors. This is exactly the argument that has bewitched me but that I'd like to surmount; I want to appreciate: How and why could (even) tortured war veterans and concentration camp survivors decide against any revenge?

  • $\begingroup$ This seems a little broad as you seem to be asking about forgiveness in the general sense. Would you mind restricting it to clinical psychology or some specific treatment that you have questions about? $\endgroup$
    – Seanny123
    Feb 21, 2015 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ I suspect the answer to "why/how do some people forgive" (cultural/upbringing?) might be different from "how might one come to forgive" (treatment/techniques?), so I agree with @Seanny123 that the question could be narrowed down a bit, but still think it's manageable as-is, so voting to leave open. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Feb 21, 2015 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Seanny123 Thanks for your comment. Alas, I know little of clinical psychology so am unsure how to restrict my question, but would you please like to do so on my behalf? I (merrily) permit anyone to edit my question. $\endgroup$
    – NNOX Apps
    Feb 21, 2015 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @ArnonWeinberg Thanks for your support. Please feel free to edit, as per my comment above. $\endgroup$
    – NNOX Apps
    Feb 21, 2015 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ @LawArea51Proposal-Commit I changed the scope to be more clinical psychology oriented. Feel free to open up another question about how forgiveness is approached in a cross-cultural manner. $\endgroup$
    – Seanny123
    Feb 22, 2015 at 0:51

2 Answers 2


The prerequisite for forgiveness is actually completely straightforward and easy to comprehend:

Understand and accept the humanity of the perpetrator.

Most people are convinced that there is a fundamental difference between themselves and those that commit heineous crimes. Once you understand that the difference is at best gradual; once you face your own propensity for cruelty and violence; once you understand how an unfortunate combination of hereditary and environmental factors have lead to the deed -- you have laid the foundation upon which you may forgive the individual guilt.

This is really a broad topic, but think how the Milgram experiments showed how almost anyone could be talked into torturing another even without any valid reason. Now add to that everything that can go wrong in a person's life and it becomes quite understandable how someone can break and turn into a "monster". I am often surprised there is actually so little major crime!

For some victims it is helpful to learn what made the person that abused them who they are.

The second part is the wish to forgive. For that you need to understand the futility and destructiveness of revenge. Revenge does not bring back a killed loved one; it does not undo the experience of torture; all it does is turn you into the kind of person you despise: a person that tortures and kills. Successful revenge does not lead to happiness. Where forgiveness can cause a feeling of enlightenment and release, revenge fixes the state of loss and trauma and adds to it your own guilt.

Therapy will grant you a space and time for sorrow and rage and then attempt to help you let go and realize that a good and happy life are still possible if you turn towards it and allow it to happen.

This is usually not something that can be achieved by reading books. If you suffer from trauma you will profit from seeing a qualified therapist.


I think forgiving is a reasoned view. If we do not forgive people we lock ourselves into bigotry, viewing everyone's intentions reactively and with confirmation bias as to who we think they are. People who do evil by accepted definitions of same, might instead be viewed as representing one extreme of a spectrum. If overcoming confirmation bias is a learned skill, the ability to forgive might also be a learned skill and something we can choose to do better at.


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