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

  • Personal growth

  • A better understanding of our feelings

  • Control over our reactions

  • Stronger relationships

  • Healthy boundaries


woman journaling forgiveness prompts

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.


    holding hands in forgiveness

    Figuring Out Who to Forgive

    Is there anyone you haven’t forgiven? Remember, forgiving doesn’t mean you are okay with what happened. Rather it is a chance for you to let go of any negative emotions that continue to cause you pain.

    Think about situations throughout your life that still impact you today. Is there someone you haven’t forgiven? Or maybe you still have a relationship with someone, but have yet to truly forgive one of their actions from a specific time—how is this impacting your current relationship with them?

    Oftentimes, pain points can be an opportunity for forgiveness. Someone has hurt us and we have yet to resolve our feelings from that. Or, we have a damaged relationship with someone; regardless of whether or not they’re still in your life, you can benefit from forgiving them. Forgiveness doesn’t always have to be a verbal acceptance, and sometimes it can’t be. That’s why it is an important process that begins—and, sometimes, ends—internally when we allow ourselves to go through the emotions and impacts of the harm and create forgiveness within. 

    When You Find it Difficult to Forgive Yourself

    We’ve all done it. Lashed out with hurtful words in a moment of anger—words that you sorely wish you could take back, wishing you could press the delete key again and again until they disappear and time erases back to before the event that triggered the outburst. Where you forgot to show up or do something truly important for someone you care deeply about. When you look back and realize that you let someone down who was counting on you, perhaps even depending on you. And while you thought you were doing all you could, it wasn’t enough. Or it wasn’t the right thing. Or it was delivered in the wrong way.

    Maybe even, in the trauma of all the circumstances of an event or period of time, you feel you’ve acted in a way that is truly unforgivable. How do we get past these events and actions and forgive ourselves?

    I’ve certainly had my share of experience in this area. And while it’s not easy, we have to try. I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few places to start:

    Allow yourself to be human and allow yourself to fail.

    If you can, apologize and make amends to the person you harmed. If not, sometimes finding a way to help others can ease the pain in your own heart.

    Don’t dwell on what you cannot change. When your mind chooses to linger here, allow yourself a period of time to feel the emotions, sense where you feel this in your body, let the feelings shift, morph and dissipate. If the feeling continues to grow in a negative direction, intentionally shift your attention elsewhere. If this is difficult, go do something else to occupy your attention in another way.

    Understand that your actions are not you. Events are things that happen, not who you are.

    Journal about your thoughts with an intention not to berate yourself, but rather to explore your feelings. What made you take the actions that led to the event you regret?

    Allow yourself time. Know that you can forgive yourself without condoning your actions, instead resolving to learn and do better in the future. And when you are ready, embrace yourself as the full human being you are—simultaneously beautiful and flawed.

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