In my last post, I wrote about the three different types of forgiveness – exoneration, forbearance, and release – and the situations to which they apply. Today, I’m going to expand further upon the topic of forgiveness with some tips and strategies for how to best forgive those who have wronged us. These suggestions will primarily apply to the third – and often the most challenging – type of forgiveness, release. Release is the lowest form of forgiveness and generally relates to situations in which the offender has never acknowledged wrongdoing or apologized for their behavior.
“I never knew how strong I was until I had to forgive someone who was not sorry.” ~ Unknown
Most of the concepts and tips mentioned in this post were derived from a podcast from The Savvy Psychologist, titled “5 Ways to Forgive People (Even Those Who Don’t Apologize),” as well as an article from Greater Good Magazine, titled “What is Forgiveness?” Other helpful resources on the topic of forgiveness are included at the end of this post and some relevant quotes (from this article) are peppered throughout as well.
One of the reasons it can be so difficult to forgive is that it feels like forgiving means excusing the wrongdoing or forgetting it ever happened. However, if we hang on to old hurts for a long period of time, it can result in tremendous suffering that only serves to compound the initial injury we experienced. While the pain of being hurt by others is an inevitable part of life, the suffering caused by holding a grudge and ruminating on past offenses is optional.
If we continue to relive a negative experience over and over again, we are allowing the person who hurts us to effectively take up residence inside of our heads. This can be the exact opposite of what we may ultimately want, which is to have nothing to do with that individual ever again. Even if we choose to continue a relationship with an offender for whatever reason, most of us don’t want to have an ongoing loop of painful memories running through our brains.
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” ~ Unknown
Letting go of our anger and resentment is something we need to do for ourselves, not for the person who hurt us. Making the choice to forgive doesn’t necessarily mean we believe the offender deserves our forgiveness. Instead, it can represent taking a stand for our own well-being because we deserve the peace of mind that forgiveness brings. We should endeavor to let go of pain and bitterness when holding on to it costs us more than it buys us. While it may be true that you’re right and the other person is in the wrong, you may need to ask yourself if you’d rather be right than happy. If you’d prefer to be happy, then finding a way to release the experience is the best approach.
I remind myself that I forgive not for them but for me and that it’s easier to forgive than to hang on to so much anger, hurt and betrayal. –Sarah Clark
I know that I need to forgive someone, not for their benefit, but for my own peace of mind. Don’t do it for them, do it for you! –Cathryn Kent
Another Look at Forgiveness
Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University is a pioneer in the science and practice of forgiveness. His nine-step forgiveness process has helped thousands of people to let go of their anger and resentment, including those in Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone. Dr. Luskin frames forgiveness as the ability to make peace with the word “no.” There are many instances in our lives when we don’t get what we want, which basically means that we get “no” instead of “yes.” We often become resentful because the reality of our lives is different from the image we have of the way it should be.
Forgiveness involves being at peace with what is, as well as the vulnerability inherent in life that we can’t always make things the way we want them to be. When we forgive, we are better able to lead our lives without prejudice and be open-hearted to move forward and give the next moment – and the next person – a chance. Forgiveness allows us to stop punishing the people in our lives for what others did to us in the past.
Forgiveness and Grief
Dr. Luskin states that forgiveness is the resolution of grief. When we have experienced hurt, the natural response is to grieve, and one needs to grieve before they are able to move into forgiveness. However, many people never allow themselves to grieve the losses in their lives (of affection, a human being, a dream, etc.) and others grieve for far too long. Both are inadequate responses. The deep human being allows himself to grieve but doesn’t hold on to his grief. We are empowered when we acknowledge, grieve, and move on from negative experiences rather than clinging to them and blaming others.
3 Steps to Forgiveness
Dr. Luskin recommends the following three steps to let go of your grief and move into forgiveness:
Step One – Acknowledge the Harm Done
Fully acknowledge the harm that was done – by another person or yourself, as well as the loss that you experienced. Own the fact that something you wanted is not there and it hurts. This may involve some painful therapeutic work, especially if you have suppressed a negative experience or have been in denial about it. If this is the case, it may take some effort to acknowledge both the harm and its consequences.
Step Two – Experience Your Feelings
It isn’t enough to just acknowledge what happened. You also need to experience the feelings associated with the event, which often means you need to go through a period of misery. Dr. Luskin stated that he’s never met a person who has undergone real loss who didn’t suffer at some level. You have to allow yourself to experience a range of emotions, such as sadness and fear, before you can transform your response to what happened. You’re not going to change what occurred because it’s immutable, but you can change your emotional response to it over time.
Step Three – Share with Others
Your grief should not be a secret. Research on resilience has shown that those who don’t tell anyone about their harmful experiences have much worse consequences than those who share with others, as the human connection is central to healing. However, those who air their grievances to anyone and everyone also don’t fare well in terms of long-term outcomes. The healthy response is to share what happened to you with a few select, caring people over time. The people you share with can be trusted confidants, a therapist, or fellow participants in a 12-step program.
After proceeding through the steps above, you will eventually reach a point with your grief where you’re able to forgive. The time required will of course vary, but it cannot be rushed. Healing doesn’t happen overnight and it takes hard work, but it’s worth the effort.
5 Key Forgiveness Factors
Ultimately, forgiveness is a choice and only you can decide when the time is right to forgive. But when you’re ready to move into release, the following five factors can help to facilitate the process.
The Healing Factor of Time
As the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. It has actually been scientifically proven that there is a relationship between time and forgiveness, so that adage holds true. Also important is the relationship the victim has with the offender. If the person who hurt you is important in your life, that makes it easier to forgive. However, it does take time, so don’t expect to be able to get over your hurt quickly, even if the person has apologized.
The Importance of Self-Efficacy
Self-efficacy can be described as believing in yourself and your ability to influence what happens in your life. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s research has shown that it’s the most consistent predictor of good health and it also plays an important role in the process of forgiveness. Although letting go can seem passive, it’s actually a deliberate decision that is rooted upon the belief that you can control your path in life.
Positive Examples and Role Models
The presence of a powerful model for how forgiveness is done can assist with the process of letting go. All of the world’s major religions include many examples of forgiveness, such as God forgiving humanity, Buddhists letting go of attachment, and Hindus regarding forgiveness as a cardinal virtue. There are also many stories in the news that exemplify forgiveness, including Elizabeth Smart forgiving the couple who abducted her and these ten inspiring stories of forgiveness from Reader’s Digest. Although many of the offenses we may be holding onto are not nearly as extreme as these examples, reading about them can help us feel more ready to let go of our own anger and hurt.
Do a Test Run
Forgiveness doesn’t usually happen in one fell swoop. We often need a sort of “warm-up routine” to get the process going. You may find the following three ideas helpful as you work toward forgiveness:
- Past memories: Think of a time in your life when you forgave someone. Remember how it felt for you both emotionally and physically to let go.
- Visualization: Close your eyes and envision a scene in which you forgive the person you’re currently angry with. Try to make this scene as vivid as possible both in terms of the interaction and how you feel within your body. The more detail you can include, the more effective the visualization is likely to be.
- Letter-writing: Write a letter to your offender and grant them forgiveness. This is not a letter that you will actually send, but going through the process of putting words to the forgiveness process will help to move it along.
Stand Up for Yourself
What happened to you is in the past and there is nothing you can do to change it. However, changing the way you interact with others moving forward can make it easier for you to forgive in the future. A University of Calgary study found that when people engage in what they termed “confrontation coping,” they are more likely to be able to forgive those who hurt them. Confrontation coping can be as simple as standing up for yourself in the moment by telling the other person not to treat you in a particular manner.
Writing this two-part series on forgiveness was very helpful to me. I wrote the first part following a negative interaction with the hairstylist who set back my gray hair transition process by many months and right before a trip to see my family for ten days. Although I had hoped to prepare part two for publication before my trip, I ran short on time and had to write this post after my return home earlier this week.
Writing the gray hair transition update and exchanging messages with the stylist after she read the post reignited a lot of the anger I was harboring about what happened last summer. While I was away, I realized that I don’t want to feel that way any longer. Although I will never receive an apology from the stylist or any acknowledgement of wrongdoing, I need to let go of the experience and move on with my life. I no longer want to give this woman any power in my mind or waste any additional energy on her and what happened.
I cannot change what happened and if people who experienced far worse things than this are able to forgive and move on, so can I. I already feel a lot freer and like a great weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. Onward and upward, as Gretchen Rubin would say!
Additional Forgiveness Resources & Your Feedback
In preparation for this post, I read a number of articles about forgiveness. In the interest of space, I wasn’t able to summarize them all, but if you’d like to delve deeper and read more about forgiveness, here are some additional articles you may want to check out:
- “Forgiving Someone Who is Not Sorry is One of the Hardest Things to Do” (Elephant Journal)
- “How Do You Forgive Even When It Feels Impossible – Part 1” (Psychology Today)
- “How Do You Forgive Even When It Feels Impossible – Part 2” (Psychology Today)
- “How to Forgive and Let Go of Someone Who Has Hurt You” (The Law of Attraction)
- “4 Ways to Forgive and Let Go” (HuffPost)
- “Five Powerful Ways to Forgive Those Who Hurt You” (Daring to Live Fully)
- “How to Forgive Someone Who Shows No Remorse” (WikiHow)
- “Forgiveness Can Improve Mental and Physical Health” (American Psychological Association)
- “How to Forgive Someone Who Has Hurt You: In 15 Steps” (Dr. Wayne Dyer)
I hope you liked this article and found it helpful. As always, I welcome your comments, sharing, and questions. I’ll be back next week with a recap of my April (and May) wardrobe challenge. I wish you all a wonderful weekend!
9 thoughts on “Forgiveness, Part Two: How to Forgive”
From my perspective, the only one of the three categories that is truly forgiveness is forbearance, i.e. trust but verify. The concept of forgiveness doesn’t even arise unless there has been an intentional wrong. In the first category, exoneration, an innocent accident or mistake does not contain the intent or disregard that triggers the specific pain soothed by forgiveness. Innocent damage requires a coping mechanism, not forgiveness. For example, if my car were damaged because my son made an innocent error while driving it, I might be annoyed but I wouldn’t be in pain. There was no intent to harm me, or disregard for my well-being. Similarly, the third category, release, does not require forgiveness. When I got divorced, I suffered severe pain for approximately a year. Over time, the pain diminished to the point where I was able to rationally consider what had happened. I did not forgive my ex-husband, who was one of those who didn’t apologize. Instead, I depersonalized him in my thoughts, re-categorizing him from a loved one to a natural disaster. I wouldn’t be angry with a tornado that upended my life, so I was able to release my anger at my ex. This was made easier by the fact that I cut him completely out of my life. I didn’t forgive him, I just stopped caring. So for me, forbearance is the only real form of forgiveness, and it is challenging, especially with those who don’t acknowledge committing a wrong. Like you, I had a family member who revealed my confidences to others in the family. Also like you, she didn’t consider her behavior wrong or worthy of an apology. Now, I am careful about what I reveal to her which is a shame, as it has put distance in a once close relationship.
Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on forgiveness, Terry. I really like what you had to say and it has given me food for thought. I think the idea of depersonalizing or re-categorizing an offender as a “natural disaster” can be very helpful. What’s most difficult for me is the tape I tend to play over and over again in my mind of negative interactions I’ve had with people. I also tend to think of what I wish I had said or how I would have preferred to have handled a situation. That type of mental turmoil is what drives me batty! It does dissipate with time, but it can be torturous for quite a while… You may well be right that forbearance is the most difficult type of forgiveness and perhaps the true definition of the word. I feel sad that I have to temper what I say to the family member I mentioned, too, but I think realizing the limitations of certain relationships is healthy. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but I don’t think I will ever fully trust that person again. I feel your pain on that one…
Oh, you’re a ruminator. So am I. I let my mind do its rumination thing for a while (longer the more severe the transgression was), but then I cut it off. Similar to the redirection of thought during meditation. (Not that I know very much about meditation.) At first, the unwanted thought recurs on a frequent basis, but if I keep redirecting, this eventually tapers off.
Yes, I’m definitely a ruminator, Terry! That’s something I don’t like about myself, but I’ve had a hard time changing that aspect of my personality. I think what you’re saying is that you divert your attention when you notice the ruminating thoughts and you keep doing this every singe time until the thoughts dissipate. That’s what I’ve been doing lately and it has been helpful. One suggestion I was given was to draw a large red X over the image in my mind each time the “scene” was conjured up again. That helped me to let go of a very damaging friendship a while back and I have also used that process with other negative interactions. It does take time, but it works if I keep doing it.
Hey Debbie! I must admit that I have found a lot of what is written out there about “forgiveness” to be problematic and frankly not all that helpful, however I understand where you’re coming from given the context of your hair debacle. For me, I’ve finally come around to realizing that the whole concept of “forgiveness” seems so attached to puritanical/religious ideas and rhetoric as to be nearly irrelevant for me and the trauma that I deal with. The notions of forbearance and letting go have been a bit more useful, but what has helped me the most was recently realizing that it’s really not my job or place to forgive/absolve anyone else, rather I can only absolve myself. That perspective resulted in a sense of internal space, relief and freedom that I’ve really been able to work with and build upon. I also really liked reading Terry’s perspective above. Anyway, I hope you are able to find peace from that painful situation (and others like it), and again I’m so sorry that it’s been such a difficult process. xo
I agree that a lot of what’s written about forgiveness isn’t all that helpful and is often attached to puritanical/religious ideas, Claire. I used to always view forgiveness in absolute terms like what was referred to in my last post as exoneration. There are some instances in which wiping the slate clean isn’t appropriate. In fact, I would say those are probably the majority. The quote about drinking the poison and expecting the other person to die was quite powerful to me, as I realized that it was exactly what I was doing in certain instances and it was unhealthy for me in multiple respects. I like what you wrote about how we can only absolve ourselves. Sometimes when I am angry at another person, I am also angry at myself. I tend to hold a lot of anger toward myself for stupid decisions I’ve made. I definitely feel that way about my hair issues, as I was ultimately the one who trusted the stylists and paid them for their services. I wish I would have just gone “cold turkey,” as I would be done by now. Of course, we can only change the present and not the past and continuing to mentally flog myself for that and other mistakes doesn’t serve me in any way. I am working toward more self-compassion, as I would like to have the type of internal space, relief, and freedom you wrote about. Thank you for your insights and good wishes.
Ugh, yeah those “mental floggings” are really tough patterns to unlearn, but I believe it can be done (with lots of practice). You and Terry have talked about some useful techniques up there, and I think I am putting more into my tool chest with IFS and meditative principles, too.
I think one thing I’m starting to see is that while the anger (or whatever feelings) about the difficult situation/person are valid, they can also serve to distract from or disguise hard internal or self-directed feelings. I can’t know for sure, but I sense that there is a lot of painful regret, guilt and shame behind your (understandable) hurt and anger. Also maybe some feelings of betrayal, both outer and inner? I find that if I can gently, openly turn inward to work with those feelings (in a variety of ways that I’m working on learning), the intensity I feel towards the outer situation/person shifts a bit, like gaining perspective or something. So, working on the inner stuff ends up working on the outer stuff as a side effect (I don’t think it works quite as well in reverse, for me anyway). The inner seems like a lot of the root for stuff like this.
Taking it back to the current topic, you don’t necessarily end up forgiving/absolving the person/situation, because you don’t really need to. You do gain insight and perspective that helps you take healthy steps forward and better care of yourself, and allows you to be more gentle and understanding with yourself about whatever hard thing has happened.
I definitely need to look into IFS more thoroughly, Claire, as it keeps coming up. It seems like a very useful framework to apply for many issues. Regarding what you wrote in your second paragraph, yes I feel a lot of painful regret, guilt, shame, and betrayal about my gray hair mistakes, as well as other issues in my life. I do try to work on these things, but I probably need some outside help, as one reader wrote about in response to my last gray hair transition post. A lot of what we struggle with in life relates to deeply rooted issues from our past and I know I am no exception to that…
I will say that writing about some of this stuff has lessened its intensity in my mind. I’m also working on redirecting my thoughts as Terry recommended above, and I’m finding that helpful. I think that “release” is what’s most appropriate with my hair situation and I’m doing much better with that. I have been able to do it with far more challenging situations, but it often takes time. I know I need to be more gentle and understanding with myself, as being too hard on myself is a recurring theme. I’m often far more angry toward myself than I am toward others and that’s not healthy. You have a great attitude, especially given the things you’re facing, which I know I’m only aware of to some degree. I always appreciate your insights and I thank you and my other regular commenters for continually sharing your thoughts with me.
I’m so glad the writing helps, it really can be so powerfully therapeutic. I don’t know if the IFS would be quite as effective if I didn’t combine it with other techniques like you’re talking about and that I practice with too. It just somehow helps to pull a lot of that stuff together for me. The combination of skills is so important, and figuring out what works for ourselves individually. Thanks for being here with the encouraging words and this encouraging blog!
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