Philip Holder, PhD.

Copyright Philip Holder, PhD. 2003


Will clients and/or patients benefit from forgiving those who have done them wrong. Frequently people with anger issues, self-esteem issues, fears, etc. are harboring resentment and anger toward someone who they perceive has done them an injustice.  Many therapists tell their client or patient how important it is to “Forgive” that person, in their own mind and/or heart, so that they can move past their anger. The idea, supposedly, is that the client or patient will feel better about themselves by rising above their feelings of anger and that of being a victim, by letting go of the anger or resentment they harbor for that person. I would suggest to you that this concept is only true in part. I think most of us would agree that helping someone let go of the anger and negativity is important. I would suggest, however, that the forgiveness of that person is not essential to accomplishing a positive therapeutic result. In fact “Hollow Forgiveness” can sometime sabotage the therapeutic goal.


A good therapist knows the importance of establishing a reward system. He or she understands the value of developing a path to a desired end. To do this we need to understand the usefulness and purpose of forgiveness. We also need to know how that usefulness , or lack thereof, fits into our therapeutic plan for helping that person achieve his or her goal(s). I would suggest that the goal of forgiveness is repair of the relationship. Forgiveness with no resulting repair is hollow forgiveness.


Forgiveness is not essential in helping people let go of anger, resentment, and negativity. In fact, hollow forgiveness, even though sometime providing temporary relief, may in the long run exacerbate the person’s problem. Forgiveness alone will not help a person to feel any less victimized. The only forgiveness that is of true value is forgiveness extended to someone who is repentant. This is the only forgiveness that can lead to repair within a relationship. This is the only forgiveness that has any true value or power.


What really needs our focus are the concepts of, compassion, empathy, understanding of another’s weaknesses, letting go of our anger, resentment, hostility, and negativity, and an openness to forgive should forgiveness be asked for. None of these necessitate unilateral forgiveness. We have no power over others. The client or patient has absolutely no control over the feelings and thoughts of the person who has done them wrong. In some cases the offender may be deceased or for some other reason no longer in the client’s life. Focusing on external components (like forgiving another who is absent or otherwise unrepentant) actually takes power from the client or patient. To empower the client or patient it is essential to make all change come from within that person. Focusing attention on forgiveness of another who has admitted no wrong and seeks no forgiveness diminishes the client or patient’s level of personal, internal power. It is an unfair deal.


Is letting go of anger and negativity necessary in helping a person move forward… You bet. If negative thoughts are our dominant thoughts then we will most certainly move in a negative direction. If positive thoughts are our dominant thoughts then we will most certainly move in a positive direction. It is my opinion, however, that many people (including some therapists) confuse forgiveness with the simple value of letting go of negativity. They are not one in the same.

The key to success is to focus all power within the client or patient. Through advocating an attitude of compassion for the weaknesses of others, an understanding that some people simply do the best they can but may not measure up to the task, an awareness that both good and bad people sometime do bad things, and an awareness that all true power comes only from within, we can help our clients and patients move to a greater level of self-esteem and a greater sense of personal power. What is important is to help our clients and patients let go of negative thoughts like vengeance and/or victimization so that he or she can refocus on the positive attributes they possess.  Again, this does not necessitate “forgiveness”. The toxic effect of holding onto negativity is self-poisoning. So to, ultimately, is hollow forgiveness. Forgiveness has no value if the offender is not sorry for offending, and without accountability there can be no repair (which is the purpose of repentance and forgiveness). Forgiveness in that respect is a totally unbalanced transaction. It can ultimately cause more resentment and internal conflict for the client or patient simply because it was a “one-sided-deal”. Again the client or patient gets the poopy end of the stick. They are once again victimized only this time they did it to themselves. He or she has extended forgiveness with no reciprocation. This will hardly lead to higher levels of self-esteem or a reduction of anger and resentment.


True forgiveness has purpose. The purpose is repair. Hollow forgiveness provides nothing more than smoke and mirrors that will have no lasting positive effect for the client or patient. When designing a therapeutic plan it is essential to keep your focus on your goal (the client or patient’s goal). Greater self-esteem, pride in one’s self, letting go of negativity, anger, fear and resentment, and taking back power in your life are all internal functions. To possess these things for the long term they cannot be based on anything external. They cannot be based on the forgiveness of another individual. They must come from recognition that viewing both events and yourself in a positive way is the key to overcoming anger, fear, resentment and negative thought.

We usually learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Help your clients and/or patients to accept that there are no failures, just a series of learning experiences. Help them focus on what he or she has learned from their experience and how that has made them stronger and wiser. Forgiveness, unless asked for, has nothing to do with moving forward. Letting go of the anger and resentment have everything to do with growing in a positive direction. Release the negativity and like a boat cutting the anchor your clients or patients can sail on to a wonderful rest of his or her life.

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