Forgiveness: Psychodynamic Considerations and Their Implications


Adrian Sutton

Visiting Professor of Psychiatry, Gulu University, Uganda

Director, Squiggle Foundation, Harrow, UK

Senior Teaching Fellow, University of Manchester, UK



Forgiveness, its presence or absence, its significance for individuals, communities, justice and international relations, is central to conflict management, resolution and recovery discourse. It comes sharply into focus for communities emerging from armed conflict and civil strife in seeking to ensure people’s homes and communities become places where there can be reasonable expectation of safety, trustworthiness and personal development. The relationship between forgiveness, mental health and well-being is complex not least because of the difficulty of definition and applications of the concept across a variety of fields involved with mental health, sociology, anthropology, theology and politics. This paper explores key psychodynamic issues to highlight confusions that arise and discusses their implications for the personal experience of those who have been victims. The place of maturational/reparative processes and a facilitating environment are described and explored. Conceptualisations of forgiveness that implicitly or explicitly place an emphasis on ‘choosing to forgive’ are challenged and the possibility of these compounding victims’ difficulties discussed. 

Evidence from different social, cultural and national contexts has been presented to support the existence of a relationship between forgiveness and improved physical and mental health (e.g. Ovuga et al. 2011; Toussaint et al. 2014; Gangdev 2009; Luskin 2010). Some authors have argued that the relationship is one of correlation, others explicitly or implicitly suggest a linear/causal relationship, e.g. ‘forgiveness is not only a virtue and a moral act, but it also has therapeutic potential’ (Gangdev 2009); ‘a lack of forgiveness may be an important predictor of psychiatric risk among survivors of human rights abuses’ (Kaminer et al. 2001:377); ‘Attainment of Positive Mental Health Through Forgiveness in Northern Uganda’ (Ovuga et al. 2011). Some see it as a specific focus for psychological therapy, e.g. Google Scholar search of ‘Forgiveness Therapy’ produced 828 hits and a simple Google search, 27,100 (8th June 2015); others see it as an outcome of successful therapy rather than a focus (Smith 2008). Forgiveness has been a major topic in post-conflict northern Uganda following 20 years of insurgency and civil war combined with the consequences of prior political conflict. It has given rise to locally-based interdisciplinary work from a moral, cultural and political perspective involving international collaborations such as the Forgiveness Project (ENRECA 2012).

    My own work as a Child and Family Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist in England across four decades has involved the clinical exploration of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, its causes, impact and consequences. Increasingly the direct and indirect consequences of violence for Displaced People arriving here as refugees and asylum seekers has also featured. Since 2011 I have been visiting Gulu University Medical School and Gulu Regional Referral Hospital as a member of an educational collaboration; this has included working with mental health staff whose patients include some who have suffered extreme violence and some who have perpetrated these acts. Working with the victims of profound transgressions, whether in the context of their intimate relationships, community, regional or international events, has directed me to thinking more deeply about the significance of forgiveness and un-forgivingness at an individual, interpersonal and societal level. This article explores the relationship between forgiveness and mental health from a psychodynamic perspective using clinical observations derived from my work in both the UK and northern Uganda.

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