Home » Blogs » Mentoring and Recovery » What Is Forgiveness, Really?

What Is Forgiveness, Really?

beach with shadow
This pic from one of my favorite Cape Cod beaches sums up what the process of forgiveness feels like to me – half light, half shadow, but always (I hope!) there are footsteps moving forward.

This morning I asked myself a tough question.

It stemmed from a life coaching course I recently signed up for. Life coaches, of course, specialize in asking students tough questions…the exact kinds of tough questions we’d prefer not to ask ourselves.

This particular question asked whether there is anyone in our lives we still want to avoid.

I was surprised by how many names came up.

Former boyfriends. Former landlords. A family member (no former about this one). A handful of formerly close friends. A former boss.

When I thought about how I would feel if I was out and about one day and saw them walking towards me, I….squirmed.

Yuck. No thank you. I’d really rather not.

The thing is, I really thought I had forgiven each one of these folks.

After wrestling with this for awhile, I finally realized I might be getting forgiveness confused with forgetfulness.

After all, as more than one mentor has told me over the years, to forgive doesn’t mean to forget. Not to mention that some people are forgiven and loved much better from a considerable distance.

But what if that distance were to suddenly disappear? What if, just say, the person who hurt you the most in the world were to suddenly be walking down the street right towards you? What would you do?

And would your choice in those stressed-out moments have anything to do with whether you had forgiven them or not?

I realized I didn’t know the answer to this question. And then I realized this might be the kind of question where more than one answer choice is right.

So I did what most of us do when we have big unanswered questions in our lives. I googled it.

The article that resonated with me the most was one about how to maintain a relationship with a loved one who has hurt me. Is it possible? Is it wise? Is it necessary?

The answers I found seemed to boil down to these fundamental reminders:

  • Forgiveness is an internal state. The other person doesn’t even have to know or care that it has happened.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean “no boundaries.” In contrast, building better boundaries can be forgiveness-sustaining.
  • Forgiveness may not change the other person’s attitude or behavior towards me. It might even make either or both worse!
  • Forgiveness boils down to not taking things personally and not making assumptions (both of which are longtime Don Miguel Ruiz favorites that I clearly still haven’t learned how to do).

With these insights in hand, I went back to my pile of folks to avoid. I picked out one of the most recent – a former landlord who really, really doesn’t like me and lives just one house down from me.

This is a difficult and also especially relevant example because it really is highly likely we will meet out on the street and I know for a fact he is still very keen to avoid me. In fact, last week it actually did happen while I was out talking to another mutual neighbor and saw him out walking his dog out of the corner of my eye. I did my best to keep it not-awkward and so did he as our neighbor said hello and I hid behind the bumper of my car.

That is something, I guess.

But is that forgiveness? Or not-forgiveness?

What about the diatribe that took place later in my head rehashing our last painful interactions, which mainly consisted of me trying to apologize and him giving me the silent treatment alternating with blatant sarcasm?

Forgiveness? Or not-forgiveness?

Oh suck.

Eventually I found my way out of the diatribe by returning to what has become my all-time favorite definition of perfect forgiveness. I can’t remember who said this, but I will share it here anyway (and if you recognize the source please comment to remind me!).

Forgiveness is being able to see the really good person trapped under layers of really bad behavior.

I love this!

It is the one and only thing that makes me feel like maybe at least some of the forgiveness work I’ve done around the many folks I am still nevertheless eager to avoid might have stuck. I can ponder all my “formers” as I call them and quickly identify their many good qualities.

But this doesn’t mean I won’t later get sucked into another mental diatribe, especially about the “fresher” ones that still smart and sting. And it doesn’t mean I will feel at all at ease if we run into each other unexpectedly one day in the future.

To that point, there seems to be another facet to this whole forgiveness process that I am not even sure how to explain. But it has to do with matching social cues with the correct set of social skills – something I’ve never been especially good at doing.

Here is an example. Say, for instance, you are at a coffee shop. One of your “formers” walks in. You know they still really hate your guts (i.e. there is a better than average chance they haven’t done all the work you’ve done to sort through the bad outer layers and see the still-good person underneath).

Point being, you know they don’t want to see you – as in, they really, really, REALLY don’t want to see you. And yet there you are. And you have no cloaking device handy.

They notice you at about the same time you notice them. There are strangers nearby waiting for their coffee.

Do you:

a) Smile and give a little wave and hope for the best?
b) Fixate your gaze at a point just above and behind their head?
c) Dive for your phone and pretend to take a call?
d) Pretend you don’t see them at all?
e) Wait and take your cue from how they react?

I am pretty evenly split between a) and e). I’d like to do a) because I feel like I have forgiven them and to me, it feels like forgiveness should translate directly to mean “friendly acquaintance” social behavior.

But then again, I am (I suspect) more empathic than not, and that means my energy is naturally always casting about, testing the surrounding energetic waters, seeking the comfort of others even before my own comfort so I can adjust my behavior accordingly.

So if I see my “former” suddenly scowl, turn the other way, glare, or (god forbid) charge forward with clenched fists, that answers my question in short order about the appropriate social skillset to choose.

I think the bottom line here is that forgiveness probably has nothing to do with social skills. Rather, it more likely means I can at least interrupt my habitual diatribe with a gentle reminder that diatribes feel awful, accomplish nothing and miss the point of the very good person trapped underneath the really bad behavior. And it feels better  to think about that instead.

It also misses the point that forgiveness is rarely one-sided. While I don’t know this for a fact (and thus recognize I am definitely making a contraindicated assumption here), just based on past interactions, I could guess that most of my formers had or still have just as much of a problem with me as I once had with them.

And if there is one thing I dread even more than meeting one of them unexpectedly on the street, it is meeting one of them unexpectedly and having to navigate a childish or awkward or upsetting social response from them out in public.

Back to my internet search….when I googled forgiveness versus unforgiveness, I also found some interesting information about some “forgiveness tests” you can do to see, I guess, how much you have actually forgiven someone.

The main idea here seems to be about percentages….as in, forgiveness can be a process and it may take some time to retrain my mind away from going back into the grudge-rut.

I like this idea because it feels a lot like the grief process – like some days I’ll be at acceptance (the last stage) and some days I might be back at denial (the first stage). But I’m not stuck at any one stage. It fluctuates as I heal and return back again and again to my original intention, which is to completely forgive.

Here is an example of the kinds of forgiveness self-tests I found in my research.

We are back at that coffeeshop and I have just spied my “former” waiting in line for a latte, surrounded by strangers. Do I:

a) Instantly feel a surge of white-hot panic and look around for an escape route?
b) Send the barista what I hope is a clear signal to spit in their coffee?
c) Realize I still remember their favorite coffee drink and feel a gut-wrenching wave of nostalgia?
d) Feel grateful they have a little free time and some extra spare change in the midst of a busy work day to treat themselves to a coffee?
e) Note their presence, note how I feel nothing, and then immediately refocus on the email I was crafting?

Here again, I can say I hope for e) but would more probably default to a) or c).

After all this research, I also must now admit I am not sure I believe in forgiveness that just sticks like well-chewed gum to the bottom of my shoe. I wish it worked like that. And maybe it does for some people (like other people who aren’t me). And maybe it works like that with some people (as in, with some of my formers but not others).

But I have to admit, I can still get triggered into occasional fantasies about living in a world where a former or two has, um, gotten their just desserts.

I also realize I don’t really want to hurt anyone else, even someone who has hurt me.

And I realize that what often hurts me most is realizing someone else doesn’t like me – that I said or did something or just was the kind of person who could be so deeply unlikable or even just so deeply misunderstood that someone would want to avoid me or even hate me.


In these cases, the work of forgiveness becomes doubly challenging because I have to then go back and forgive myself all over again as well.

So after all that, here is what I have decided about what forgiveness is, really, at least for me personally.

Forgiveness is the continued desire and intent to forgive.

Forgiveness, for me at least, is when even after the mental diatribe, the deep dive for my phone when a former ranges into view, the vengeful fantasy, the gut-ache of shoulda-coulda-woulda, the anything-but-forgiveness that arises time and time and time again, I recenter again and again and again around the one and only fact I believe with all my heart and mind and soul:

We are all good people trapped under layers of bad behavior.

And this means we all need and deserve forgiveness, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes.

With great respect and love,


What Is Forgiveness, Really?

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Songwriter. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2020). What Is Forgiveness, Really?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Feb 2020
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.