The Psychology of Forgiveness: There’s More To The Ritual Of Accepting Forgiveness

‘Tis the season for forgiveness- celebrities and politicians have asked for forgiveness for saying rude or insensitive remarks. The Pope is asking forgiveness for many things- for turning a blind eye to child labour, the conquest of America and acts of Church against the indigenous population. Everybody’s sweetheart Justin Trudeau offered a formal apology as the Canadian PM for turning away Komagata Maru ship in 1914, which carried many Sikh passengers and identified it as a racist action.

The Punjabi Kudi Kajol in ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ quips that the one doesn’t become big or reduce in stature if they ask for forgiveness and the one who gives it, is greater than god. Forgiveness relieves our excess emotional baggage. Bearing grudges and bitterness and suppressing emotions has an impact on our physical health and can lead to increased anxiety, stress, blood pressure levels. It can also lead to coronary health problems and stomach ailments. It disturbs our mental health – and can be a factor to depression and anxiety. In the Standard Forgiveness, people from both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict with personal losses were given a week long forgiveness training session and observed that the intensity of hurt felt by the people had lessened. Forgiveness doesn’t mean the act committed hasn’t affected the individual or that he supports it. Forgiveness heals the scar, it makes us ok to move one. We are no longer bound by the chains of the past.

Evolutionary Psychology suggests that forgiving evolved as a mechanism of survival. If the cost of revenge was too much, if the offender was likely to be helpful in times of crisis or the cost of revenge was too high, then the transgressor was forgiven. Relationship value and exploitation risk are considered before forgiving or going on revenge. People who can’t live without relationships are more likely to forgive for this same reason.

It is easier to forgive when the person forgiving feels the transgressor has felt adequate remorse and will not commit the act again. We see this in ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’, when the two friends reunite after the Imran(Farhan Akhtar) says sorry in earnest. Contrast this to an earlier scene where he asks it in a chiding manner- the situation just escalates.

People find it easier to forgive when some form of punishment (it may even be silent treatment) has taken place. This is because the victim feels that justice has been delivered and the offender has atoned for his mistakes.

Offering to forgive has many positive impacts- a sense of satisfaction, of having moved on, of extending a hand for reconciliation. Kets de Vries, who teaches about transformative leadership, says that forgiving is an important aspect of transformative leadership and fosters a great work culture.

But accepting forgiveness is not always noble. Many times, people forgive others to make themselves feel good and have a higher moral stand, even if the other person doesn’t admit to committing the act or asks for forgiveness or doesn’t see it as a crime. This emotion is perfectly showcased in a scene in the Hum TV drama, ‘Humsafar’ where the lead, played by Fawad Khan, forcefully offers forgiveness even when the other person, played by Mahira Khan, maintains that she hasn’t asked for it. Pope Francis’s recent announcement, offering forgiveness to people who ‘committed the sin of abortion’, instead of de-recognising abortion as a sin, can be seen in a similar vein.

But forgiving is extremely hard. The victim must enjoy a degree of security and self-esteem in order to be able to forgive. When a person feels that the other person hasn’t made amends to his behaviour or felt remorse and finds themselves in a cycle of forgiving and being cheated on or betrayed, then the person’s self esteem lowers significantly. This is called the ‘doormat effect’. The person feels stupid to forgive the person again and again. At the end, forgiving is a choice which no one should be pressured to accept. Emotionally manipulating someone to give forgiveness, amounts to gaslighting.

To conclude, forgiveness is not always a must or a ‘noble’ thing. If you are planning on accepting an apology, see that it is on your terms and not just a product ofexpectations.

Indumathi S