Forgiveness vs Acceptance — A Conversation with Dr Dad

Forgiveness vs Acceptance — A Conversation with Dr Dad

Me: I don’t know what write on my blog. Should I work on the one about forgiveness?

Dr Dad: What will you say about it?

Me: How forgiveness is essentially acceptance.

Dr Dad: No it’s not.

Me: Yes it is.

Dr Dad: No it’s not.

Me: Yes. It is.

Dr Dad: No it isn’t.

Me: It is. God you’re such a dick.

Dr Dad: No I’m not!

Me: I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said that.

Dr Dad: It’s okay I forgive you.

Me: I accept you as you are.


Me: See. They are the same.

Dr Dad: No! They’re not! They’re totally different.

Me: No. The scientific definition of forgiveness is different from how forgiveness is typically used. In practice, forgiveness means that you are forgiving someone for something they did. Science says, forgiveness is actually about you and how you react to something another person did. So you let your resentment go and don’t let it dictate your behaviour.

Dr Dad: So how does that make them the same?

Me: Well acceptance is also about you and how you react to things that happen, including how you react to something another person did. You let things go and don’t let it dictate your behaviour. You accept it’s happened.

Dr Dad: Acceptance is about fully experiencing things as they are, and that means you don’t need to let things go. What you then do about it is then a different process. But I can see how they’re similar.

Me: Yeah but it seems like acceptance is a massive part of the scientific definition of forgiveness. How can you stop negative emotions dictating your behaviour if you can’t accept those emotions? And if acceptance is part of the “forgiveness process” then how are forgiveness and acceptance different?

Dr Dad: I don’t know.

Me: Let’s google it.

Dr Dad: Okay.

Me: {Googling}

Okay, so I thought they were the same. But it looks like forgiveness is actually about trying to get rid of your negative emotions, and acceptance is about accepting those negative emotions.

Dr Dad: So I’m right.

Me: Maybe.

Me: It looks like the researchers think ruminating is the same as being unforgiving. But sometimes people ruminate because they’re upset and they might not necessarily be unforgiving but they are still hurt by it. You can accept something has happened and experience ruminative thoughts at the same time.

Dr Dad: Yeah. It’s a normal habit of the mind.

Me: So it seems like the researchers think that getting rid of negative emotions means you have forgiven people. And in acceptance, you accept the negative emotions and thoughts that arise as they are, without trying to get rid of them.

Dr Mum: {interjects} Forgiveness isn’t the same as acceptance. You can forgive but still harbour resentments. Say somebody killed your child in a car accident and you say I forgive you – it’s about compassion. It’s a whole different thing. It’s a step further on to acceptance. Forgiveness is having compassion for the other person because you can see they’re hurting and you want to make them understand that you don’t hold it against them. You can also dish out forgiveness when you sit on a high perch of arrogance.

Dr Dad: It can also be a form of behavioural and emotional avoidance because you find it too hard to deal with it, and it’s easier to just say “I forgive you”.

Me: So you can accept and not forgive, and forgive and not accept…I find this so confusing because when you look at the grammar, ‘I forgive you’ you can interpret it as ‘I am doing forgiving to or for you’ (i.e., forgiving you). But researchers say it’s not about the other person, but about yourself. Why would researchers define forgiveness differently from how it is often used? To me, forgiveness just sounds like an interpersonal form of acceptance…

Dr Dad: Their definition seems confused. There are aspects of acceptance and certain sets of behaviours. It doesn’t seem like a very well thought out concept. Often forgiveness is used as a way to say, you’ve done something wrong and I will graciously not punish you even though we both know that what you did is really bad. It implies some guilt or transgression on the other person’s part.

Me: Yeah so what happens when you are hurt because of your ideas about what happened, as opposed to what actually happened? In that case to forgive someone means you blame someone else for your emotions and reactions to what you thought happened, as opposed to what that person intended.

Dr Dad: Mmmhmm

Me: Even if you use forgiveness in the colloquial “I’m pardoning you” or the scientific “I’m making myself feel better and this has nothing to do with you” way, you’re placing blame on someone else. Maybe it’s deserved. But maybe it isn’t….

Dr Dad: Yes.

Me: …Which makes forgiveness acceptance with a superiority complex.

Dr Dad: So they’re not the same.

Me: Fuck.


Are you confused? I am. Forgiveness is confusing. Maybe it’s confusing to me because a grudge can keep me going for years.

Maybe it’s because the scientific definition seems a little…well…crap?

Maybe I just don’t understand the science well enough. 

Well. There’s only one thing for it. I’ll research it and get back to you.

How do you define forgiveness?