January 20

How to Forgive Someone: 6 Proven Steps to Stop Past Hurts Ruining Your Future



You've been holding on to some resentment for a while.

It's eating you up.

Maybe it's been weeks, maybe months, maybe decades.

Someone close to you has betrayed you in some way.

Perhaps you caught them cheating you, lying, having an affair or something similar.

Or perhaps someone has physically or mentally harmed you.

They spoke bad words, raised their voice and pushed you against the wall. They called you names you don’t want to repeat.

But lately, you've been wondering whether it's best to leave it all behind. You wonder if it's better for them - or for you - to forgive them.

Possibly it is you who’s done wrong, and you’re wondering if you should forgive yourself and if so - how?

Part of you wants to forgive and move on, but there’s a wall of pain and anger inside you. And it doesn’t seem to go away. Every time you think of what this person has done to you; you question if it’s possible to forgive at all.

You wonder how to forgive someone. “Why should I forgive?” “Do they deserve it?” These questions buzz around your head. Yet you’re tired of feeling so drained and resentful. You want to deal with this and put the past behind you.

So what should you do?

Forgiveness isn’t easy; it may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. More often than not, it’s worth it though. Not for the other person - but for you.

Forgiving could allow you to let go of any tension, hostility and anger that’s been eating you up.

It might well be one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Forgiving someone who’s done you wrong will allow you to feel in control and like you’re finally able to move on. It will help you put pain and resentment behind you and embrace the future. It will allow you to unburden yourself and let go of the tiredness you feel.

So let’s learn the process of forgiveness and why it matters so much.

The Importance of Forgiveness (for your mental and physical health)

It may seem counterintuitive, but forgiving is something you do for yourself and not for the person who has harmed you.

Don’t lose sight of this crucial point.

Does this surprise you? If so, you’re not alone.

There are several misconceptions about forgiving that might be holding you back.

Importantly, forgiving doesn’t mean you must maintain or restore a relationship with the person who’s harmed you. Nor does it mean you have to excuse someone or condone their behaviour. Some acts are unforgivable.

Forgiveness – in the way I am using it here - is about shifting your mind-set away from seeking revenge. Forgiving someone means letting go of the rage and sense of injustice inside you.

Plenty of research suggests that forgiveness has several psychological benefits for the forgiver.

If you forgive someone, you are less likely to feel depressed, anxious, angry, hateful, hostile, sad and neurotic.

The act of forgiving releases tension and reduces the amount of time you spend dwelling on the past. It releases internal anger.

In the long run, the preoccupation, hostility, and resentment that you harbour only hurts you, both emotionally and physically.

Forgiving someone allows you to move on.

That’s the real importance of forgiveness.

But as you know, it’s not always an easy thing to do.

Why Is It Hard to Forgive? 

Forgiving is difficult because it works against your instinctive reactions.

When you suffer an insult, offence, betrayal, or desertion, your first response is to react negatively.

You’re in a lot of pain, and that means you want to lash out. When you see someone, it triggers hurt, and so you want to avoid them. Moreover, the intensity of your suffering means you could end up fantasising about revenge.

Does this sound familiar?

Usually, several obstacles stand in the way of forgiveness.

One is the sense that the other person does not deserve it.

You believe that by allowing yourself to forgive someone, you’re saying you accept their behaviour.

Another is that the pain they caused you resides not just in your mind but your body also – it isn’t prone to reason.

Forgiving someone isn’t an act of willing it.

You need to work through this pain.

There are stages of forgiveness, and you have to go through them one by one.

Here’s how.

How to Practice Forgiveness:The 6 Steps to Forgiveness

Practising forgiveness is a process of selecting forgiveness activities and trying them out to find which ones work best for you. Below is a list of forgiveness activities for adults. Select ones that you think will help you work through the process of forgiveness. If you don’t seem to be getting the benefits from one activity, then switch to another.

Try to complete more than one. It can take time and several steps to reach a place where you’re able to truly forgive.

1. Take a Leaf Out of Your Neighbour’s Book

One of the first steps to forgiveness is to remember a time when someone has forgiven you for something.

Recall a time that you have harmed another person.

Perhaps you were hateful to your parents, betrayed a lover or avoided a friend.

If those individuals forgave you, how did they do it? What did they say and what was your response?

Take a step back; see if you can answer these questions:

  • Why do you believe they did it?Do you think they benefited from forgiving you?
  • Did you and your relationship with the person benefit as well?
  • Did the experience teach you anything or change you in any way?
  • What insights do you have about the experience?

If you can answer these questions, it will help you see the benefits of forgiving and provide a model for your own forgiving.

2. Try a Forgiveness Role-play

Bring the person who has offended you to mind and try to imagine granting them your complete forgiveness.

Try to see the whole person rather than the particular act or acts they have committed against you.

Remember granting forgiveness does not necessarily imply excusing or tolerating the offenders’ behaviour. Still, it does entail trying to let go of your hurt, anger and hostility and adopting a more charitable and benevolent perspective.

Take your time with this exercise.

Consider your thoughts, feelings and behaviours in detail.

Here’s an example:

  • When you imagine forgiving your father for abandoning you, what would you say to him?
  • What emotions would you feel? How intensely would you experience them? In what order?
  • What would your facial expression look like?
  • Which physical sensations would trigger in your body?

The more time you can spend imagining what it would be like to forgive, the easier it is for you to actually forgive.

3. Write a 1,000 Words of Forgiveness

Have you considered writing a letter to the person who hurt you?

Writing letters is a proven way of working through deep emotions.

You don’t need to send the letter.

In the letter, you should describe in detail the injury or offence that has caused you so much pain.

Spend time to explain how this offence affected you at the time and how it continues to hurt you. State what you wish the other person had done instead.

If you can, end the letter with an explicit statement of forgiveness and understanding.

Many of my clients undertake this activity and get a lot from it. Be warned, though. Writing these letters can stir up intense emotions, more powerful than you realise. Prepare yourself in case there’s a strong after-effect that lasts for a few days.

Sitting down to write anything is hard. If you attempt to compose a letter but find it too tricky, consider putting it aside and try again in a few weeks. Another idea is to commit to write it and then read it to someone at a particular time, that may force you to get down to this challenging task.

Another tip is an old writer’s one: lock yourself in a room and don’t come out until you’ve finished the letter. If none of these suggestions work, try writing to forgive someone for a minor and much less painful transgression.

You can move on to more and more complicated cases with time.

4. Get Into the Evil One’s Shoes

Empathy is the act of understanding another person’s problems, emotions and thoughts; it is attempting to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Studies show that empathy correlates with forgiveness. The more successful you are at achieving understanding, concern and consideration of the other person’s perspective, the more likely you are to forgive him or her.

One way to practice empathy in your daily life is to notice every time someone does something that you don’t understand.

Try to work out such a person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why did they behave the way they did?
  • What factors might explain it?

If you’re still in contact with the person who hurt you, you could ask them why they behaved the way they did. If they’re not particularly self-aware, you might not learn a lot, but it may still be useful to understand their perspective.

If possible, try to look at the person’s errors in the best light. Take a moment to imagine the most charitable explanation for their behaviour.

  • What problems were they struggling with?
  • What have they learnt from their mistakes?

If this person is unwilling or unable to apologise to you, try to imagine what reasons they would give for what they did. Imagine they’re writing you an apology letter. What would they say?

If you can see things a little more from the other person’s perspective, this will make forgiveness easier.

5. Don’t Wallow in Your Mire

I know you’re hurting and full of pain, but stop brooding on the suffering this person has caused you.

Don’t keep going over the past again and again in your mind.

Dwelling on the past is one reason you find it hard to forgive.

The more time you spend brooding over what someone has done to you, the more likely you are to hold onto your hurt and anger and the less motivated you’ll be to forgive.

Scientists often call the act of going over the same events rumination. The more you ruminate, the more resentful, humiliated and put upon you feel. You stir yourself up and spend time thinking about what you want to say and do to the person who has hurt you.

The problem is that while you may feel satisfied in the short term, fantasising about how you may physically or verbally hurt someone increases your hostility.

Moreover, each time you remember the offence, you’re triggering your feelings of hurt, blame, antagonism and rage.

To stop ruminating, practise distraction by immediately diverting your attention to another thought. For example, say ‘stop’ to yourself and focus your thoughts on something enjoyable you’ve planned in the coming weeks.

Try to absorb yourself in an engaging activity. Push angry thoughts out of your mind as you engage in reading, writing, or doing the housework.

Give yourself over to the sights, sounds and sensations of your task.

Lose yourself in flow and forget about your pain.

The less time you spend dwelling on the past, the better you’ll feel.

6. Learn from Nelson Mandela

Forgiving someone can be an incredibly hard thing to do. Many people have emailed me asking, “Why is it so hard to forgive?

One suggestion is to read stories about how other people have come to terms with transgressions against them.

Nelson Mandela spent 37 years in prison for fighting for the end of apartheid on South Africa. On his release he proclaimed:

“When I walked out the gate, I knew that if I continued to hate these people, I was still in prison.”

But it isn’t just famous people who forgive.

Every day ordinary people find the courage to forgive the most horrendous of crimes.

Although it’s been a hard and challenging process, people have forgiven fathers for alcoholism, wives for cheating, friends for using them, bosses for being spiteful and parents that didn’t fulfil their obligations in full. A couple in South Africa, forgave their child’s murderers, even meeting them and helping with their rehabilitation.

Of course, such extreme steps might not be right for you. Even so, you can take courage and learn from other’s experiences.

These experiences show you that forgiveness is possible if you choose it.

It’s Time to Move On

You want to forgive, or you believe that forgiving might be the right thing to do, yet you’ve been struggling to find a way to do so.

Your emotions are too strong, and your pain still deep. All sorts of things trigger your anger and resentment.

You don’t want others to mistake your kindness as accepting and condoning an act. After all, what others’ have done to you is wrong.

Yet you want to move on too.

You don’t want to dwell on the past, letting rage and bitterness eat you up.

But now you know forgiveness is a process. You can forgive and let go. You can pass through stages of forgiveness, and there are forgiveness activities for adults which you can undertake.

Try out the different activities and find ones which ones work for you. Enlist the support of friends and family. Keep working at it. Remember the process of forgiving someone is as much about working through human emotion as it is about using a rational mind.

And don’t forget the rewards can be worth it.

The practice of forgiveness can lead to a sense of being in control; after all, the choice to forgive is yours only. And it can also lead to less stress, anger and sadness. Freeing you to move on.

Forgiving others might well be one of the best things you can do for yourself.

It could release the hostility inside you. Stop anger building up and bursting out.

It may allow you to move on.

You might finally be able to live up to your full potential and get the most out of your life, without pain and resentment holding you back.

So choose one of these steps and start working through it today. You’ll be glad you did.

Related Video: The Real Risk of Forgiveness- and Why it's Worth It (15:51 min)

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