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Unforgiveness – The Hook

Everyone experiences hurts and transgressions. When an offence occurs, people often react with anger, fear, or sadness. When these responses persist, people enter a state of ‘unforgiveness’. Metaphors are a helpful way of exploring forgiveness with clients, and there is a long literary history of equating forgiveness with letting the perpetrator “off the hook”. Unforgiveness – The Hook presents this metaphor of forgiveness in a simple and accessible format.

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

What is unforgiveness?

Unforgiveness is an internal state that people experience in the aftermath of an offence, characterized by a complex combination of (Stackhouse et al., 2017; Worthington, 2006; Worthington & Wade, 1999):

  • Emotions – such as resentment, bitterness, hatred, hostility, anger, fear, or depression.
  • Cognitions – such as an unwillingness to forgive, or altered perceptions of the offender.
  • Motivations – such as a desire for revenge, retaliation, or avoidance of the perpetrator).

For most individuals, unforgiveness naturally subsides without intervention (McCullough et al., 2010). Others may experience a sense of unforgiveness that increases over time (Worthington, 2020). Unforgiveness can also come and go:

Your resentment toward the wrongdoer could and sometimes does return. You may forgive someone and then dwell on the offense again, only to find your resentment returning. A satisfactory view of forgiveness should allow for this, as we can move from forgiveness back to unforgiveness.

(Strabbing, 2023)

These observations highlight the variability of unforgiveness. While some are unforgiving of specific transgressions, others report a more chronic sense of unforgiveness (or ‘dispositional unforgiveness’) that generalizes across situations and over time. In addition, people can experience unforgiveness toward an individual or entire groups (e.g., racial, ethnic, or social class unforgiveness; Worthington, 2006). What seems to be more consistent is the motivation to reduce unforgiveness due to its stressful and unpleasant nature (Berry et al., 2005). Indeed, one study reported that 30% of individuals acknowledged the detrimental effects of withholding forgiveness, yet remained unforgiving of past transgressions (Rapske et al., 2010).

Various factors are believed to influence the degree of unforgiveness people experience (Jones Ross et al., 2018; Stackhouse et al., 2017; Worthington & Wade, 1999; Worthington, 2006). They include:

  • Dispositional traits (e.g., agreeableness, anger, empathy, shame-proneness).
  • Contextual factors (e.g., the severity of the offence, the relationship quality with the offender).
  • Offender reactions (e.g., accepting responsibility, expressing remorse).
  • Emotional-ruminative factors (e.g., mad, vengeful, anxious, or depressed rumination on the offence and its consequences).
  • Cognitive-evaluative factors (e.g., appraisals of the offender, their actions, and the idea of forgiveness).
  • Offender re-construal (e.g., concluding that the offender is not who they appeared to be before the transgression).

Of these, empathy for the offender, perceptions of remorse, and emotional-ruminative factors appear to play a particularly influential role in unforgiveness and the distress associated with it (Jones Ross et al., 2017; Wade & Worthington, 2003).

Several models of forgiveness and unforgiveness have been proposed (see Worthington, 2000). Arguably the most influential of these, the stress and coping model (Worthington, 2006) proposes that transgressions (‘stressors’) are immediately followed by an appraisal. If the transgression is perceived as threatening, a ‘stress reaction’ involving physical, emotional, motivational, cognitive, and behavioral components will ensue. In this context, unforgiveness represents a stress response to transgressions, which motivates people to cope in problem- or emotion-focused ways (Wade & Worthington, 2003). These may include:

  • Seeking justice or revenge.
  • Cognitive reframing (e.g., justifying the transgression).
  • Accepting the hurt. 
  • Regulating distress related to the offence.
  • Forgiving the offence.

The effects of unforgiveness

Considerable research has highlighted the deleterious effects of unforgiveness, which can negatively impact people’s relationships (Rapske et al., 2010), physical health (Seawell et al., 2014), and mental health (Griffin et al., 2015). Furthermore, it has been suggested that unforgiveness is a key component of several disorders and can even give rise to forms of psychopathology (e.g., Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Worthington & Sandage, 2016). That said, studies have also highlighted the potential benefits of unforgiveness.

Forgiveness and unforgiveness

While forgiveness and unforgiveness overlap, they are distinct constructs. For instance, research indicates that people can let go of past hurts without forgiving (e.g., Jones Ross et al., 2018). In contrast, unforgiveness usually involves an active and ongoing “battle [with] the demons that arose after the injury” (Worthington & Lamb, 2023). Equally, the stress and coping model highlights that unforgiveness can be reduced in ways that do not entail forgiving an offence, such as by seeking justice or revenge (Wade & Worthington, 2003). Accordingly, forgiveness and unforgiveness are not simply the opposing ends of the same continuum.

Reducing unforgiveness through forgiveness

Studies have also underscored benefits of forgiving transgressions (e.g., Gao et al., 2022; Lee & Enright, 2019; Rasmussen et al., 2019) and the effectiveness of forgiveness-focused treatments (for reviews, see Akhtar & Barlow, 2018; Baskin & Enright, Lundahl et al., 2008; Wade et al., 2005). However, therapists should note that premature or indelicately handled discussion of forgiveness may be detrimental for clients that are unable or unwilling to do this (e.g., Gartner, 1988; Legaree et al., 2007; Stackhouse et al., 2017). In this context, encouraging clients to forgive may risk:

  • Pathologizing their unforgiveness.
  • Invalidating legitimate responses to offences (e.g., anger).
  • Reinforcing unhelpful societal or familial expectations. 
  • Blaming or shaming the client for not forgiving. 

Accordingly, Wade and colleagues (2005) emphasize that:

Clients who are struggling with the emotional and relational aftermath of serious offenses are not served by the addition of shame and guilt from a perception of moral failure (i.e., “I should forgive and I am not able to; therefore there is something wrong with me).

Acknowledging the potential benefits of unforgiveness

While unforgiveness can be problematic, therapists should note that it is not always distressing or ruminative (Jones Ross et al., 2017). Equally, studies suggests that unforgiveness may beneficial at times (e.g., Singh et al., 2022). For instance, in a study examining the relationship between forgiveness and health amongst Iraqi refugees, Kira and colleagues (2019) found that unforgiving participants experienced better health and lower PTSD scores. Some of the other advantages that people associate with refusing to forgive include (Jones Ross et al., 2007; Singh et al., 2022):

  • Self-protection (e.g., distancing oneself from transgressors).
  • Self-affirmation and empowerment,
  • Increased self-worth and self-care.
  • Enhanced adaptability (e.g., overcoming negative situations).
  • Communicating that certain actions are unacceptable.
  • Encouraging transgressors to rethink their roles or behaviors.

Accordingly, therapists should do not assume that unforgiveness is inherently pathological. Indeed, some clients may need permission to not forgive, or an assurance “that resolved thoughtful unforgiveness is as liberating as forgiveness’’ (Safer, 1999, p. 5).  
Legaree and colleagues (2007) recommend that therapists help their clients explore:

  • Whether forgiveness or unforgiveness are essential to their healing.
  • How these concepts fit with their goals, values, and circumstances.
  • Whether forgiveness should be prioritized in therapy, or the exploration of past hurts in more detail.

Jones Ross and colleagues (2018) conclude by saying: 

Counselors and clinicians to reconsider assumptions they and their clients may hold that unforgiveness is necessarily unhealthy… [Clients] might benefit from the knowledge that it is possible to move forward in their lives without, in fact, forgiving. Especially for those who cannot imagine ever forgiving their offenders, this knowledge might liberate them to deal with the offense in positive ways that would otherwise not appear open to them.

Images and metaphors for forgiveness and unforgiveness

Many colorful images and metaphors have been used to describe forgiveness and unforgiveness. For example, Lippitt (2020) describes a range of images and metaphors for forgiveness which have biblical origins. These include: forgiveness as ‘wiping the slate clean’, ‘turning the other cheek’, or ‘letting go’.

Other metaphors describe the costs of anger and unforgiveness. Unforgiveness has been likened to “drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die” (unknown). Holding on to anger has been described in a similar manner: “To carry an anger against anyone is to poison your own heart, administering more toxin every time you replay in your mind the injury done to you.” (Miller, 1994).

Hook metaphors for forgiveness and unforgiveness

The idioms “on the hook” and “off the hook” date back to the 17th century and are commonly used in the context of forgiveness. Examples include:

She died in great distress, fearing that God would punish her by hanging her by her tongue. ‘God’, she said to me, ‘will not show me any mercy. I have sinned too much. When you come there – not very soon, God forbid—when you come there, remember to take me off the hook. Tell the angel that you have forgiven me.’

(Perez, 1903)

His crusade is this: never to let his family off the hook. The hundred million affronts he has suffered are never to be forgiven to the end of his days.

(Hayley, 1965)

But forgiveness is not just for them. The point is not only to let them off the hook. Forgiveness, especially for us, allows us to be set free from the endless cycle of pain, anger, and recrimination that keeps us imprisoned in our own suffering.

(Muller, 1993)

I thought forgiveness was nice thing one did every now and then to let people off the hook for their stupidity or meanness – and to give oneself a fleeting feeling of warmth toward humanity in general. Now I understand that forgiveness is a radical way of life that openly contradicts the most common and popular beliefs of this troubled world.

(Miller, 1994)

Many Christian texts describe forgiveness as a process of moving an offender from one’s own hook to God’s hook:

You and I can forgive today; we can let those who have wronged us off the hook because we know they are still on God’s hook.

(Lutzer, 1990)

You may ask, “What about the offender? Why should I let him off my hook?” That is precisely why you should forgive, so that you will no longer be hooked to him or her. The people we forgive are off our hook, but they are not off God’s hook until they come to Christ for their own salvation, forgiveness, and cleansing.

(Anderson & Miller, 2002)

In their 1999 introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy, Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl, and Kelly Wilson introduce a ‘fishhook metaphor’ which combines the ‘off the hook’ forgiveness idiom with the elements describing the costs of anger and unforgiveness, culminating in the dilemma of needing to forego an offender’s culpability to live a valued life.

... many clients have adopted a life story that, consciously or unconsciously, requires them to remain “broken” in order to prove someone else “wrong” … The dilemma the client is faced with is, “If I stop being a victim the wrongdoer will never have to confess and apologize!” … Would you rather keep them (parents, spouse, others) on the hook or live your life? … It is like a fishhook that goes through you and then through others. There may be no way to get yourself off the hook that doesn’t seem to let others off.

(Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999)

The use of this fishhook metaphor is described in other key ACT texts as an intervention to tackle the sense of being stuck which results from waiting for justice or retribution (e.g. Hayes & Strosahl, 2004; Hayes & Smith, 2005; Walser & Westrup, 2007).

Unforgiveness – The Hook presents a hook metaphor to illustrate the concept, cost, and a potential solution to unforgiveness.

Therapist Guidance

"When we are hurt or offended by another person, we often have strong emotional reactions, like anger, anxiety, and sadness. If these emotions persist, we might experience what psychologists call ‘unforgiveness’. You could think of unforgiveness as being unable or unwilling to let go of something bad that has happened. One way of thinking about unforgiveness is though metaphors. Would you be willing to look at this one with me?"

References And Further Reading

Akhtar, S., & Barlow, J. (2018). Forgiveness therapy for the promotion of mental well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 19, 107-122. DOI: 10.1177/1524838016637079.

Anderson, N. T., & Miller, R. (2002). Getting anger under control: Overcoming unresolved resentment, overwhelming emotions, and the lies behind anger. Harvest House Publishers.

Baskin, T. W., & Enright, R. D. (2004). Intervention studies on forgiveness: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 79-90. DOI: 10.1002/j.1556-6678.2004.tb00288.x.

Berry, J. W., Worthington Jr, E. L., O’Connor, L. E., Parrott III, L., & Wade, N. G. (2005). Forgivingness, vengeful rumination, and affective traits. Journal of Personality, 73, 183-226. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00308.x.

Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. American Psychological Association.

Exline, J. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Expressing forgiveness and repentance: Benefits and barriers. In M. E. McCullough, K. I. Paragament, & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice. Guilford Press, 133-155.

Gao, F., Li, Y., & Bai, X. (2022). Forgiveness and subjective well-being: A meta-analysis review. Personality and Individual Differences, 186, 111350. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2021.111350.

Gartner, J. (1988). The capacity to forgive: An object relations perspective. Journal of Religion and Health, 27, 313-320. DOI: 10.1007/BF01533199.

Griffin, B. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Lavelock, C. R., Wade, N. G., & Hoyt, W. T. (2015). Forgiveness and mental health. In L. L. Toussaint, E. L. Worthington, Jr., & D. R. Williams (Eds.), Forgiveness and health: Scientific evidence and theories relating forgiveness to better health. Springer, 77-90.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., D., Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Hayes, S. C., Smith, S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.

Hayley, J. (1965). The Art of Being Schizophrenic. Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy. American Academy of Psychotherapists, 1, 138.

Jones Ross, R. W., Boon, S. D., & Stackhouse, M. R. (2018). Redefining unforgiveness: Exploring victims’ experiences in the wake of unforgiven interpersonal transgressions. Deviant Behavior, 39, 1069-1081. DOI: 10.1080/01639625.2017.1399747.

Kira, I. A., Lewandowski, L. A., Templin, T. N., Ramaswamy, V., Ozkan, B., & Mohanesh, J. (2009). The effects of post-retribution inter-group forgiveness: The case of Iraqi refugees. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 15, 385-413. DOI: 10.1080/10781910903158669.

Legaree, T. A., Turner, J., & Lollis, S. (2007). Forgiveness and therapy: A critical review of conceptualizations, practices, and values found in the literature. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33, 192-213. DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00016.x.

Lee, Y. R., & Enright, R. D. (2019). A meta-analysis of the association between forgiveness of others and physical health. Psychology and Health, 34, 626-643. DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2018.1554185

Lippitt, J. (2020). Love’s forgiveness: Kierkegaard, resentment, humility, and hope. Oxford University Press.

Lundahl, B. W., Taylor, M. J., Stevenson, R., & Roberts, K. D. (2008). Process-based forgiveness interventions: A meta-analytic review. Research on Social Work Practice, 18, 465-478. DOI: 10.1177/1049731507313979.

Lutzer, E. W. (1990). Putting Your Past Behind You. Here’s Life Publishers.

Macaskill, A. (2005). The treatment of forgiveness in counselling and therapy. Counselling Psychology Review, 20, 26-33.

McCullough, M. E., Luna, L. R., Berry, J. W., Tabak, B. A., & Bono, G. (2010). On the form and function of forgiving: Modeling the time-forgiveness relationship and testing the valuable relationships hypothesis. Emotion, 10, 358–376. DOI: 10.1037/a0019349.

Miller, D. P. (1994). A Little Book of Forgiveness: Challenges and Meditations for Anyone with Something to Forgive. Viking Adult.

Muller, W. (1993). Legacy of the heart: The spiritual advantage of a painful childhood. Simon and Schuster.

Perez, I. L. (1903). The Messenger (Mandell, M. S., trans.). The Maccabean, 4.2, 80.

Raj, M., & Wiltermuth, S. S. (2016). Barriers to forgiveness. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10, 679-690. DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12290.

Rapske, D. L., Boon, S. D., Alibhai, A. M., & Kheong, M. J. (2010). Not forgiven, not forgotten: An investigation of unforgiven interpersonal offenses. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 1100-1130. DOI: 10.1521/jscp.2010.29.10.1100.

Rasmussen, K. R., Stackhouse, M., Boon, S. D., Comstock, K., & Ross, R. (2019). Meta-analytic connections between forgiveness and health: The moderating effects of forgiveness-related distinctions. Psychology and Health, 34, 515-534. DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2018.1545906.

Safer, J. (1999). Forgiving and not forgiving: A new approach to intimate betrayal. Avon Books.

Seawell, A. H., Toussaint, L. L., & Cheadle, A. C. (2014). Prospective associations between unforgiveness and physical health and positive mediating mechanisms in a nationally representative sample of older adults. Psychology and Health, 29, 375-389. DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2013.856434.

Singh, A. K., Tiwari, G. K., & Rai, P. K. (2022). Beyond “cold emotion and rumination”: A qualitative study on the nature and attributes of unforgiveness. European Journal of Psychology Open.

Stackhouse, M. R., Jones Ross, R. W., & Boon, S. D. (2018). Unforgiveness: Refining theory and measurement of an understudied construct. British Journal of Social Psychology, 57, 130-153. DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12226.

Strabbing, J. T. (2023). Forgiveness and agency. In E. Pettigrove and R. Enright (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of the philosophy and psychology of forgiveness. Routledge, 299-311.

Wade, N. G., & Worthington J, E. L. (2003). Overcoming interpersonal offenses: Is forgiveness the only way to deal with unforgiveness? Journal of Counseling and Development, 81, 343-353. DOI: 10.1002/j.1556-6678.2003.tb00261.x.

Wade, N. G., & Worthington J, E. L., Jr. (2005). In search of a common core: A content analysis of interventions to promote forgiveness. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 42, 160–177. DOI: 10.1037/0033-3204.42.2.160.

Wade, N. G., Worthington J, E. L., and Meyer, J. E. (2005). But do they work? A meta-analysis of group interventions to promote forgiveness. In E. L. Worthington Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness. Routledge, 423-440.

Walser, R. D., & Westrup, D. (2007). Acceptance and commitment therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma-related problems: A practitioner’s guide to using mindfulness and acceptance strategies. New Harbinger Publications.

Worthington J., E. L. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. Routledge.

Worthington J., E. L. (2020). Understanding forgiveness of other people: Definitions, theories, and processes. In E. L. Worthington J. & N. G. Wade, Handbook of forgiveness (2nd ed.), Routledge, 11-21.

Worthington J., E. L., & Lamb, S. (2023). Forgiveness in therapy: The importance of careful definitions and realistic objectives. In In E. Pettigrove and R. Enright (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of the philosophy and psychology of forgiveness. Routledge, 418-429.

Worthington J., E. L., & Sandage, S. J. (2016). Forgiveness and spirituality in psychotherapy: A relational approach. American Psychological Association.

Worthington J, E. L., & Wade, N. G. (1999). The psychology of unforgiveness and forgiveness and implications for clinical practice. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 18, 385-418. DOI: 10.1521/jscp.1999.18.4.385.