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Person, E.S. (2007). Forgiveness and its Limits: A Psychological and Psychoanalytic Perspective. Psychoanal. Rev., 94(3):389-408.

(2007). Psychoanalytic Review, 94(3):389-408

Forgiveness and its Limits: A Psychological and Psychoanalytic Perspective

Ethel Spector Person, M.D.

All relationships are subject to hurts, some unintentional, some intentional. If unaddressed, these hurts fester and destroy relationships. The primary mode of resolution for such difficulties is forgiveness, sometimes freely proffered, sometimes in response to being asked for an apology. Each of us makes a judgment, whether conscious or preconscious, about whether or not to offer an apology—one major mode of asking for forgiveness—or whether to insist on an apology in response to an insult or a slight. Sometimes the issue is how to forgive oneself for one's own transgressions. While the concept of forgiveness has been part and parcel of nearly all religious doctrines, it has only recently begun to be discussed in our field.1

In contrast to forgiveness, the psychoanalytic literature has long focused on discussions of guilt. Perhaps the subject of forgiveness seemed more integral to a religious dialogue than to a psychological one. Or perhaps our field, eager to be viewed as scientific, was wary of being seen as drawn to moral concerns. To some degree, we ceded issues of forgiveness to religion, fearful that our goals would be confused with those of the clergy. Nonetheless, the act of seeking forgiveness or granting forgiveness is not only a moral or religious act, but also a psychological one. Our ability or inability to ask for forgiveness or to grant it has important significance in our lives. Each one of us may be asked to forgive a significant person in our lives, and we may either accede to or deny that request, depending on the nature of the harm done to us or the boundaries crossed.

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