- The Psychology of Forgiveness: 7 Lessons on How to Finally Let Go and Forgive Someone
- 1. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting
- 2. Forgiveness and anger don’t mix well
- 3. Forgiveness does not mean endorsement
- 4. Forgiveness does not require reconciliation
- 5. Forgiveness is not one decision
- 6. Forgiveness is not a feeling
- 7. Your road to forgiveness is your own
- All you need to know
- Eight Keys to Forgiveness
- 1. Know what forgiveness is and why it matters
- 2. Become “forgivingly fit”
- 3. Address your inner pain
- 4. Develop a forgiving mind through empathy
- 5. Find meaning in your suffering
- 6. When forgiveness is hard, call upon other strengths
- 7. Forgive yourself
- 8. Develop a forgiving heart
The Psychology of Forgiveness: 7 Lessons on How to Finally Let Go and Forgive Someone
A former client of mine we’ll call Mary was the childhood victim of some of the worst abuse I’ve ever heard of: She was chronically beaten by her alcoholic father—having to be admitted to the hospital several times as a result—molested multiple times by another close family member, and frequently manipulated emotionally by her mother in order to hide her father’s abuse and “keep the family safe.”
As Mary recounted her horrific childhood, I was struck by the obvious fact that she was in her mid-seventies and had been living with this pain for a lifetime. She went on to explain how, as bad as the actual abuse was and all the effects it had on her growing up, it was her inability “to let go” now that bothered her most:
I just can’t seem to let go of this… I’ve been in therapy almost my whole life trying to deal with my trauma and be free of it, but I think about it constantly. Dozens of things remind me of my parents and what they did to me every day, and every time I get upset.
I’m 74 old. More than anything I want to be able to forgive them and move on with what’s left of my life.
Needless to say, I was stunned—both by the tragedy of what I’d just heard but also by the challenge ahead of me professionally. How do I help someone who has every reason in the world to be angry, upset, and resentful, to “let it go,” get on with her life—and even, to forgive?
Mary and I worked together for over a year. In that time we gradually uncovered the obstacles to the forgiveness Mary desperately wanted. In the process, Mary slowly found her way to a kind of forgiveness of her family—and along with it, she discovered a degree of peace in her life she’d never known.
It’s one of the great privileges of my life that I get to work with people Mary and learn from them every bit as much (if not more) than they learn from me.
What follows are 7 lessons on genuine forgiveness I learned from my work with Mary and other clients her.
1. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting
Baked into our culture is the notion of “forgive and forget,” the idea that in order to forgive we need to forget the wrongs done to us.
This is nonsense.
Barring some form of serious neurological condition, it’s highly unly that you’ll ever be able to forget a serious wrong committed against you.
But, if your bar for achieving forgiveness is elimination from memory, you’re setting yourself up for chronic frustration and even guilt since it’s simply not biologically or psychologically possible.
While we can’t control what memories stick with us or not, we can control our attention. Specifically, we can exert control over how much we choose to focus on and ruminate about past wrongs committed against us.
Obviously, some amount of reflection and processing of the offense is ly helpful. But it’s a mistake to assume that because your mind is drawn to a specific thought or memory, you should allow your attention to stay there.
If you choose to engage with and elaborate on these spontaneous memories of your offender or the offense, you will make it more ly that similar thoughts and memories arise in the future. On the other hand, if you acknowledge them but then choose to re-focus your attention elsewhere, you will make it less ly that these memories will intrude on you in the future.
Set and enforce healthy mental boundaries. Your mood will thank you for it.
You can’t control your memories, but you can control your attention.
2. Forgiveness and anger don’t mix well
It’s normal to feel anger toward your offender. There are good evolutionary reasons for this related to the maintenance of social order and fairness. Feeling angry also temporarily feels good—it’s an ego boost.
But in the long-run, unchecked anger often leads to unhelpful amounts of mental elaboration over the wrongs done to you, which keeps those memories strong and readily accessible in your mind.
The less you mentally elaborate on your anger and what happened to you, the less frequently your mind will remind you of what happened.
When you notice yourself feeling angry, pause briefly and acknowledge the anger, validating that you have every right to feel angry. But then ask yourself: Will continuing to elaborate on what happened and extending my anger do me any good in the long-term?
Just because your anger is justified doesn’t mean it’s helpful. Validate your anger, but don’t feed it.
3. Forgiveness does not mean endorsement
Many people who struggle with forgiveness have been given the advice that they need to “accept” what’s happened and move on. The problem is, terms “acceptance” are fuzzy and mean different things to different people.
Many people hear the word “accept” and assume that it implies endorsement, that you’re somehow okay with what happened or justifying it.
But acceptance does not mean endorsement or justification. Many people who are victims of an injustice are further victimized by being manipulated into believing that they were somehow at fault for the bad thing that happened to them. That’s not acceptance.
Acceptance means acknowledging that you don’t have power or control over the past.
This is a surprisingly hard thing to do for people who have been abused or otherwise wronged somehow because feeling the past is controllable makes us feel more powerful.
But ultimately, it’s an illusion. Choosing to let go of the desire to control the past is key to taking control over your future.
You can accept an offense against you without excusing it.
4. Forgiveness does not require reconciliation
Many people who have been wronged assume that they must achieve reconciliation with the person who wronged them.
This is especially common, I’ve found, among people with a strong religious background. While I can’t speak to anyone’s specific religious beliefs, I do know that from a psychological perspective, reconciliation is not required for forgiveness. And in fact, holding out for it can actually be detrimental to achieving genuine forgiveness.
The problem with making forgiveness contingent on reconciliation is that other people aren’t under your control.
No matter how much you want the person who’s wronged you to see the error of their ways, offer a heartfelt apology and restitution, and mend the relationship, you can’t control that.
And it’s dangerous to spend time and energy trying to control things we don’t ultimately have control over.
Specifically, I’ve seen many people who are so focused—borderline obsessed—with achieving reconciliation with their offender, that they don’t have the mental and emotional energy left over to work on the aspects of forgiveness they do have control over. In other words, there’s tremendous opportunity cost in making forgiveness dependent on reconciliation.
Hope for reconciliation if you wish, but don’t expect it.
5. Forgiveness is not one decision
Forgiveness begins with a single decision but it doesn’t end there.
No matter how many stories you hear about the “moment of forgiveness,” realize that forgiveness is a process, a journey.
A firm decision and commitment to forgive is an important first step, but be realistic about the fact that it is just that—a first step. There will ly be many more steps along the road to forgiveness:
- You will continue to see that relative you had the spat with at future family gatherings.
- Memories of your trauma will pop into mind from time to time.
- Your efforts at reconciliation will not be reciprocated.
One decision to forgive is not enough. Be prepared to continue to forgive, day in and day out. And while it may get easier with time, forgiveness is forever.
Forgiveness is not a decision; it’s an attitude, a habit of mind.
6. Forgiveness is not a feeling
Many people struggle with forgiveness because they confuse the act of forgiveness with their expected emotional outcome.
Specifically, most people who are struggling to forgive desperately want to feel better—they want peace of mind, less anger and hate, calm and equanimity, perhaps they even want to feel compassion or love toward their offender or the person responsible for their hurt.
But how we end up feeling is a consequence of forgiveness, not forgiveness itself. What’s more, the feelings that follow (or don’t follow) from forgiveness are not always the same. They vary greatly depending on the specifics of the people and circumstances involved.
There’s no law of the universe that says everyone is guaranteed to feel at peace as a result of forgiveness. In fact, one of the things that make genuine forgiveness so difficult is coming to terms with the fact that how you feel emotionally about a serious wrong committed against you is not fundamentally under your control.
You can control your actions—how you think and how you behave, including the decision to forgive—but how we feel is not something we have direct control over.
People do tend to feel better as a result of forgiveness, but it’s a mistake to expect a certain set of feelings.
Forgiveness is a commitment, not a feeling.
7. Your road to forgiveness is your own
After being wronged, our emotional landscape gets dominated by one or two loud (and sometimes culturally-engrained) emotions, typically some form of anger. But there are almost always other emotions present and worth considering on the road to forgiveness.
Cultivate the habit of looking beyond and beneath your most obvious emotions and noticing smaller, quieter ones. These are emotions are just as valid as your anger, for example, but they may be more helpful.
If you can allow yourself to feel the sadness, regret, and pity for what happened, for example, you may be able to see your offender and offense in a new light.
In turn, this may help you think about and act differently, perhaps in a way that better aligns with your long-term values and desire to forgive and let go.
Embrace the emotional distinctiveness of your own road to forgiveness.
All you need to know
Too often we think about forgiveness in vague ethical or philosophical terms. But fundamentally, the road to forgiveness is psychological, not moral:
- What are the habits of mind that genuinely set us free from past offenses and wrongdoing?
- What are the decisions we can make and actions we can commit to that will lead to true peace of mind?
- What relationship with the past is most ly to help us move forward?
To find genuine forgiveness and move on with our lives, we must understand the sometimes counterintuitive psychology of forgiveness and commit to our own unique journey toward genuine peace and freedom.
As my client Mary said at the end of our final session together:
I spent my whole life obsessed with what had happened to my past self and how I could fix it. But finally, at 75 years old, I’ve learned to be selfish—to really consider what I want and what I can do to make that happen.
Eight Keys to Forgiveness
When another person hurts us, it can upend our lives.
This essay has been adapted from 8 Keys to Forgiveness (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)
Sometimes the hurt is very deep, such as when a spouse or a parent betrays our trust, or when we are victims of crime, or when we’ve been harshly bullied.
Anyone who has suffered a grievous hurt knows that when our inner world is badly disrupted, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything other than our turmoil or pain.
When we hold on to hurt, we are emotionally and cognitively hobbled, and our relationships suffer.
Forgiveness is strong medicine for this. When life hits us hard, there is nothing as effective as forgiveness for healing deep wounds. I would not have spent the last 30 years of my life studying forgiveness if I were not convinced of this.
Many people have misconceptions about what forgiveness really means—and they may eschew it. Others may want to forgive, but wonder whether or not they truly can. Forgiveness does not necessarily come easily; but it is possible for many of us to achieve, if we have the right tools and are willing to put in the effort.
Below is an outline of the basic steps involved in following a path of forgiveness, adapted from my new book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness. As you read through these steps, think about how you might adapt them to your own life.
1. Know what forgiveness is and why it matters
Forgiveness is about goodness, about extending mercy to those who’ve harmed us, even if they don’t “deserve” it. It is not about finding excuses for the offending person’s behavior or pretending it didn’t happen. Nor is there a quick formula you can follow. Forgiveness is a process with many steps that often proceeds in a non-linear fashion.
But it’s well worth the effort. Working on forgiveness can help us increase our self-esteem and give us a sense of inner strength and safety.
It can reverse the lies that we often tell ourselves when someone has hurt us deeply—lies , I am defeated or I’m not worthy. Forgiveness can heal us and allow us to move on in life with meaning and purpose.
Forgiveness matters, and we will be its primary beneficiary.
Studies have shown that forgiving others produces strong psychological benefits for the one who forgives. It has been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, unhealthy anger, and the symptoms of PTSD. But we don’t just forgive to help ourselves.
Forgiveness can lead to psychological healing, yes; but, in its essence, it is not something about you or done for you. It is something you extend toward another person, because you recognize, over time, that it is the best response to the situation.
2. Become “forgivingly fit”
To practice forgiveness, it helps if you have worked on positively changing your inner world by learning to be what I call “forgivingly fit.” Just as you would start slowly with a new physical exercise routine, it helps if you build up your forgiving heart muscles slowly, incorporating regular “workouts” into your everyday life.
You can start becoming more fit by making a commitment to do no harm—in other words, making a conscious effort not to talk disparagingly about those who’ve hurt you. You don’t have to say good things; but, if you refrain from talking negatively, it will feed the more forgiving side of your mind and heart.
You can also make a practice of recognizing that every person is unique, special, and irreplaceable. You may come to this through religious beliefs or a humanist philosophy or even through your belief in evolution. It’s important to cultivate this mindset of valuing our common humanity, so that it becomes harder to discount someone who has harmed you as unworthy.
You can show love in small ways in everyday encounters— smiling at a harried grocery cashier or taking time to listen to a child. Giving love when it’s unnecessary helps to build the love muscle, making it easier to show compassion toward everyone.
If you practice small acts of forgiveness and mercy—extending care when someone harms you—in everyday life, this too will help.
Perhaps you can refrain from honking when someone cuts you off in traffic, or hold your tongue when your spouse snaps at you and extend a hug instead.
Sometimes pride and power can weaken your efforts to forgive by making you feel entitled and inflated, so that you hang onto your resentment as a noble cause.
Try to catch yourself when you are acting from that place, and choose forgiveness or mercy, instead.
If you need inspiration, it can help to seek out stories of mercy in the world by going to the International Forgiveness Institute website: www.internationalforgiveness.com.
3. Address your inner pain
It’s important to figure out who has hurt you and how. This may seem obvious; but not every action that causes you suffering is unjust. For example, you don’t need to forgive your child or your spouse for being imperfect, even if their imperfections are inconvenient for you.
To become clearer, you can look carefully at the people in your life—your parents, siblings, peers, spouse, coworkers, children, and even yourself—and rate how much they have hurt you.
Perhaps they have exercised power over you or withheld love; or maybe they have physically harmed you. These hurts have contributed to your inner pain and need to be acknowledged.
Doing this will give you an idea of who needs forgiveness in your life and provide a place to start.
There are many forms of emotional pain; but the common forms are anxiety, depression, unhealthy anger, lack of trust, self-loathing or low self-esteem, an overall negative worldview, and a lack of confidence in one’s ability to change.
All of these harms can be addressed by forgiveness; so it’s important to identify the kind of pain you are suffering from and to acknowledge it.
The more hurt you have incurred, the more important it is to forgive, at least for the purpose of experiencing emotional healing.
You may be able to do this accounting on your own, or you may need the help of a therapist. However you approach looking at your pain be sure you do it in an environment that feels safe and supportive.
4. Develop a forgiving mind through empathy
Scientists have studied what happens in the brain when we think about forgiving and have discovered that, when people successfully imagine forgiving someone (in a hypothetical situation), they show increased activity in the neural circuits responsible for empathy. This tells us that empathy is connected to forgiveness and is an important step in the process.
If you examine some of the details in the life of the person who harmed you, you can often see more clearly what wounds he carries and start to develop empathy for him. First, try to imagine him as an innocent child, needing love and support.
Did he get that from the parents? Research has shown that if an infant does not receive attention and love from primary caregivers, then he will have a weak attachment, which can damage trust.
It may prevent him from ever getting close to others and set a trajectory of loneliness and conflict for the rest of his life.
You may be able to put an entire narrative together for the person who hurt you—from early child through adulthood—or just imagine it from what you know.
You may be able to see her physical frailties and psychological suffering, and begin to understand the common humanity that you share. You may recognize her as a vulnerable person who was wounded and wounded you in return.
Despite what she may have done to hurt you, you realize that she did not deserve to suffer, either.
Recognizing that we all carry wounds in our hearts can help open the door to forgiveness.
5. Find meaning in your suffering
When we suffer a great deal, it is important that we find meaning in what we have endured.
Without seeing meaning, a person can lose a sense of purpose, which can lead to hopelessness and a despairing conclusion that there is no meaning to life itself.
That doesn’t mean we look for suffering in order to grow or try to find goodness in another’s bad actions. Instead, we try to see how our suffering has changed us in a positive way.
Even as one suffers, it’s possible to develop short-term and sometimes long-range goals in life. Some people begin to think about how they can use their suffering to cope, because they’ve become more resilient or brave. They may also realize that their suffering has altered their perspective regarding what is important in life, changing their long-range goals for themselves.
To find meaning is not to diminish your pain or to say, I’ll just make the best of it or All things happen for a reason. You must always take care to address the woundedness in yourself and to recognize the injustice of the experience, or forgiveness will be shallow.
Still, there are many ways to find meaning in our suffering. Some may choose to focus more on the beauty of the world or decide to give service to others in need.
Some may find meaning by speaking their truth or by strengthening their inner resolve. If I were to give one answer, it would be that we should use our suffering to become more loving and to pass that love onto others.
Finding meaning, in and of itself, is helpful for finding direction in forgiveness.
6. When forgiveness is hard, call upon other strengths
Forgiveness is always hard when we are dealing with deep injustices from others. I have known people who refuse to use the word forgiveness because it just makes them so angry. That’s OK—we all have our own timelines for when we can be merciful. But if you want to forgive and are finding it hard, it might help to call upon other resources.
First remember that if you are struggling with forgiveness, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure at forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process that takes time, patience, and determination. Try not to be harsh on yourself, but be gentle and foster a sense of quiet within, an inner acceptance of yourself. Try to respond to yourself as you would to someone whom you love deeply.
Surround yourself with good and wise people who support you and who have the patience to allow you time to heal in your own way. Also, practice humility—not in the sense of putting yourself down, but in realizing that we are all capable of imperfection and suffering.
Try to develop courage and patience in yourself to help you in the journey. Also, if you practice bearing small slights against you without lashing out, you give a gift to everyone—not only to the other person, but to everyone whom that person may harm in the future because of your anger. You can help end the cycle of inflicting pain on others.
If you are still finding it hard to forgive, you can choose to practice with someone who is easier to forgive—maybe someone who hurt you in a small way, rather than deeply.
Alternatively, it can be better to focus on forgiving the person who is at the root of your pain—maybe a parent who was abusive, or a spouse who betrayed you.
If this initial hurt impacts other parts of your life and other relationships, it may be necessary to start there.
7. Forgive yourself
Most of us tend to be harder on ourselves than we are on others and we struggle to love ourselves. If you are not feeling lovable because of actions you’ve taken, you may need to work on self-forgiveness and offer to yourself what you offer to others who have hurt you: a sense of inherent worth, despite your actions.
In self-forgiveness, you honor yourself as a person, even if you are imperfect. If you’ve broken your personal standards in a serious way, there is a danger of sliding into self-loathing.
When this happens, you may not take good care of yourself—you might overeat or oversleep or start smoking or engage in other forms of “self-punishment.” You need to recognize this and move toward self-compassion.
Soften your heart toward yourself.
After you have been able to self-forgive, you will also need to engage in seeking forgiveness from others whom you’ve harmed and right the wrongs as best as you can.
It’s important to be prepared for the possibility that the other person may not be ready to forgive you and to practice patience and humility.
But, a sincere apology, free of conditions and expectations, will go a long way toward your receiving forgiveness in the end.
8. Develop a forgiving heart
When we overcome suffering, we gain a more mature understanding of what it means to be humble, courageous, and loving in the world.
We may be moved to create an atmosphere of forgiveness in our homes and workplaces, to help others who’ve been harmed overcome their suffering, or to protect our communities from a cycle of hatred and violence.
All of these choices can lighten the heart and bring joy to one’s life.
Some people may believe that love for another who’s harmed you is not possible. But, I’ve found that many people who forgive eventually find a way to open their hearts.
If you shed bitterness and put love in its place, and then repeat this with many, many other people, you become freed to love more widely and deeply.
This kind of transformation can create a legacy of love that will live on long after you’re gone.