top of page

Forgive and Remember: Forgiveness’ Role in the Process of Individuation

Jennifer M. Sandoval

Pacifica Graduate Institute

Presented at the American Psychological Association (APA) 117th National Convention, Toronto, ON, August 2009

Nobody likes to admit his own darkness, for which reason most people put up – even in analytical work – the greatest resistance to the realization of their shadow.

-Jolande Jacobi

I am thou, and thou art I, and wherever thou art, there I am, and I am scattered in all things, and from wherever thou wilt thou canst gather me, but in gathering me thou gatherest together thyself.

-Cited by Epiphanius, Panarion, XXVI, 3

We need no deliverance from evil if we are not imagined to be evil in the first place.

-James Hillman


Helen is a 55 year-old woman whose only child was struck and killed at the age of 14 by a drunk driver. After five years of psychotherapy, Helen contacted the driver of the car, met with him, and forgave him. Through his tears, the driver told Helen that she had saved his life by forgiving him.

Helen recently came to me for help in forgiving her husband’s ex-wife. Eight years ago the woman made a harsh and disparaging comment to Helen about the death of her daughter – ‘We get it! Your daughter died!’ Since then, Helen has hated the woman and suffered acute anxiety in her presence, avoiding her at all costs. She has been completely unable to forgive her. 

Such a comment shocks of cruelty and disdain. Yet how is it that Helen could forgive the drunk driver who killed her daughter but after eight years is unable to forgive the woman who merely made a hurtful remark? What exactly do we mean by the concept of “forgiveness”? Is it a discrete interpersonal phenomenon applied to one particular event, a helpful technique to be used to repair broken relationships, unburden ourselves from guilt, or obliterate the memory of pain? Or could forgiveness be something more expansive, affecting, and transferable to every interaction with another, including oneself? Rather than applying the tool of forgiveness to a particular issue in a relationship, could someone bring all of one’s relationships, even one’s life itself, into the transformative field of forgiveness? Might forgiveness, as conceived of from a depth psychological perspective, have soul as its aim, and guide one on the path toward individuation? 

Soul as the very essence of our living is difficult to define. As James Hillman describes it, soul is the "self-sustaining and imagining substrate" upon which consciousness rests. Soul is what makes meaning possible and deepens events into experiences that move us. Soul is communicated in love and is the aspect of human imagination that expands consciousness. We feel soul in the delight of a child, in our lover’s eyes, and in the depths of our sorrow. Individuation is given by a life in which we become who we are, in alignment with soul. Forgiveness, as imagined from a depth perspective, recovers and un-conceals the ever presence of soul.

This morning I will attempt to expand and develop the meaning of forgiveness by exploring it from a depth psychological perspective. Many current conceptualizations of forgiveness fail to consider the role of the forgiver’s unconscious in shaping or influencing the offense to be forgiven. This is understandable because such consideration may seem to threaten the reality of the offense, and I will explore this later. But when forgiveness is viewed from a deeply psychological perspective, we can see what it makes available in terms of illuminating and working with projected and disavowed unconscious contents. The patient’s acknowledged and desired need to forgive provides both a powerful lens focused on split off parts of the self and the motivation to work toward integration. The need to forgive can be utilized as a vivid via regia to one’s unconscious. If the clear role of the unconscious in shaping the offense to be forgiven is overlooked, a significant opportunity for healing is missed. In fact, the entire point of forgiveness is missed! 

The value and potential of forgiveness is finally being considered in contemporary social thought. This is very exciting! By ignoring the unconscious, however, we are allowing a newly emerging concept of forgiveness to be hijacked by non-psychological perspectives that tend to reduce and ignore its true potential for transformative healing. I believe the concept of forgiveness finds its richest potential in the field of depth psychology, where what is outside is seen through and brought back inside, the only place the miracle of forgiveness has a fighting chance of occurring.  

I will begin by examining the popular conceptualization of forgiveness in psychology, noting its limitations in definition, logic, and effectiveness. I will propose an alternate view of forgiveness situated in the field of depth psychology and explore approaches to forgiveness from Jungian, psychoanalytic, and archetypal perspectives. 

The Absence of Forgiveness in Psychology

Given its clear psychological benefits[i] and the universality of the concept, the historical absence of forgiveness in psychoanalytic literature is curious. No reference to forgiveness can be found in the combined works of Freud, Jung, Klein, Bion, or Kohut (Grant, 1987). Why did the topic of forgiveness go virtually unaddressed for most of the 20th century? Empirically speaking, the effects of forgiveness are difficult to measure, as is gathering reliable data, which would make it a challenging area to research. The concept of forgiveness has strong ties to religion, and one could argue that psychology did not view it as an appropriate or relevant topic, although this is a stretch given the astounding range of topics covered by both Jung and Freud[ii]. Given the aggression and violence present throughout history, and so evident in the 20th century (including two world wars and a holocaust), the concept of forgiveness may likely have been viewed as a pipe dream, a nice idea, but something either too unreasonable, irrational, or not genuinely possible for the psyche to achieve.

One might also conclude that there is something suspect about forgiveness, something not honest. James Hillman, a father of archetypal psychology, critiques the idea of forgiveness as a humanistic attempt to forget the truth in order to relieve the ego’s guilt, and in so doing ignores our ancestral history and the pathological reality of our own nature (1975). What Hillman rightly points to is the sense that forgiveness offers the option of avoiding genuine pain. It is often easier to forgive and ‘get on with it’ than confront conflict or go deeply into the pain caused by the offense. On the other hand, forgiveness seems to threaten our integrity by asking us to pretend that what happened didn’t really hurt or matter. It invalidates the suffering due to the offense, somehow suggesting that one shouldn’t feel so sad or angry and just ‘get over it.’ The demand of forgiveness seems equivalent to asking that what happened did not really happen at all! Deep down one thinks, how can you forgive the truth?

Forgiveness can also seem irresponsible; it flies in the face of justice because it is not concerned with meting out deserved punishment. Forgiveness does not prevent the offense from happening again and seems to have no concern with protecting the victim from future injustice. In fact, forgiveness threatens to condone the offense. 

Forgiveness can challenge one’s sense of personal dignity (e.g., it takes away the option to say, “I don’t deserve this,” or, “He can’t do this to me.”). There is a sense that offering forgiveness will diminish us, as if in giving something away we are left with less. We are giving away our upper hand, our right to retribution, our right to the pain caused by injustice.

And we might say there’s something a bit sneaky about forgiveness. In forgiving you for an offense, what I am secretly saying is something along the lines of, “in my supreme estimation, you have failed me, and in my moral superiority, I will let it slide.” So now you are doubly guilty; once for your initial sin against me and twice for the undeserved gift of my beneficence. Forgiveness obscures my covert wish to see you as sinful (Kenneth Wapnick, personal communication, 2009).

But ultimately, true forgiveness often proves an impossible task – a miracle. We can see this reality in centuries old enmity between cultures and religions. A Course in Miracles states that, “The holiest of all the spots on earth is where an ancient hatred has become a present love” (1977, p. 562). The miracle here is not the parting of the sea or the turning of water into wine. It is the miraculous transformation of hate to love, the astonishing journey from war to peace. Forgiveness seems to promise us nothing short of a miracle. It is very important, even necessary, to admit the irrationality of forgiveness – that it makes no sense from an ego-perspective. Such depth of forgiveness really does occur as a miracle, and for it to be achieved one must be willing to release the ego position. It is important that we be suspicious of forgiveness. Let us demand and be willing to wait for the miraculous transformation it promises before we call it forgiveness.

With this in mind, let us examine the definition of forgiveness.

The Definition of Forgiveness

Webster (2005) provides the following definition of forgive:

1. To cease to resent: or to pardon, overlook, dismiss from the mind, efface from the memory, pocket the affront, forgive and forget, let pass, palliate, excuse, condone, remit, forget, relent, bear no malice, exonerate, exculpate, let bygones be bygones, laugh it off, let it go, kiss and make up, bury the hatchet, turn the other cheek, charge to experience, make allowance, let up on*, write off*, charge off*; see also forget

2. To absolve: or acquit, pardon, release; to pronounce free from guilt or blame

Traditional psychological definitions of forgiveness change the standard definition of forgiveness in an attempt to appease many of the moral, judicial, and practical objections to forgiveness I just discussed. In doing so, they protect a privileged ego position. Such definitions often explicitly note the unacceptability of the offense, include the caveat that forgiveness does not condone the offense, and assert that the offender still deserves punishment[iii]. For example, based on a meta-analysis of psychological process-based forgiveness methods currently used (Lundahl, Taylor, Stevenson, & Roberts, 2008), forgiveness is universally defined as “the willful giving up of resentment in the face of another’s (or others’) considerable injustice and responding with beneficence to the offender even though that offender has no right to the forgiver’s moral goodness.” In addition, such a definition does not include an acknowledgment of projection on the forgiver’s part in rendering the injustice “considerable”, or unjust at all. Recognition of one’s own unconscious cooperation in the experience does not necessarily occur, and such forgiveness would not be expected to provide a transformational shift in perception.

Defining Forgiveness From a Depth Perspective

In viewing the definition of forgiveness from a depth perspective, I am not interested in altering the wording of the dictionary definition, but in amplifying the texture of the miracle of true forgiveness. There are no caveats here, only absolution - the “freedom from guilt or blame.” The origin of the word absolve comes from the Latin meaning “to loosen from.” This is wonderful imagery when we think of the liberating release from the suffocating grip on the heart that real forgiveness brings. The notion of absolution is an expanded view that includes the assumed cessation of resentment and points to the miraculous and numinous transformational aspect of forgiveness. 

So for our purposes, forgiveness is not seen as a gift of mercy to the offender, nor as a willful giving up of one’s right to resentment. Rather, we are looking at forgiveness as involving the withdrawal and re-integration of expelled unconscious contents, the cessation of splitting, and a move toward wholeness, or what might be called an intimate experience of soul. Forgiveness from a depth perspective offers freedom from hatred and resentment through the discovery and deep acceptance of all aspects of oneself. Significant reduction of anger, resentment, and estrangement toward the offender would be expected by-products as the liminal space between objects is cleared of distorted perceptions and made available for transformational relating. One’s notion of justice transitions to a higher order, and the talionic need to extract revenge loses its hold as the ego position is released. In addition, the level of learning is such that the benefits would be expected to be transferable to future events. For example, in Helen’s case, she came to recognize her hidden belief that if only she had cared more, her daughter would still be alive. Helen had expelled this intolerable uncaring aspect of herself onto her husband’s ex-wife. Through integrating and wholly accepting this split-off part, Helen would unlikely be trapped by such a projection in the future.

In summary, a primary distinction between the traditional view and the depth psychological view of forgiveness begins with how the offense in question is perceived. The former assumes it to be accurate and adequate, while the latter examines the influence of projected unconscious material in defining the offense in order to identify and re-integrate disowned contents. 

Forgiveness and Projection

The crux of forgiveness is the perception that one has been betrayed or attacked by another[iv]. The cause of the attack is located as external or out of one’s hands. The one who forgives must always see himself as a victim of the offender. I am at the effect of you. The guilt and shame is in you, not me.

The problem with this view, of course, is that it is false. Freud talked about the use of normal projection as establishing the image of the external world. Grotstein notes that in fact “the external world is actually built up as projections of our perceptions and beliefs about our internal world” (1985, p. 141). In this way, projection makes perception.

A conceptualization of forgiveness that fails to account for projections would likely be unable to offer the gift of inner freedom that true forgiveness promises, because as long as one is unaware of a projection, the characteristic really does belong to the object (Jung, 1960) and can therefore never truly be forgiven – only repeatedly denied, ignored, repressed, and resisted. And when another situation or ‘hook’ for the projection presents itself, again the sensation of offense and pain will occur and the work of false forgiveness would need to begin again.

To begin to grasp the concept that projection is the cause of perception – that cause and effect are reversed, and that the external world one sees could be the effect of an internal cause– is deeply transformative and an early marker of forgiveness from a depth perspective.

Forgiveness and Jung’s Transcendent Function

What is it, exactly, that we project onto others? According to Kernberg, “…the remnants of unacceptable self-images are repressed and projected onto external objects…” (1975, p. 231). With regard to forgiveness, it is our darkness, the alchemical nigredo that we see outside, in others.

We are convinced that certain people have all the bad qualities we do not know in ourselves or that they live all those vices which could, of course, never be our own….If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw these projections…then you get an individual conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong and they must be fought against…. Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow then he has done something real for the world…. How can anyone see straight when he does not even see himself and that darkness which he himself carries unconsciously into all his dealings?” (pp. 101-102)

Here we see how the need to forgive shows us with brilliant clarity unconscious projected shadow-images and connects us to the work of depth psychology. Forgiveness from a depth perspective would ask us to reflect upon the nature of the offense or object needing to be forgiven and observe the ways in which our own projections influence our perception of the object. Such contemplation would ultimately lead to the recognition that “that intolerable aspect which surely seems to be outside of me might actually be inside of me,” and further to the idea that “I am that which I am not.”

Such paradoxical contemplation inspires a psychic phenomenon that Jung calls the transcendent function, a process by which the opposites within one’s psyche are united, transformed, and surpassed. The transcendent function occurs when one fully endures the tension of the opposites within. Enduring the tension of the opposites serves as a kind of dialogue between conscious and unconscious aspects. Their mutual exposure opens up the possibility of what Jung calls the emergence of a reconciling symbol, which holds the key to transcendence beyond the opposites altogether. 

Jung famously likens individuation with the alchemical process of forging the opus. He states that, “The secret of alchemy was in fact the transcendent function, the transformation of personality through the blending and fusion of the noble with the base components, of the differentiated with the inferior functions, of the conscious with the unconscious” (1953, p. 220).

The transcendent function “is called ‘transcendent’ because it makes the transition from one attitude to another organically possible” (Jung, 1957, p. 73). One transitions through the liminal space between disparate psychological states. This emergent and expansive containing space allows the awareness of a new, numinous and living state – identification with the Self (Miller, 2002). If in judging an offense to be forgiven, one’s stance is, “But I could never do what he did” then one has very rich material to work with! The more extreme the opposite that is integrated, the more expansive the containing field emerges to hold it, and the richer and more numinous will be one’s experience of the Self. Jeffrey Miller (2004) notes that this liminal space becomes an archetypal place of pure possibility that is the potential source for all sorts of original and new ideas.

Joseph (1997) observes that the transcendent function “involves at its core a letting go of fixed [narcissistic] structures and identities” (p. 150). Thus, through the transcendent function we begin to sense something that before seemed impossible – an authentic and fundamental shift in perception allowing a release from our previous fixed, limited reality and the emergence of a space of pure possibility that both contains and surpasses the opposites.

The need to forgive sets the stage for invocation of the transcendent function by exposing projected unconscious aspects ready for integration. Jung saw individuation as being impossible without the transcendent function[v] (Miller, 2002). Similarly, according to Hillman, self-realization requires the “embracing of one’s untransformed psychopathology”, a beholding of the inhuman side of one’s humanity. Such a lingering and candid gaze at the darkness within exposes it to the conscious ego, invoking the transcendent function. In experiencing the opposites through reflection, fantasy, reverie, and play, the Self is able to withdraw attachment from both the opposites, allowing it to sink into the unconscious to retrieve a reconciling symbol of their union (Miller, 2004). Such a profoundly unifying experience could be seen as the birth of the miracle of forgiveness, where what was split off and hated is now encompassed and accepted, and nothing is as it was.

A striking image of the transcendent function is beautifully reflected in the famous series of conversations documented in Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book, “A Human Being Died That Night,” between Madikizela, a psychologist who grew up in a black South African township, and Eugene de Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil,” the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads under apartheid. Mirroring the alchemical process of “the blending and fusion of the noble with the base components, of the differentiated with the inferior functions, of the conscious with the unconscious,” Madikizela and de Kock spent 46 hours together in conversation over a period of six months. Their challenging, soulful, and patient dialogue left Madikizela’s (2003) heart filled with empathy and restored to one “without hate”, and inspired in de Kock an extraordinary awakening of conscience and humanity. Both were profoundly transformed.

Such work is extremely challenging to the ego. We know from a psychological perspective that the ego is unwilling to tolerate unacceptable impulses and thoughts. As Jung (1953) states, “We must recognize that nothing is more difficult to bear with than oneself” (p. 225). To the ego, the unification of opposites is seen as a monstrosity (Marlan, 2005). It knows that such a witnessing will result in its assimilation into the psyche, which to the ego, feels like dying (because it often is). This gives us an idea of the enormity of the resistance by the ego of true forgiveness, and why the willingness to initially release one’s ego position is necessary in order to enter into the process of authentic forgiveness. As with Bion’s transformation in “O”, one would surrender oneself to the transcendent function with “the disciplined abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions – and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself” (Grotstein, 1997).

Forgiveness from a Psychoanalytic Perspective

In addressing forgiveness from a psychoanalytic perspective, I would like to explore the work of Thomas Grant, who subjected the concept of forgiveness to psychoanalytic scrutiny in a fascinating and important unpublished paper in 1987. Grant references Melanie Klein’s concept of an inner world peopled with introjected good and bad objects as the place where an initial psychoanalytic view of forgiveness becomes possible. He sees forgiveness as “the thing we ask of our internal Gods when we become aware of having committed offenses and sins against them” (1987, p. 7). We ask for pardon so as to avoid mental pain, anguish, despair, and “to make things right again in our inner world and with our Gods.”

At times, though, these inner Gods can be harsh and punitive, even sadistic, so an aspect of forgiveness requires the ability to forgive our inner Gods for their faults and the pain they cause us through their imperfection. As Grant notes, our Gods need our benevolence to keep things right in the inner world.

Grant describes two types of forgiveness consistent with Klein’s developmental positions of the paranoid/schizoid and the depressive. In the first, the concept of forgiveness involves terror and the avoidance of punishment, annihilation, and damnation as we beg an internal persecutory God for mercy. In the latter, we pray to a more benevolent inner God, one who mourns our sins along with us and encourages us to develop. According to Grant, “Forgiveness in the depressive position is a genuine or real forgiveness as opposed to the more manic forgiveness characteristic of the paranoid/schizoid position.”

Grant posits that forgiveness is a requisite mental experience for more sophisticated functioning to develop. In fact ultimately, it is forgiveness that allows for the aims of analysis to be achieved. However, in order for forgiveness to occur, significant work must be accomplished, including the analysis of idealization, developing the capacity for identification, the healing of splits or reduction of splitting, the ‘owning’ of projective identification, and the move from part to whole object development. A very important observation Grant makes is that genuine forgiveness can only be experienced toward whole objects. Objects that are split cannot be forgiven. As previously discussed, the projected split-off bad aspect of an idealized object must be re-integrated before forgiveness can actually occur.

Once forgiveness has occurred, one is able to experience reparation, the rehabilitation and taking in of good objects, generosity, psychological birth, and gratitude (Grant, 1987). With forgiveness, the capacity for internalization has been gained and a rich, expansive, inner life is possible. Such a capacity allows for the general ability to internalize objects that had been seen as external. This is crucial and what enables forgiveness from a depth perspective to be universal and transferable to all similar experiences.

According to Grotstein (1997), beyond both the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions lies another, third state, which he calls the transcendent position. In the transcendent position, one experiences “solitude with a serenity that transcends conflict.” Similar to the transcendent function, it is a state available to an individual who can tolerate the full force of Bion’s “O” – including its dark face, akin to Milton’s “deep and formless infinite”. Forgiveness from a depth perspective may invite one to forsake the presence of the object to be forgiven “in order to look inward into his or her own subjectivity. Thus, in the transcendent position one experiences the quintessence of subjectivity that transcends…object relations. It is the apotheosis of solitude and the attainment of serenity” (Grotstein, 1997). In turn, the deep peace experienced in one’s inner world in the transcendent position colors the lens through which object relations are beheld in general.

Forgiveness from an Archetypal Perspective

I would now like to turn to forgiveness as viewed from an archetypal psychological perspective. As I mentioned before, Hillman is suspicious of forgiveness, saying that it belongs to the ego, “as ego’s cry for relief from carrying the whole world on its shoulders” (1975, p. 186). From this perspective, forgiveness is seen not as an opening up, a path of illumination, but as a shutting down, a forgetting of the very symptoms, pathos, and complexes that connect us to soul. He says:

Forgiveness of the confusions in which I am submerged, the wounds that give me eyes to see with, the errant and renegade in my behavior, blots out the Gods’ main route of access. (1975, p. 186)

It is our symptoms, our pathology, that is the language of soul, just as our dreams, and forgiveness threatens to silence the voice, blanketing the chaos with the re-assuring coo of ‘everything’s alright now’ or ‘forgive and forget.’ From an archetypal perspective, appealing to the ego for forgiveness of the ego’s own failings is an endless and fruitless cycle, for the ego devoid of soul is utterly incapable of meeting the archetypal demands of the soul and must always fail when it ignores the myths and the Gods. “Of course we fail,” Hillman says, “and since there is no power to call upon other than this ego, we beg forgiveness” (1975, p. 187).

So from an archetypal perspective, forgiveness is seen as a seductive trap that in wiping the slate clean has us ignore the shadow and chaos of our humanity. Hillman rightly notes that the process of individuation, or what he calls soul-making, ultimately embraces psychopathology untransformed.

If forgiveness is seen in a different light, if it is instead understood in relation to the knowledge and acceptance of one’s self, might forgiveness have a place in archetypal psychology?

In the work of soul-making, one’s self or personality is imagined in a new way. From the viewpoint of archetypal psychology, I do not relate to myself as a literal, personal ego. Rather, my personality is seen as an impersonal self - a metaphor - that reflects a confluence of archetypal persons projected through me. As such, my task is to know and accept myself as a personification of psyche, an expression of soul itself.

When confronted with humiliation, guilt, or the impulse to violence that we experience when we feel attacked or betrayed, what then? Soul-making would ask that we de-literalize the event that caused the suffering – and even the feelings themselves– and see through them. Using our imagination, we would elevate them to metaphor, freeing ourselves from judgment and the prison of a literalized ego viewpoint. In our suffering, we would instead turn to image, to our imagination. The images that appear to us in relation to our suffering become personified. They speak to us, revealing soul. In de-literalizing the offense, archetypal fantasies and persons emerge in the psyche, and a deeper meaning - and even necessity - of one’s suffering takes shape. As Hillman (1975) writes,

From the archetypal point of view, the matter is less that one feels guilty than to whom: to which person of the psyche and within which myth does my affliction belong, and does it bespeak an obligation? Which figures in which complexes are now laying claim? From this perspective, the guilt…leads out of the ego and into a recognition that…I am bound to archetypal persons who want something from me and to whom I owe remembrance (p. 83).

Through the work of soul-making, one moves from being trapped inside a fixed and deadened experience of “reality” into a mythic, powerful, and vibrant experience of one’s life whose meaning lies in revealing and expressing soul.

As such, forgiveness from an archetypal perspective is not a forgetting, but an imaginal remembering of our myths and our identity as soul.


So, in conclusion, how might we forgive? Think of the recent profusion of books and courses on the topic of forgiveness and how to actually accomplish the task!

Yet is forgiveness an event, accomplished in so many linear steps and then voila, done? Or is forgiveness an ongoing process, even an abiding practice, characterized by Plato’s conception, “That which is always becoming” – but never fully attained?

Lionel Corbett (2000) notes:

If someone is full of hatred…it is a waste of time to tell him to turn the other cheek…. If someone is full of rage and vengeance, he cannot be simply told to develop forgiveness and love for those who hurt him…[Such problems] can only be helped by a gradual process that integrates split off aspects of the self, heals or soothes childhood wounds, develops unused potentials of the personality, learns about real relationships, and forms a connection to the Self. (p. 86)

The approaches I have discussed here all involve a process of forgiveness. From a Jungian lens, one enters into the alchemical vat with eyes wide open to one’s shadow aspects, enduring the tension of the opposites and the long slow transformative re-birth given by the transcendent function. From a psychoanalytic lens, one honestly and painstakingly identifies and forgives the imperfection of idealized inner objects and gods through the reduction of splitting, the ‘owning’ of projective identification, and the move from part to whole object development. From an archetypal perspective, one comes to terms with one’s own untransformed psychopathology through an imaginal and metaphorical discovery of the soul. Are these not the very processes of therapy itself?

Could it be that all of psychotherapy is the work of forgiveness?

And how might we approach such work? Is forgiveness to be driven and willed into being through sheer intention? Or is it to be waited for and borne with devoted patience, bestowed by grace and given mysteriously when the soul is ready? Is the process of forgiveness an inexorable pull toward wholeness, and we need only get out of the way? Or is it up to us to stubbornly move ourselves along, often fighting against our nature – like swimming upstream? Maybe forgiveness, like individuation itself, asks for both. Perhaps true forgiveness consists of those moments along the way in which we reconcile our feelings and hearts to ourselves, to others, and also to the process of individuation itself, a process in which we are always angry or despairing (in some way) at who we are. The soul needs the ego’s willingness to engage in forgiveness – to say, “Yes, I am willing to forgive!” and yet it also needs the ego to give way, to experience the rush of feeling that is not yet ready to be given up, and to ultimately embrace the knowledge and existence of its hated nigredo, its chaotic and shadow aspects. At times we work against the process, at times we work with it, yet in not forsaking it, we ultimately come to terms with the most challenging parts of ourselves. Through the paradoxical interplay of nature and opus contra naturam, the miracle of forgiveness can emerge.

Finally, I would like to turn back to Helen. Her heartfelt desire to forgive after suffering eight years of torment is important and signal’s the ego’s willingness for a better way. So how might we envision forgiveness in her case? Rather than looking at her anguish as something to get rid of, we can see Helen’s need to forgive as a gift, a hidden doorway to the unconscious. We may behold in her despair the “Gods’ main route of access” to psyche, a guidepost on the path toward individuation, and the promise of the recovery and experience of soul. In working with forgiveness in analysis, my task as a depth psychologist lies in reflecting the fullness of soul back to Helen, bearing witness to its brilliance and also to the depths of its darkness. The therapist holds out to her patient the possibility to profoundly know and accept herself, with the understanding that the deepest shadows are cast only by the most luminous radiance. In the process of forgiveness from a depth perspective, Helen will find within herself the strength to bear her unbearable sorrow and longing, knowing it is given only by the infinite depths of her love.

Additional Notes

Projections and Interpersonal Forgiveness

It may seem that because forgiveness is associated with interpersonal relationships it does not belong to the intrapsychic world of depth psychology. But Jung (1927) develops the idea of projections with regard to personal relating. He says:

Just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naively suppose that people are as we imagine them to be… we…go on naively projecting our own psychology into our fellow human beings. In this way everyone creates for himself a series of more or less imaginary relationships based essentially on projection… All human relationships swarm with these projections. (par. 507)

The withdrawal of projections has a profound and numinous effect on interpersonal relationships. As von Franz observes:

It happens again and again in psychological practice that when a person has been caught in blinding projections…and they are then withdrawn, in many cases this in no way annuls or sets aside the relationship. On the contrary, a genuine, “deeper” relation emerges, no longer rooted in egoistic moods, struggles, or illusions but rather in the feeling of being connected to one another via an absolute, objective principle (1980, p. 174)

Von Franz calls this principle the objective psyche or the Self. Relationships based on the Self, rather than on projections, “give rise to a feeling of immediate, timeless ‘being together.’…In this world created by the Self we meet all those many to whom we belong, whose hearts we touch.” It is here that, as Jung (Letters, I, p. 298) says, “there is no distance, but immediate presence.”

Forgiveness and Spirituality

Forgiveness may hold the possibility of re-connection with the soul insofar as numinous experience can occur through the release of guilt. As illustrated in a patient’s dream described by Whitmont (1991):

I was given an ugly filthy rag. At first I would not even touch it. But finally after long hesitation I accepted it. As soon as I touched it, it turned into a beautiful snow-white shining cloth. [The nature of such a transformation is] …like the unfathomable mystery of grace and redemption, forever beyond our human grasp yet entering miraculously into our limited human lives. Symbolically, it is represented in the imagery of individuation, such as finding the elixir of life, drinking the draft of immortality. (p. 96)

In the spirit of Bion’s idea of the mystical as “seeing things as they truly are – without disguise” (Grotstein, 1997), might taking an approach to forgiveness that considers the unconscious release distorted perceptions and invite the numinous experience? According to Corbett (2000):

If we can become conscious of our own darkness…we will be redeemed and saved by that new consciousness….Using the methods of depth psychology, we can stop projecting our need for a redeemer onto someone else, and be responsible for the demands of the Self, our personal image of the divine, as it manifests itself to us directly (p. 85).

As we experience the miracle of forgiveness, we are inhabited by the divine and numinous presence of the Self. As Jung (1957) says, “The approach to the numinous is the real therapy, and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experiences you are released from the curse of pathology,” says Jung (p. 377).


I would like to gratefully acknowledge the impact of the ideas of Drs. Kenneth Wapnick, Jeffrey C. Miller, and Ron Hulnick in my work. I have been deeply inspired by the extraordinary faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute, in particular Drs. Robert Romanyshyn, Avedis Panajian, and Lionel Corbett. I offer profound gratitude to my wonderful classmates there, and to Dr. Allen Bishop for his encouragement and guidance. Finally, many significant ideas were developed in collaboration with my brilliant colleague and dear friend, John Knapp, without whom this paper could not have been written.


A course in miracles (2nd Ed.) (1992). Mill Valley, CA: Foundation for Inner Peace.              (Original work published 1976)

Corbett, L. (2000). “A Depth Psychological Approach to the Sacred” in Depth

psychology: Meditations in the field. Slattery, D. P. & Corbett, L. (eds) Carpinteria, CA: Daimon Verlag and PGI

Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, DC: APA Life Tools.

Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2003). A human being died that night. New York: Houghton

Mifflin Company.

Grant, T. M. (1987). “Forgiveness in Psychoanalysis.” Unpublished paper.

Grotstein, J. S. (1985). Splitting and projective identification. London: Jason

Aronson, Inc.

Grotstein, J. S. (1997). Bion’s “Transformation in ‘O’” and the concept of the

“Transcendent Position”. Retrieved at

Hillman, J. (1975). Re-visioning psychology. New York: HarperCollins.

Joseph, S. M. (1997). “Presence and absence through the mirror of transference. A

model of the transcendent function.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 42 (1), 139-56.

Jung, C. G. (1938). Psychology and religion. London: Yale University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1953-76). The collected works of C. G. Jung (Ed. by Sir H. Read, M.

Fordham, G. Adler, and W. McGuire. Trans. by R.F.C. Hull). New York:

Bollingen. Volumes cited:

                 6. Psychological types. (1971). (Original work published in 1921)

7. Two essays on analytical psychology. (1953). (Original work published in 1943)

                 8. The structure and dynamics of the psyche. (1960).

Jung, C. G. (1957). The transcendent function (A. R. Pope, Trans.). [Pamphlet]. Zurich:

                 Students Association, C.G. Jung Institute.

Kernberg, O. (1985). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Lanham, MD:

Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Inc

Lundahl, B., Taylor, M., Stevenson, R., Roberts, K. (2008). Process-based forgiveness              interventions: A meta-analytic review. Research on Social Work Practice 2008

0: 1049731507313979

Maltby, J. and Day, L. (2004). Forgiveness and defense style. Journal of Genetic

Psychology, 165:1.

Marlan, S. (2005). The black sun: The alchemy and art of darkness. College Station,

TX: Texas A&M University Press.

McCullough, M. E., Pargament, K. I., and Thoresen, C. E. (Eds.). (2000). Forgiveness:

Research, theory, and practice. New York: NY: The Guilford Press.

Miller, J.C. (2004). The transcendent function. New York: State University of New              York Press.

Sells, J. N. and Hargrave, T. D. (1998) Forgiveness: a review of the theoretical and              empirical literature. Journal of Family Therapy, 20, 21-36.

Symington, N. (2002). A pattern of madness. London: H. Karnac (Books) Ltd.

Von Franz, M. (1980). Projection and re-collection in Jungian psychology. London:              Open Court Publishing Company

Whitmont, E. C. (1991). The symbolic quest. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton              University Press. (Original work published 1969)

[i] Recent studies show the powerful effect of forgiveness on virtually all areas of a person’s life. Using a variety of physical and mental health indexes (i.e., measures of depression, anxiety, somatic symptoms, social dysfunction, anger, well-being, stress, happiness), researchers have found that forgiving thoughts, cognitions, and behaviors are associated with indexes of better mental health, and failure to forgive is associated with poorer mental health (Berry & Worthington, 2001; Maltby, Macaskill, & Day, 2001; Rye & Pargament, 2001; Rye et al., 2002; Toussaint, Williams, Musick, & Everson, 2001). As such, failure to forgive is often described as a barrier to the establishment of good mental health, and therapeutic intervention (designed to promote forgiveness) is thought to lead to recovery and better mental health (Berry et al., 2001; Exline & Baumeister, 2000; Gordon, Baucom, & Snyder, 2000; Rye et al.) (Maltby & Day, 2004).

[ii] Grant (1987) notes that Freud’s structural theory of the mind did not posit the notion of an inside world wherein numerous objects are involved in a dynamic, complicated interplay, and that it took a more sophisticated model of the mind before certain analytic ideas like “forgiveness” could have the fertile ground to develop.

[iii] Dr. Robert Enright, author of the Enright Forgiveness Inventory, offers the following psychological definition for interpersonal forgiveness:

Forgiveness is a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her. (2004, p. 1)

According to Dr. Enright, forgiveness assumes the right to view the offense as unjust but requires that we give up our natural reaction to such unjust treatment by another, which is antithetical to one’s sense of justice, self-respect, practicality, integrity, and honesty. In addition, the forgiver is to offer undeserved gifts and “even love” to the offender. The definition asks us to ignore the ego position on the one hand (give up one’s right to resentment) while assuming both feet firmly planted in the ego position on the other (do not give up judgment of the offense or offender). Although intended to be a psychological definition of forgiveness, it is focused on the external object and ignores the internal psychic workings of the forgiver.

[iv] One could argue that the attack could come from oneself – for example, I could feel angry with myself for breaking an agreement. Yet the part of the self that broke the agreement must still be seen as a victimizer to the offended aspect.

[v] As Jung (1953) states, “The transcendent function does not proceed without aim or purpose, but leads to the revelation of the essential man…. The meaning and purpose of the process is…the production and unfolding of the original potential wholeness” (p. 110).


This essay was written prior to my study of Psychology as the Discipline of Interiority (PDI) and does not include the very crucial perspective offered on forgiveness viewed from within the context of PDI. An approach to forgiveness from a PDI perspective will be included in the forthcoming book Psychology as the Discipline of Interiority: 'The Psychological Difference' in the Work of Wolfgang Giegerich, Routledge (2016)

bottom of page