When someone wrongs you somehow, you might feel certain you’ll never be able to get over it. Even after your immediate anger passes, you might continue to dwell on the betrayal instead of letting it fade into memory.
It’s pretty common to feel this way. But not being able to forgive can harm you most.
Forgiveness might seem challenging, in part because it’s often misunderstood. You might believe forgiving someone means:
- forgetting what happened
- implying the pain they caused was no big deal
- automatically resuming your previous relationship
In reality, forgiveness simply means choosing to let go of your anger, hurt, and desire for vengeance.
You might accept that what happened is now in the past, recognize that people make mistakes, and begin cultivating compassion instead.
Think you’re ready to forgive but have no idea where to start? That’s OK. It’s not always easy, but we’re here to help.
Many people view forgiveness as something that helps the person being forgiven. It certainly can make them feel better, but forgiveness benefits you most of all.
Forgiveness helps you heal
Holding onto resentment can sour you and keep you from finding peace. When you can’t forgive, your emotional wounds can’t close and heal.
“When you forgive, you’re not saying what someone did was OK. You’re deciding to let go of the burden of stuck and unresolved emotions,” explains Kim Egel, a therapist in San Diego, California.
“Forgiveness allows you to let go of pain and continue with a lighter heart.”
Forgiveness, in other words, enables you to begin moving away from anger and resentment before they seep into all areas of your life.
Forgiveness can improve other relationships
Harboring anger toward someone who hurt you doesn’t just affect your relationship with that person.
Grudges and angry feelings can eventually overflow into your other relationships. You might:
- have a shorter temper with loved ones
- struggle to trust again
- have difficulty building new relationships
Offering compassion instead of anger
Forgiveness has health benefits
By practicing forgiveness, you may be doing your health a favor.
Forgiveness helps reduce stress, according to
- lower blood pressure
- reduced anxiety
- better sleep
- improved self-esteem
Forgiveness may also allow you to let go of unhealthy anger, which can contribute to:
- muscle tension
- heart problems
- decreased immune function
In general, forgiveness has an overall positive impact on emotional health, well-being, and empathy for others.
It can also lead to more fulfilling relationships — including the one you have with yourself.
Forgiveness can help you reconcile
First, it’s important to understand that you can forgive someone without resuming contact or picking a relationship back up.
You can forgive someone even if you know you can never have the same relationship.
Depending on the circumstances, you may even need to avoid contact.
That said, everyone makes mistakes. When a loved one hurts you, forgiving them can open the door to relationship repair.
In many cases, the act of forgiveness can help someone who inadvertently caused pain to realize how they hurt you.
This provides an opportunity for learning and growth.
Forgiveness may not mend your relationship immediately, but it’s a good start.
If you don’t feel like you can extend forgiveness immediately, that’s OK. It can take some time to reach that place.
When it comes to forgiveness, authenticity is essential. Forced forgiveness doesn’t really benefit anyone since you’re still holding on to pain and anger.
“Forcing yourself to do anything inauthentic can create a misalignment with your inner truth,” Egel says.
Asking yourself these questions can help you determine if you’re ready to forgive.
Who am I doing this for?
“Forgiveness is an inside job,” Egel says.
This is true for two different reasons:
- You set forgiveness in motion.
- It’s mainly for you.
Other people involved in the situation, even loved ones who know the circumstances, might encourage you to forgive.
Ultimately, you’re the one who needs to make that decision. You aren’t truly forgiving when you do so grudgingly or because others say you should.
This type of forgiveness doesn’t honor your needs and may not resolve your frustration and pain.
Do I have perspective?
It’s both normal and healthy to need to process and address difficult emotions after experiencing injustice or betrayal.
Sitting with those feelings can be pretty painful, especially in the beginning. Some distance and reflection can help you explore the situation through an objective lens.
Does recalling the wrongdoing bring up a desire to punish the other person or make them suffer? Or can you now accept that many complex factors could have played a part in what happened?
Recognizing that people in pain often cause pain themselves can help you cultivate compassion without condoning or minimizing their actions.
It’s also worth considering whether you’re still hurting because of the actual event, or because your memories of the betrayal are trapping you in a cycle of distress.
If your pain mostly stems from the latter, choosing to forgive can help you let those memories go.
Am I willing to take the necessary action to forgive?
Forgiveness takes some work on your part. You can’t just say “I forgive you” and be done with it — at least, not if you want your forgiveness to have meaning.
You may never understand why someone did something. But forgiveness requires you to look at your anger and pain and choose to let it go.
This will usually involve developing some understanding of the other person and their circumstances. You can’t truly forgive without empathy and compassion.
Committing to forgiveness is only the beginning, and memories of your hurt may still resurface after you’ve decided to forgive. Holding on to compassion and patience can help you succeed.
Once you feel ready to forgive, you can take a few additional steps to make sure you’re really ready.
Talk through your feelings
Before you can forgive someone, you’ll want to make sure you can put your feelings about what happened into words. This requires you to first embrace those feelings, even the unwanted ones.
A good way to check whether you can fully express your feelings? Talk to someone you trust about them.
Even if you don’t want to get into all the details of what happened, your support system can play an important role in the process of forgiveness.
They’ve probably already helped you get through the worst of your pain, and they can offer more support as you begin to heal.
Tip: Try meditation if you’re finding this difficult. It won’t work overnight, but it will start you down the right path.
Find the bright side
When someone hurts you, you’re probably not in a position to notice any benefits that came out of the situation. In time, you may have more emotional space to recognize what you’ve gained.
Let’s say your partner cheated on you.
After the initial betrayal, you were able to admit the relationship wasn’t really working out.
Their infidelity wasn’t the right choice, of course, but it opened your eyes to the problems in the relationship.
Maybe a close friend did something cruel or dropped you without explanation. Despite your pain and anger, you explored why.
Eventually, they explained they were struggling with serious mental health symptoms, and you helped them find support.
Even when you can’t identify a clear benefit, you may simply feel like a better person for embracing compassion and understanding.
Forgive smaller things first
If you’re having trouble forgiving a big hurt, practice self-compassion instead of giving yourself a hard time.
It’s normal to struggle, but you can get more accustomed to practicing forgiveness by making it a point to forgive regularly in your daily life.
This isn’t as tough as it sounds.
Someone took your lunch out of the fridge at work? Maybe they’re struggling to afford food for themselves. Practice compassion and forgive the theft instead of getting angry.
The person parked next to you scraped your car as they were backing out? It happens. That’s what insurance is for! Anger won’t repair your car, and forgiveness will help both of you feel better about the incident.
People often struggle with forgiveness when they blame themselves, at least in some small way, for what happened.
Self-compassion and self-forgiveness are important tools to have before trying to forgive someone else.
It’s important to consider whether self-blame may be getting in the way of your ability to forgive.
Remember, someone else’s decision to hurt you is never your fault.
If you have trouble forgiving yourself, particularly for circumstances where you did nothing wrong, talking to a therapist can help.
You feel ready to forgive, and you’ve made the choice to commit to forgiveness.
So how do you actually go about forgiving someone?
This might seem especially difficult if you can’t actually reach the person you’re forgiving.
“Forgiveness begins and ends with you,” Egel explains. “You can forgive regardless of your situation with the other party.”
You don’t need to have contact with someone to forgive them since forgiveness is primarily for your benefit.
These tips can help you act on your decision to forgive:
Write a letter
If you prefer to avoid face-to-face contact with someone you’ve forgiven, writing a letter may offer a safer way to express your feelings.
A letter is one-sided. You get to share what you experienced without being interrupted. The other person’s explanations and apologies may have meaning and benefit, but it’s essential you have the chance to say what you need to say.
Letters can be a good way to offer forgiveness to a toxic family member, someone in prison, an abusive ex, or anyone you don’t want to resume contact with.
You can write the letter simply for your own benefit and keep it until you feel ready to reach out.
If contact isn’t a safe option, you might send it with a false address to protect your location or have someone deliver it for you.
Share your feelings with someone else
It may not always be possible to reach the person you’re forgiving. They may have passed away or moved.
“It can be a major block to the healing process when you believe you can’t heal because you can’t express forgiveness,” Egel explains.
But you don’t actually need to have an exchange with someone in order to forgive them.
Once you choose to forgive, you can complete the process by sharing your decision with someone else, such as a loved one, a mentor, a spiritual leader, or someone who understands the situation — even a therapist.
If no one feels right, you can journal about your decision to forgive.
If the person you’re forgiving has passed away, completing the process of forgiveness might involve visiting a place that had meaning for you both.
Look into programs developed by forgiveness researchers
Practicing forgiveness can be challenging. It’s perfectly understandable to struggle, but you don’t have to go it alone.
Forgiveness programs based on scientific research can offer guidance as you work through the necessary steps. These include the Nine Steps to Forgiveness and the 20-Step Forgiveness Process Model.
Another expert-developed program is REACH, which involves:
- Recalling and visualize the betrayal
- Empathizing without minimizing
- Altruism, or looking at forgiveness as a gift you give, just as it’s one you’d want to receive yourself
- Committing to forgiveness by writing about your decision or telling someone about it
- Holding on to your choice to forgive
You’ve forgiven, but you haven’t forgotten, and that’s OK.
Although your memories of being hurt may linger, forgiveness allows you to continue moving forward.
Practicing forgiveness can make it easier to:
Focus on the good things in life
You can’t ignore the challenges life throws at you. But prioritizing compassion and empathy can make it easier to notice the good things and give them more weight than the bad.
If something positive did come out of the betrayal, you already have some practice finding the flower amongst the rubble, so to speak.
You don’t have to believe that everything has meaning or happens because of destiny. You can make your own meaning and find your own good, no matter what life brings.
Make good emotional health a lifetime goal
Forgiveness can teach you a lot about compassion, but continuing to work on self-growth and strengthening your feelings of empathy toward others can help you cope with difficult circumstances in the future.
Life is long, and you might experience more than one injustice.
Just as good physical health can help you weather illness and injury, good mental health can help you remain strong in the face of emotional duress.
“The more tools you have in your pocket, such as positive perspectives, healthy choices, and a strong support system, the better off you’ll be when you need to address difficult emotions, such as those brought up by the process of forgiveness,” Egel explains.
Work toward your own happiness
It’s normal to want someone to regret the pain they inflicted. The truth is, this doesn’t always happen.
Some people aren’t capable of recognizing when they cause pain. Others don’t see their mistake, or simply don’t care. You may never get an explanation or an apology.
Letting bitterness and resentment maintain a hold over you only gives them power. Instead of letting the past hold you back, use what you learned from the experience to take steps to protect yourself from future pain.
Practicing forgiveness and taking action to live your best life can help you find joy and peace.
Forgiveness might seem difficult to practice, but it’s a skill you can develop.
Sure, it can seem unfair. After all, they hurt you. But forgiveness can help you move past these feelings and find peace.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.