1. Forgiveness is generally seen by psychologists as important to psychological health. How these ideas developed.

2. Alternative ways of thinking about moving forward from acts that cause shame.

Is Forgiveness Psychologically Useful?

Today people are barraged by politicians, film stars, athletes, and others in the public eye by public and often emotional cries for forgiveness from their supporters, audience, and fans. Golf  great Tiger Woods apologized publicly and frequently for having sexual relations with women other than his wife. Laura Schlessinger (Dr. Laura) made the news for using the "n" word repeatedly on her program. She apologised too. CNN anchorman apologised to Jon Stewart for making remarks about his religion (Jewish). In England, Gordon Brown begs forgiveness of a female voter who he was accidentally caught calling a ‘bigoted woman’, even though her comment, “All these bloody immigrants from Eastern Europe, where are they all flocking here from anyway?”, could rightly be described as bigoted. Apologies are everywhere today, both in popular culture and in politics. And even though the trend in some areas seems to be moving away from public apology toward public accountability, as petroleum companies, bailed-out banks, semi-nationalized automotive companies and possibly-juiced baseball players are summoned before senate committees as penitent children before the headmaster to confess past indiscretions, apology remains the token gesture of choice when seeking to right historical wrongs.

This new-found popularity of public apology, one can argue, has cheapened the gesture itself. Forgiveness, sought through apology, has become something easily sought and easily granted, desirable but also effortless, both morally seductive and idealized. What does it mean psychologically to forgive? What social currency, if any, does forgiveness have? It is specifically because we take the answers to these questions for granted that I wish to reopen them. To do so, I turn to Freudian psychoanalysis.

The great temptation to be avoided here is that of romanticizing forgiveness as a notion and more importantly, seeing it as a psychologically crucial step toward emotional health. This has proven to be a stumbling block for many of the popular philosophical investigations into the notion. Derrida, for example, also begins by noting the prominence of apology and forgiveness in today’s political sphere and, disillusioned by the trend, identifies it as a form of meaningless political transaction. In response, he defines ‘true forgiveness’ as “forgiving the unforgivable” (2001, vii), as a ‘madness of the impossible’. His project is an attempt to retrieve the specialness of forgiveness by restricting the terms and possibility of its being granted. But why should forgiveness be special?

The topic of forgiveness is omitted entirely from the index of the standard edition of Freud’s Collected Works (Akhtar 2002, 1), and nowhere does Freud deal with the topic directly. Despite this, psychoanalysis has much to say about closely related concepts: trauma, vengeance, hatred, guilt, shame, and so on. There are, of course, historical reasons for this. As psychoanalysis developed in a clinical context, the emphasis was placed on psychopathology, which meant that the less troubling affective dimensions of courage, altruism, forgiveness were left aside. With this I mind, I will seek to point to possible avenues in Freudian thought through which the topic of forgiveness might be approached, avenues upon which my colleagues might expand in their comments.

It might be of interest to note the shape that the debate over forgiveness has taken in recent literature of clinical psychoanalysis. For many American psychoanalysts influenced by the object relations and self psychology traditions, the pursuit of forgiveness of oneself and of those who have caused harm in the past has been an active goal of the psychoanalytic session.

Lansky (2007) has written pursuasively that forgiveness is intimately linked to shame and that only through a process similar to contemporary notions of forgiveness can the patient begin to heal the inevitable splitting of the ego that occurs with shame.

Vengeance is often seen as a fixation that is held in the conscious mind. Various scenarios are imagined that involve avenging what is seen as breaking of the social and moral order. The fantasies are usually violent and intense. They can be relentless. This fixation is started and continues because the person has experienced shame. The shame was hidden both consciously and from others. The person who is seen as the cause of the shame and therefore the disruptor of the moral and social code is made into the worst sort of villain. Vengeance also disconnects the avenger from the one they see as the offender.  This is complex since the offender is not the person who appears  to have done some misdeed, but instead is a part of the avenger. In a sense, they are battling their own sense of shame and using the person who they see as the villain as the unwanted, shameful part of themselves. The shameful part becomes projected onto the person who is seen as the villain. This creates a split in the individual that leads to further internal conflict, pain, and inevitably, rage. The presence of  rage is a further indication of unconscious splitting.

Resolution of the vengeful rage can be accomplished by understanding  the unconscious connection between rage and unbearable shame. It is also crucial that the vengeful person understand the reasons for the underlying shame since only through that can the splitting of the ego be resolved. As the work  of psychotherapy is accomplished, the underlying shame becomes bearable and can be acknowledged. The identification with the offender must be made to complete the resolution satisfactorily. Forgiveness, thus is seen as the completion of working though the shame underlying the splitting and reaching a resolution to the vengefulness and rage.

This practice has come under scrutiny of late by theorists seeking to complicate and interrogate notions of forgiveness (Black 2006). Is forgiveness always desirable, as past therapeutic practice has suggested, or is it only appropriate when the damage done is trivial? When can forgiveness be a defense mechanism, a way of covering up and denying one’s feelings? Henry F. Smith, a clinical psychoanalyst based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has led the charge of late in questioning psychoanalytic uses of the notion of forgiveness. He makes a helpful distinction between forgiveness, a conscious attempt to let go of past transgressions, and reparation, an unconscious process. While reparation cannot be willed, the therapeutic exhortation to forgive can only lead to strengthened ego defenses. The notion of forgiveness all too often assumes that love can neutralize hate. Not only does Smith find no evidence to this effect in his practice, but we will see that it is a suspect assumption within Freudian theory as well.

The blanket prescription of forgiveness in clinical psychoanalysis also ignores the possibility that some acts might not be worth forgiving (Lamb 2002). Forgiveness too easily granted can often point to poor self-image or a lack of self-respect; sometimes it is easier to forgive than to stand up for yourself. Overall, then, clinical psychoanalysis too often assumes a) that forgiveness is always desirable, and b) that forgiveness can be induced therapeutically, or that the analyst can lead the client to forgiveness (Lamb 2002). ‘Forgive and forget’ may not, then, always be the best advice.

Freud’s work provides us with a number of different avenues through which we might approach the problem of forgiveness. The first, Freud’s evolutionary phylogenic model, explains why forgiveness exists and how it is useful socially. Just as the infant relies on its parents for survival, the individual gains strength from the group. Here, forgiveness helps encourage cooperation between group members and enforce social cohesion (Akhtar 2002

The Freudian model posits that the individual is ruled by two dominant urges, the urge to procreate and to form relationships, and the urge to be aggressive and to cause harm. These instincts, in themselves, are often expressed in anti-social ways and need to be curtailed or controlled for group life to become possible. This control can be imposed in one of two ways: either through pressure from the external environment (as we shall see later), or through an internal need to fit in. As Freud writes, “We learn to value being loved as an advantage for which we are willing to sacrifice other advantages” (1915, 282). The fear of the loss of this love Freud terms ‘social anxiety’, and he identifies therein the roots of guilt (1927, 124). Forgiveness, then, ensures that one continues to enjoy the benefits of being part of the group.

One might also approach the notion of forgiveness through the lens of Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. Forgiveness, as an attempt to restore a lost relationship, could be conceived as an act of mourning. Even here, though, forgiveness only makes sense in certain situations. For Freud, not every relationship is mourned, and those mourned are not all mourned equally. Mourning requires that a strong fixation of love for the object be present; the stronger the love-bond, the more mourning. At best, then, forgiveness could be seen as an attempt to reinstate a bond to an object that is psychically significant, but it remains to the individual to determine which are significant and which are not.

On an individual level, forgiveness, as the annihilation of hate by love, as Smith defines it, is a clear impossibility. Love can never be pure, for Freud, as all love-bonds are characterised by their ambivalence. Every love relationship contains a sediment of hate, one that is subordinate and repressed, granted, but present nonetheless. Freud roots this ambivalence in the mixed emotions that infants and young children feel towards their parents, a trend which continues to influence all object relationships later in life. This complicates any notion of an ideal or romantic forgiveness. We can never forgive completely, at least not for Freud (Smith 2008).

While one might feel contrite consciously and seek the forgiveness of the offended party, the unconscious half of the equation maintains the hostility that motivated the offending action in the first place. Let’s take an extreme case: murder. I’ve murdered someone. I feel bad about it. But the unconscious part of me wants to murder again. Can an apology for the murder then be considered genuine? We could try to argue that yes, my apology is genuine, if I consciously and genuinely feel contrite. But even this does not suffice in psychoanalysis. The unconscious, that subversive and disrupting concept, cannot be written out of the equation. Worse still, the conscious and unconscious minds stand in a compensatory relation to each other for Freud. The more society tells me not to do something, and the more I internalise this proscription consciously, the greater the unconscious desire to pose the forbidden act. And the more genuine my apology, the greater my ignorance of the opposing unconscious affect. As Freud writes, “When the neurotic appears to be tenderly altruistic, it is merely compensating for an underlying attitude of brutal egotism” (1913, 72).

What then can we say about ethics, which regulate the social conditions under which forgiveness is appropriate and those under which it is not? There is a tension is Freud’s work between a practical social ethic and an overbearing social ethic. Contrary to ethical theory, Freud explains, psychoanalysis considers ‘good’ any action that furthers the betterment of society, that solidifies the grasp that society has on the individual (1915, 283). As mentioned earlier, unconscious urges are largely anti-social, so they must be brought under tight control if the project of civilization is to be protected. On the other hand, society must strike a balance between its own needs and the limits of the individual; when an ethic becomes too rigid or demanding, the unconscious will rebel and lash out. As a result, Freud eschews absolutist and universalist ethical positions. Consequently, there are times, Freud would likely argue, when forgiveness is not warranted.

We might follow Freud’s critique of the golden rule to imagine a parallel critique of forgiveness. Freud objects to the Christian prescription of universal love on two grounds. First, not everyone is worthy of my love. Love has a specific psychic mechanism, one which cannot be reproduced at will. I love those in whom I am able to see my ideal self (1930). As we see today with forgiveness, Freud argues that a love that does not discriminate is a cheapened and meaningless concept. Secondly, Freud argues that the golden rule ignores the human propensity toward aggression. Not everyone is worthy of my love, because most of them would likely kill me if they had the chance (1930). Along these lines, Freud quotes the German poet Heinrich Heine to illustrate his point:
“Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did to me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies – but not before they have been hanged.” (1927, 110)
Again, there is an essential tension in Freud’s comments here between a descriptive and prescriptive position. The golden rule is socially useful and important, as an attempt to curtail aggressive instincts and thereby guarantee civilization. Psychologically, though, Freud also realises that it puts forth an impossible ideal.

Religion and forgiveness, Christianity in particular, are intricately linked. Whether we argue with Hannah Arendt that the discoverer of the role or forgiveness in human affairs is Jesus (1958), or with Derrida that forgiveness is Abrahamic religion gone global (2001), we cannot escape the idea that the language of Roman Christianity overdetermines the lexicon of forgiveness (Derrida 2001).

Psychoanalysis, then, provides us with a lens with which to look critically upon this Christian heritage. Whether we follow Smith or Freud, the idea of forgiveness as an idealised panacea suitable for all people and all situations emerges as a ridiculous proposition, unless we are willing to place our faith, quite unjustifiably, in the goodness of the individual.

Works cited
Akhtar, Salman. ‘Forgiveness: Origins, Dynamics, Psychopathology, and Technical Relevance’. Psychoanalytic Quarterly. Vol. 71 (2002), pgs. 175-212.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Black, David M. ‘Forgiveness: Is It Really Possible?’ British Journal of Psychotherapy. Vol. 23 No. 1 (2006), pgs. 7-9.

Caputo, John D. et al (eds.). Questioning God. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2001.

Cavell, Marcia. ‘Freedom and Forgiveness’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Vol. 84 (2003), pgs. 515-531.

Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London: Routledge, 2001.

DiCenso, James. ‘Kant, Freud, and the ethical critique of religion’. International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion. Vol. 61 (2007), 161-179.
------. The Other Freud: Religion, Culture, and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)’. In CW 21. London: Hogarth, 2001.
------. ‘Future of an Illusion (1927)’. In CW 21. London: Hogarth, 2001.
------. ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921)’. In CW 18. London: Hogarth, 2001.
------. ‘Mourning and Melancholia (1917). In CW 14. London: Hogarth, 2001.
------. ‘The Dynamics of Transference (1912)’. In CW 12. London: Hogarth, 2001.
------. ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915). In CW 14. London: Hogarth, 2001.
------. ‘Totem and Taboo (1913). In CW 13. London: Hogarth, 2001.
------. ‘Why War? (1933)’. In CW 22. London: Hogarth, 2001.

Haddad, Samir. ‘Arendt, Derrida, and the Inheritance of Forgiveness’. Philosophy Today. Vol. 51 No. 4 (Winter 2007), pgs. 416-426.

Lamb, Sharon, & Jeffrie G. Murphy, eds. Before Forgiving: Cautionary Views of Forgiveness in Psychotherapy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lansky, Melvin. Unbearable Shame, Splitting, and Forgiveness in the Resolution of Vengefulness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, June 2007 vol. 55 no. 2 pgs. 571-593.

Ricoeur, Paul. ‘Memory, History, Forgetting: A Dialogue Between Paul Ricoeur and Sorin Antohi’. Janus Head. Vol. 8 No. 1 (2005), pgs. 14-25.

Smith, Henry F. ‘Leaps of faith: Is forgiveness a useful concept?’ International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Vol. 89 (2008), pgs. 919-936.

Wallwork, Ernest. Psychoanalysis and Ethics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.