5 Steps to True Forgiveness
Forgiveness is something we’re taught as children. When someone apologizes, we forgive them. How many times have we heard (or said) “Forgive and Forget?” And out of all the times we’ve offered forgiveness, how many were genuine?
How many times have we issued forgiveness without truly meaning it or fully processing it, in an effort to dissolve conflict or because we are doing it to appease someone else? How many times have we asked for someone else’s forgiveness for ourselves, rather than to heal what we did to that person?
Forgiveness is an encompassing concept, but it’s definitely easier said than done. And that’s what we often do—say it rather than doing it. So how can we make the most out of forgiveness? How do you reconcile feelings of hurt—and even resentment—to create healing and growth? A good way to start is to truly understand forgiveness and define your relationship with it.
Why is Forgiveness Important?
Why does forgiveness exist? What does forgiving someone really do? Forgiveness should be less about ending conflict or extending your acceptance to someone else… that often means you’re not truly accepting an apology and are instead soothing someone’s guilt or just saying it’s okay without meaning it. This hurts both parties more than anything because the person apologizing isn’t giving true forgiveness, and the recipient doesn’t gain any resolution.
When someone commits an act that requires an apology and/or forgiveness (reminder: sometimes people don’t apologize when they’re supposed to, and we have to extend forgiveness of our own will—even if it’s just in private to ourselves), it harms at least one person. If we want to live in a world where people are kind, courteous and considerate, we can contribute to that by being a forgiving person.
Sometimes, we need forgiveness to feel valued and redeemable. Life can get hard and we all make mistakes that can affect other people, no matter how hard we try not to. Playground rules apply here: we should seek to truly forgive as much as we would want to be forgiven.
When we forgive, we gain:
Peace with a situation
A better understanding of our feelings
Control over our reactions
How to Forgive
What more is there to forgiveness than just accepting an apology? True, healing forgiveness is not just saying “it’s okay” when someone wrongs you; and it can’t be given when you say a cursory “sorry” after committing a wrongdoing against someone else.
When you are the one that has caused hurt or injury:
- Recognize what you’ve done- how did this impact others?
- Reflect- what could have caused you to do this? An underlying behavior is sometimes sourced by a trauma response, unrecognized bias, or just a knee-jerk response.
- Replay- how could you have responded differently? What can you do differently in the future to prevent this from happening again?
- Repair- reach out to the affected parties with a true, genuine apology without excuses. There is a difference between explaining your actions and making excuses, and that lies in whether or not you accept responsibility, or blame your action on circumstance.
- Receive- accept forgiveness. Even when an apology isn’t accepted, we need to be able to forgive ourselves and make peace with our actions. Depending on the situation, it can be easy to feel like we don’t deserve forgiveness, but you’ll only hurt more if you deny yourself grace—and the only way we can deserve it is if we do it with an intention to change and an acceptance of what we’ve done.
When you have been wronged or injured:
- First move away from what has happened, ensuring your safety and giving yourself space to process what took place. Then consider what happened and the events leading up to the incident, paying particular attention to things you said, did and felt. Who do you blame? Why? How did you react?
- Often our first impulse is to immediately blame the other party entirely as a way to justify our feelings. Sometimes we truly had no part in what transpired, but in the times that we did, it actually can help to acknowledge how our own actions contributed. This acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility reinforces the power we have over our own lives.
- Give yourself the time you need to heal. Allow yourself to feel the feelings of hurt, anger, sadness and anything else that surfaces, including shame and helplessness.
- Recognize that in doing this, it can help the intensity to move, shift and diminish. (Note that in cases of extreme wrongdoing or trauma, this healing process may be best undertaken with the guidance of a trained therapist.)
- Not allowing yourself the time to feel and process these emotions has the opposite effect of solidifying them, often physically in the body. And if these negative emotions persist, they can even go so far as to cause disease. You want to move on and move past the incident quickly to get away from the pain, but often what happens if you try to escape without processing, your mind keeps coming back again and again, asking for a replay to try to resolve the nagging, lingering emotions.
- Know that sometimes, you may need to give yourself a period of time to calm down before trying to think through and process what happened, and that's okay. It's easier to think objectively and rationally after allowing yourself some time and space first.
- As you are processing what happened also consider the viewpoints and perspectives of the other person.
- What may have caused them to react this way? Consider their history and upbringing, as well as their capacity to be able to understand the situation fully.
- What is happening in their life right now that could contribute to the way they acted?
- While this doesn't mean condoning the action, it can help to recognize that we are all humans, that we all suffer and that we all make mistakes, including big ones from time to time.
- Sometimes the damage results in losses that cannot be recovered. You also may need time to grieve and the time needed to do so can vary widely from person to person.
- If this is an area you struggle with, you can read more about the stages of grief and suggestions for processing it in my blog post about grief.
- When you are ready, let go and forgive. Release the event and emotions surrounding it to the past. As a part of this process consider and make intentions for the future.
- Are there things that you could do differently to protect yourself from future harm?
- How will you relate to the perpetrator?
- How will you nurture you? Forgiveness can be difficult because it can make you feel vulnerable.
✨ Forgiving is a choice of healing for you. It does not include condoning harm caused.
✨ Acknowledge your feelings are valid and it’s okay to feel that way.
✨ Consider if you can shift from the perspective of the victim to acceptance of control over your life. Is there something you could have done differently? Sometimes the answer may be no.
✨ Talk through your feelings with a wise friend or journal about how you feel.
✨ Are there ways you can protect yourself from future harm and find a path forward?
✨ it possible to feel any compassion for the perpetrator (including yourself if applicable)?
✨ Know that you can forgive without forgetting.