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How to forgive

Forgiveness isn't something you do for the other person.

Posted September 2, 2014 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

THE BASICS

  • The Importance of Forgiveness
  • Find a therapist near me

Key points

  • Although forgiveness may sound good in theory, it can feel impossible in practice.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean that the person is excused or that everything is “OK” now.
  • When you are willing to forgive, following four steps can help you to do so even when it feels impossible.

How to forgive

Whether it’s a spouse who was unfaithful, a parent who let you down as a child, or a friend who shared something told in confidence, we all must face the question of whether and how to forgive.

After you are wronged and the initial wave of emotion has passed, you’re presented with a new challenge: Do you forgive the person? By forgiving, you let go of your grievances and judgments and allow yourself to heal. While this may sound good in theory, in practice forgiveness can sometimes feel impossible.

To learn how to forgive, you must first learn what forgiveness is not. Most of us hold at least some misconceptions about forgiveness. Here are some things that forgiving someone doesn’t mean:

  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean you are pardoning or excusing the other person’s actions.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean you need to tell the person that he or she is forgiven.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any more feelings about the situation.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean there is nothing further to work out in the relationship or that everything is okay now.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean you should forget the incident ever happened.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to continue to include the person in your life.
  • . and forgiveness isn’t something you do for the other person.

By forgiving, you are accepting the reality of what happened and finding a way to live in a state of resolution with it. This can be a gradual process—and it doesn’t necessarily have to include the person you are forgiving. Forgiveness isn’t something you do for the person who wronged you; it’s something you do for you.

So if forgiveness is something you do for yourself and if it can help you heal, why is it so hard?

There are several reasons: You’re filled with thoughts of retribution or revenge; you enjoy feeling superior; you don’t know how to resolve the situation; you’re addicted to the adrenaline that anger provides; you self-identify as a “victim”; or you’re afraid that by forgiving you have to re-connect—or lose your connection—with the other person. These reasons not to forgive can be resolved by becoming more familiar with yourself, with your thoughts and feelings, and with your boundaries and needs.

Now that you know what forgiveness is not and why it’s so hard to do, ask yourself: Do I want to forgive?

Forgiveness requires feeling willing to forgive. Sometimes you won’t, because the hurt went too deep, or because the person was too abusive, or expressed no regret. Do not attempt to forgive someone before you have identified, fully felt, expressed, and released your anger and pain.

If you decide you are willing to forgive, find a good place and time to be alone with your thoughts. Then, try following these four steps to forgive even when it feels impossible:

  1. Think about the incident that angered you. Accept that it happened. Accept how you felt about it and how it made you react. In order to forgive, you need to acknowledge the reality of what occurred and how you were affected.
  2. Acknowledge the growth you experienced as a result of what happened. What did it make you learn about yourself, or about your needs and boundaries? Not only did you survive the incident, perhaps you grew from it.
  3. Now think about the other person. He or she is flawed because all human beings are flawed. He or she acted from limited beliefs and a skewed frame of reference because sometimes we all act from our limited beliefs and skewed frames of reference. When you were hurt, the other person was trying to have a need met. What do you think this need was and why did the person go about it in such a hurtful way?
  4. Finally, decide whether or not you want to tell the other person that you have forgiven him or her. If you decide not to express forgiveness directly, then do it on your own. Say the words, “I forgive you,” aloud and then add as much explanation as you feel is merited.

Forgiveness puts the final seal on what happened that hurt you. You will still remember what happened, but you will no longer be bound by it. Having worked through the feelings and learned what you need to do to strengthen your boundaries or get your needs met, you are better able to take care of yourself in the future. Forgiving the other person is a wonderful way to honor yourself. It affirms to the universe that you deserve to be happy.

THE BASICS

  • The Importance of Forgiveness
  • Find a therapist near me

For more self help tips & tools, please see Dr. Brandt’s blog page.

This article was co-authored by Moshe Ratson, MFT, PCC and by wikiHow staff writer, Hannah Madden. Moshe Ratson is the Executive Director of spiral2grow Marriage & Family Therapy, a coaching and therapy clinic in New York City. Moshe is an International Coach Federation accredited Professional Certified Coach (PCC). He received his MS in Marriage and Family Therapy from Iona College. Moshe is a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), and a member of the International Coach Federation (ICF).

There are 13 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.

wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, 83% of readers who voted found the article helpful, earning it our reader-approved status.

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When someone hurts you, it can feel good to hang onto the anger and resentment that may bubble up after their actions. However, forgiving others can actually benefit you both mentally and physically, and it can help you move on from thinking about what the other person did. [1] X Trustworthy Source Greater Good Magazine Journal published by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which uses scientific research to promote happier living Go to source Forgiving yourself for hurting someone else is another tough task, and it can feel even harder than forgiving a friend or family member. With a little bit of patience and compassion, you can learn to forgive yourself or others and move on from feeling angry, hurt, or resentful.

Getting hurt by others is inevitable. It feels lousy. And sometimes that bad feeling lasts and lasts. Fred Luskin, PhD ’99, has a radically simple (though not easy) way to feel better: Forgive.

Luskin, founder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and author of Forgive for Good, says that in the most elemental terms, to forgive is to let go of bad feelings or the desire for revenge after you’ve been harmed. “You’re letting go of your internal bitterness, resentment and self-pity over an experience that’s in the past,” he says.

Luskin has spent decades studying the benefits of forgiveness. In a recent Stanford Pathfinders podcast episode, he explained that most of the reasons to forgive are for your own welfare. “When you’re remembering a hurt or a wound that you haven’t resolved in your mind and heart, that remembrance triggers stress chemicals. It triggers physical distress. When you remember it often, you are stressing your body on a chronic basis,” he says. “That has a physical cost.”

While forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reconciling with the person who hurt you, Luskin says, it’s especially important in the relationships you want to keep. “I think our culture has focused in the other direction, which is that forgiveness is most important around relationships that you don’t want to keep. The real need for forgiveness is in marriages, families, business relationships, friendships, between siblings,” he says. Here are eight ways to work on that.

Get mad, feel hurt and grieve.

When someone hurts you, Luskin says, grief and anger are natural and healthy responses. So is self-pity! And there’s no set time for how long it takes to work through and process the hurt. “Forgiveness is allowing negative feelings of outrage and grief to come in, and then letting them go because you’re now at peace with your life.”

Ask yourself whether your anger is constructive or destructive.

Constructive anger solves a problem in the moment by galvanizing you so that you respond appropriately to a threat, Luskin says. Destructive anger is repetitive and has no positive result. “The person you’re angry at isn’t changing, and you’re not growing. In fact, you’re creating brain pathways that make the anger more likely.” When anger becomes a habit rather than a way of processing, or when you hold on to it for a really long time, he says, “it turns out to be destructive both to your physical well-being and to the people around you. No good comes of it—it’s a misuse of one of our biological coping mechanisms.”

Don’t worry—you aren’t saying the offense was OK.

One of the biggest misconceptions about forgiveness, Luskin says, is that it means you’re condoning the offender’s behavior. “In fact, forgiveness means that you don’t condone it. You know it’s wrong or inappropriate, but you choose to cleanse your heart. You don’t make excuses for the behavior. You just accept it and make peace. That’s very different.”

Practice stress-reduction techniques.

If you’re at the table and a family member says something hurtful, Luskin says one of the simplest things you can do is to take a couple of breaths. Stress-management techniques soothe your body’s fight-or-flight response so you stay calm and keep your head.

Remind yourself why you want this person in your life.

When someone you care about acts in a way that is hurtful to you but you want to keep the relationship, it’s important to remember the good the person has done for your life, Luskin says. “People are not replaceable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have one father, one mother, one best friend.” Luskin adds that this doesn’t mean people should stick around for mistreatment or stay in a bad or unhealthy relationship. It does mean that successful relationships are hard to cultivate and maintain if you’re holding grudges, keeping score, or thinking about ways to make someone pay for something he or she did.

“Just about every relationship that you’ve ever been in requires some forgiveness to maintain itself,” he says. “Everyone is flawed, and our perceptions are too. So getting hurt is inevitable. We have to have a mechanism for letting it go and making peace, in order to have happy sustainable relationships.”

Set boundaries.

When you’ve been hurt by someone you have a relationship with, some gentle boundary setting may be in order. But Luskin says that doesn’t mean calling people out, blaming them or disowning them. “Learn how to simply say, ‘What you just did is not OK.’”

Recognize that you’re telling a story that can be changed.

Our brains are designed to keep us safe from danger, Luskin says, and so a lot of the stories we tell ourselves are not accurate. “We simplify to accentuate the threat. We create these distortions in our head to keep us safe.” Luskin says the quickest way to forgive is to change the story.

So if you’ve been telling yourself a story that five years ago, your friend didn’t invite you to her wedding, and it was a terrible offense that you’re still smarting over, consider that perhaps the two of you were in a rough patch, and she may have made a mistake, but she did the best she could.

Make yourself the hero.

Luskin says that attributing your present distress to something that happened in the past is a way of making yourself a victim. He offers this example: “If I say, ‘The reason I’m unhappy now is that my wife left me three years ago,’ that’s creating victimhood.” A more truthful statement, he says, would be something like, ‘The reason I’m unhappy now is that my wife left me; I didn’t have adequate resources for dealing with it, and in the years since I haven’t figured out how to make peace with that.’

“When you tell yourself, ‘The only one who is going to rescue me is me,’ that creates a kind of heroic efficacy that says, ‘I have to solve this problem. I have to figure out how to be OK and be happy in a life that includes the painful end of a marriage,’” he says. When you can do that, you gain a sense of your own resilience. “When one is able to forgive, it leads to a little more efficacy in handling one’s life. Instead of being limited or afraid, you get a sense of, ‘I know I can cope with difficulty.’ That’s probably the biggest personal benefit.”

How to forgive

Think about all those useless idioms used to describe it. Stuff like “forgive and forget,” “turn a blind eye,” “let bygones be bygones.” With that kind of cheesy advice, no wonder so many people travel through life dragging a steamer trunk full of resentments.

Further complicating the issue is when and where we first learn about the concept, says Ana Holub, a forgiveness author and peace educator for more than two decades. For most of us, she says, we’re taught what we’ll call “traditional” forgiveness when we’re 4 or 5 years old on the playground. Someone does something to us; the person is told to apologize, and we’re instructed to say, “That’s OK.”

Then, we grow older.

“And more and more things that are really traumatic happen — then maybe it’s not OK,” Holub says. “So we live with these feelings of fear and revenge sometimes, and anger. And then we can hold that for the rest of our lives unless we find a way to unwind it and let it go.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the practice of forgiveness is not about condoning or making excuses for unfair treatment and other hurtful behaviors. It’s not about getting an apology or a show of remorse from the offending party. And despite what’s portrayed in films, novels, poems and love songs, it’s not necessarily about reconciliation. Granted, reconnecting with loved ones can be a wonderful byproduct of forgiveness, but it’s not a requirement or even a goal in some cases — especially if doing so would subject you to more harm.

Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.

Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.

Although forgiveness brings many benefits, particularly to the ‘forgiver,’ to forgive is not always easy. In fact, many people who would like to let go of anger and forgive are stumped with the question of how to forgive someone.

While everyone may have a unique perspective on how to forgive, the following strategies have been proven effective for a variety of people.

Express Yourself

In contemplating how to forgive someone, you might wonder if you need to discuss the problem before you can forgive. It may help to express your feelings to the other person, but it also might not.

If the relationship is important to you and you would like to maintain it, you might find it very useful to tell the other person—in non-threatening language—how their actions affected you. Exploring different conflict resolution tactics can help you plan this conversation.

If the person is no longer in your life, if you want to cut off the relationship, or if you have reason to believe that things will get much worse if you address the situation directly, you may want to just write a letter and tear it up (or burn it) and move on.

Writing it down, even though you don’t plan to share it, can be a helpful part of forgiving someone. It still may help to put your feelings into words as part of letting go.

People don’t need to know that you’ve forgiven them. Forgiveness is more for you than for the other person.

Look for the Positive

Journaling about a situation where you were hurt or wronged can help you process what happened and move on. However, the way you write about it and what you choose to focus on can make all the difference in how easy it becomes to forgive someone.

Research suggests that it can be helpful to journal about the benefits you’ve gotten from a negative situation rather than focusing on the emotions you have surrounding the event. It can also be helpful to write about something unrelated. These strategies allow you to forgive and move on more easily.

So pick up a pen and start journaling about the silver lining next time you find someone raining on your parade. Or consider keeping an ongoing gratitude journal so that you can practice forgivness a little every day.

Recap

Journaling can be helpful when you are working on figuring out how to forgive someone. You should focus on what you learned from the experience instead of ruminating over the negative emotions that you felt.

Cultivate Empathy

You don’t have to agree with what the other person did to you. However, when working on how to forgive someone, it often helps to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Research has shown that empathy, particularly with men, is associated with forgiveness, and can make the process easier. Instead of seeing them as “the enemy,” try to understand the factors that they were dealing with. Were they going through a particularly difficult time in their lives? Have you ever made similar mistakes?

Try to remember the other person’s good qualities. Also, assume that their motives were not to purposely cause you pain (unless you have clear indicators otherwise). This approach may help you find it easier to forgive.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares why it’s OK to give second chances, featuring Purple Heart recipient Craig Rossi and Fred.

Protect Yourself and Move On

You've likely heard the saying: "First time, shame on you; second time, shame on me." Sometimes it’s difficult to forgive if you feel that forgiveness leaves you open to future repeats of the same negative treatment.

Blanket forgiveness of someone who is continuing to hurt you isn’t necessarily a good idea for your emotional health.

It’s important to understand that forgiveness is not the same as condoning the offending action. It's perfectly okay (and sometimes vital) to include self-protective plans for the future as part of your forgiveness process.

For example, if you have a co-worker who continually steals your ideas, belittles you in front of the group, or gossips about you, such ongoing negative behavior can be difficult to forgive. However, you can make a plan to address the behavior with human resources, move to another department, or switch jobs to get out of the negative situation.

Letting go of your anger and trying to forgive will bring the benefits of forgiveness without opening you up to further abuse. You don’t need to hold a grudge in order to protect yourself.

Recap

It is important to protect yourself when you forgive someone. This allows you to move on while still holding them accountable for their actions. It also protects you from further harm.

Get Help If You Need It

Sometimes it can be difficult to forget about the past and forgive. This is particularly true if the offending acts were ongoing or traumatic.

If you’re still having difficulty knowing how to forgive someone who has wronged you in a significant way, you may have better success working with a therapist. A therapist can help you work through your feelings on a deeper level and personally support you through the process.

A 2018 review found that an approach known as forgiveness therapy could be helpful for improving different aspects of psychological functioning and well-being. Forgiveness interventions helped relieve depression, reduce anger, lower stress, and improve positive emotions.

A Word From Verywell

When you’ve been hurt, figuring out how to forgive someone can be difficult. These strategies should be helpful in your journey of letting go and releasing the stress of the past.

Forgiveness has a number of benefits, so it is important to remember that forgiving someone is something that you are truly doing for yourself. By letting go of past hurts, you can move forward with a new, more hopeful perspective.

Experts share a step-by-step guide to finding peace after you’ve been wronged.

How to forgive

How to forgive

Whether your partner had an affair, your best friend betrayed you, or a family member mistreated you for years, figuring out how to forgive someone can seem like a herculean task.

The most important thing to remember: Forgiving someone is by no means a necessity—especially if the offender is someone who could still pose a threat to your well-being.

But if you find that you are ready to let go and forgive, know that it comes with a slew of health benefits, experts say. When you hold onto grudges, you trap yourself in a cycle of rumination, negative emotions, and stress, says Loren Toussaint, Ph.D., a forgiveness researcher and professor of psychology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Over time, chronically-heightened levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can lead to a number of mental and physical health problems, says Everett L. Worthington, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the department of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Greater forgiveness, on the other hand, is associated with less stress and, in turn, better mental health, finds a study Toussaint co-authored in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Here’s what you might not realize: Forgiving someone doesn’t necessarily mean you have to reconcile with them—or need to continue a relationship with them. You may choose to not have them in your life at all. “Forgiveness is experienced inside one’s skin,” says Worthington. It’s the cleansing of your sense of hatred and resentment to heal and move on with your life.

Here, a step-by-step guide on exactly how to do that—even when it feels impossible.

1. Be the bigger person and decide to forgive.

It’s tempting to play the blame game when you’ve been hurt, placing all of the responsibility on the so-called offender and thinking, I’m not going to reach out unless they do.

But that mentality can backfire because you’re placing your ability to heal in someone else’s control, explains Toussaint. By being the bigger person, you put yourself in the position of power. Yes, they hurt you, but you’re allowed to move forward whether or not they’re game.

Forgiveness can’t be forced, though, says Toussaint. You have to choose it for yourself when you are ready to accept what happened, acknowledge your feelings, and let go.

2. Identify what you want.

Do you want to be friends again? Or do you just want to let go of the bad feelings? This won’t necessarily impact how you move forward, but keeping the goal in mind helps you not lose track of what you’re after, says Toussaint. Read: When you’re struggling with your emotions toward the person, reminding yourself of your end goal can ease those feelings.

3. Look at both perspectives objectively.

When you’re hurt, it’s tempting to over-personalize a situation (as in, your cousin was short with you because she’s still mad about an old argument rather than being in a hurry or having a hard day). So when you’re trying to forgive, experts often suggest viewing a situation as objectively as possible by writing it out from a third-party perspective.

How to forgive

How to forgive

For example, rather than re-living the hurt (“Kristin was so rude to me, which made me even angrier at her than I was before”), report what happened from the outside (“What Kristin said was demeaning and insensitive, and Lauren responded with anger”).

Separating yourself from the situation can make it easier to keep your emotions under control. It may even provide a fresh perspective to the situation that helps you come to terms with it.

4. Find empathy or sympathy.

You may even want to try to see the story from someone else’s side, says Toussaint. For instance, if your partner brushed over something that’s super important to you, try to imagine what factors led to this (maybe they had a super long day or were in the middle of a few things).

Understanding where someone is coming from helps you replace negative, unforgiving emotions (hostility and bitterness) with positive emotions (like empathy and compassion), says Worthington.

If there’s absolutely no way you can empathize with an offender, try to sympathize instead by remembering when you, too, have been forgiven for something. Again, your brain only has so much space and choosing positive emotions leaves less room for negative ones, helping you feel freer.

5. Tell—or don’t tell.

If you’ve come to forgive someone, the desire to let them know is understandable. Before you do, though, keep in mind that when you say “I forgive you,” you’re implying they’ve wronged you. If they don’t understand this, you might offend them (“Forgive me? For what?”) and set yourself up to be hurt again.

For this reason, forgiveness should only be offered to a person after they’ve apologized, confessed, offered to make amends, or at the very least already taken responsibility for wronging you, says Worthington. If you decide to have a conversation, try using ‘I’ language instead of ‘you’ language (‘I felt X’), Worthington suggests.

Otherwise, remember that forgiveness is a personal and internal process, so there’s no need to tell the person you’ve forgiven them, especially if you’ve cut off contact for your own well-being. If you’ve freed yourself of the anger, pain, and hurt that was once weighing you down, you’ve already forgiven them.

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When you’ve been hurt by someone, it’s not always easy to let it go. But holding on to a grudge will only make you feel worse—and not just emotionally. Resentment can cause your blood pressure to spike and trigger the release of stress chemicals that can make you physically sick. And the truth is: It doesn’t really do any good anyway. As the saying goes: “Not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

The paradox is, when you’ve been wronged, forgiveness is the only thing that provides relief from the pain. Sound like a bitter pill to swallow? Read on to learn how forgiving others (and yourself) can help you release the heavy burden of resentment and experience more freedom.

1. Understand forgiveness

Before you attempt to force forgiveness on your most tender hurts, consider what it is you’re asking of yourself: Forgiving doesn’t mean that you condone what happened or that the perpetrator is blameless. It is making the conscious choice to release yourself from the burden, pain, and stress of holding on to resentment.

Forgiving doesn’t mean that you condone what happened or that the perpetrator is blameless. It is making the conscious choice to release yourself from the burden, pain, and stress of holding on to resentment.

2. Feel your pain

Hurts can run deep, even if at first glance they don’t seem to make a big impact. It’s important to give yourself permission to acknowledge and honor the pain that’s very real for you. Notice where you feel it in your body and ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” Maybe you need to feel supported, take more time, or do something kind for yourself. Allowing space for the pain in this way can help you know whether you’re ready to release it from your heart and mind.

3. Name it

Whether you’ve hurt yourself or have been hurt by another, allow yourself to be honest and simply name the feelings that are there. They might include guilt, grief, shame, sorrow, confusion, or anger. As you consider the act of forgiveness, any of these feelings can arise. A study at UCLA found that when you name your emotional experience it turns the volume down on your amygdala, the emotion center of the brain, and brings resources back to your pre-frontal cortex, the rational part of your brain. So, by naming the feeling you can create space and not get overwhelmed.

4. Let it out

Keeping hurt feelings bottled up only causes additional stress to your mind and body. Even if the memory is difficult to confront, see if you can share how you’re feeling. You can write about it in a journal or talk about it with a friend or a professional counselor. Sharing helps you expand your perspective, and perhaps even see what happened through a different lens.

5. Flip your focus

If possible, see if you can flip your focus from being the victim to putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. For example, consider the life the person lived that led them to this hurtful action. This is difficult to do, but remember, you’re not condoning any action. This exercise is just about trying to see that, as humans, we are deeply impacted by our own traumas and life experiences, which greatly inform how we show up and act in the world. If you are able to do this, compassion naturally tends to flow from this more understanding perspective.

6. Take action (start small)

Whether you are forgiving yourself or another person, taking action can help to facilitate healing and make you feel more empowered. It’s best to start with smaller misdeeds to get into practice and feel what’s possible. Writing a letter or having an uncomfortable conversation can be difficult and even scary, but often a sense of empowerment emerges from the self-compassionate action of listening to yourself and doing something that supports you.

7. Remember, you’re not the first or last

When you’ve been hurt, it’s common to feel like you’re the only one who has ever been wronged in this way. In fact, it’s likely that this transgression (or something similar to it) has been made many, maybe even millions of times before throughout human history. Making mistakes is part of our shared human experience. Remembering you are not alone in experiencing this kind of pain can help to loosen your grip on your resentment.

8. Have patience; forgiveness is a practice

Forgiveness isn’t a quick-fix solution. It’s a process, so be patient with yourself. With smaller transgressions, forgiveness can happen pretty quickly, but with the larger ones, it can take years. As you begin with the smaller misdeeds and then move onto the harder ones, be kind to yourself, take deep breaths, and continue on.

9. Stop blaming

We all know it can feel good now and again to complain to a friend—misery loves company, right? Well, not exactly. Researcher Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong, says, “Blaming is a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” It gives us a false sense of control but inevitably keeps the negativity kicking around in our minds, increasing our stress and eroding our relationships.

10. Practice more mindfulness

A recent study surveyed 94 adults who had been cheated on by their partners, and found a correlation between traits of mindfulness and forgiveness. In other words, it can be said that the more you practice mindfulness, the more you strengthen your capacity for forgiveness.

11. Find meaning and strength through your pain

As you practice working with the pain that’s there, you grow key strengths of self-compassion, courage, and empathy that inevitably make you stronger in every way. As psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, even in the most horrific and painful circumstances, we have the freedom to create meaning in life, which is a powerful healing agent.

A MINI FORGIVENESS PRACTICE:

Try this short practice once a day and feel your forgiveness muscles growing.

Think of someone who has caused you pain (to start, maybe not the person who has hurt you most) and you’re holding a grudge against. Visualize the time you were hurt by this person and feel the pain you still carry. Hold tightly to your unwillingness to forgive. Now, observe what emotion is present. Is it anger, resentment, sadness? Use your body as a barometer and notice physically what you feel. Are you tense anywhere, or do you feel heavy? Next, bring awareness to your thoughts; are they hateful, spiteful, or something else?

Really feel this burden associated with the hurt that lives inside you, and ask yourself:

“Who is suffering?

Have I carried this burden long enough?

Am I willing to forgive?”

If the answer is no, that’s OK. Some wounds need more time than others to heal.

If you are ready to let it go now, silently repeat: “Breathing in, I acknowledge the pain. Breathing out, I am forgiving and releasing this burden from my heart and mind.”

Holding on to negative events increases your stress level and generally lowers your enjoyment of life. It results in feeling resentful, angry, and upset. It’s important that you learn to adapt, correct your errors, and grow from negative events. A key component to being able to do this is to be able to forgive yourself for any mistakes or wrongdoings you may have done.

What is Self-Forgiveness Vs. Self-Compassion?

It is easy to mistake self-forgiveness with self-compassion. Self-compassion is different but similar to self-forgiveness. The three hallmarks of self-compassion are:

  • Kindness to yourself. Life is not perfect, so why would people be? When the going gets tough and things do not go to plan, people who practice self-compassion remember this. They acknowledge the inevitability of imperfection and are caring and loving to themselves.
  • Shared humanity. Everyone experiences setbacks in life. Everyone will feel difficult emotions or have to problem solve as unexpected situations arise. Giving yourself compassion means not thinking that you are the only person in the world who experiences these things.
  • Clarity and mindfulness. Having negative emotions can make people feel uncomfortable. Commonly, they will either exaggerate or downplay these emotions. Being able to clearly sit with these emotions and see them for what they are is a sign of self-compassion.

Self-compassion is different than self-forgiveness in that self-forgiveness is a way of reconciling the way you see yourself after you experience guilt, shame, and disappointment. These feelings happen when you do something that makes you question the image you have of yourself. Therefore, it is a facet of self-compassion.

Strategies for Self-Forgiveness

You may at times do something that challenges your own self-perception. And it can be hard to reconcile with yourself when you do something that negatively affects you or others. Here are some tips for how to internally practice self-forgiveness:

  • Think back. Think back to a time in your life when you felt safe and cared about someone. Remember who that is — it could be a friend, relative, teacher, mentor, spiritual figure, or a pet. Visualize the feeling of being around them and being protected. Let yourself feel safe. Then, together with your protector, list all of your positive qualities.
  • Remember the event. Next, acknowledge the facts surrounding what you need to forgive yourself for. Remember back to the specific event and how it made you feel. Notice what is hard to face. Make a list of what happened and sort it all into three different categories: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults call for guilt or remorse, and unskillfulness requires correction like committing to never doing a certain act again.
  • Don’t avoid guilt. Not feeling great about doing something bad is healthy and natural. If we wipe away the bad feelings of doing bad, what are we left with? However, there is a difference between shame and guilt. Shame comes with defensive feelings like denial, avoidance, and violence. It is not helpful to tell yourself that you are a bad person at your core and feel guilty. By doing so, you may not think that you can change. Feeling guilt over your actions, however, can help you not repeat them.
  • Take responsibility. You cannot forgive yourself if you don’t own up to what you did both to yourself and to the person you have wronged. Let them know that you take accountability for what you did and let yourself know this too. Learn to fully accept that you did whatever you did.
  • Try to repair the damage. It may be hard for you to truly forgive yourself if you feel you haven’t done what you need to do to make amends. Perhaps this means offering financial aid, repairing the property, or simply saying sorry to someone.
  • Have empathy for more than yourself. It has been found that people have trouble with self-forgiveness when they also have empathy with the other party involved. It’s normal for people to struggle with this tension. However, without having empathy for both yourself and the other person, this self-forgiveness can be empty and not mean much.

These tips are difficult to incorporate, but so is having true self-forgiveness. It will most likely be a long journey that will have valleys and peaks. You may never fully release the negative feelings you have. Self-forgiveness doesn’t need to be a self-indulgent thing but rather a clear appraisal of your capacity for doing bad and good.

Show Sources

American Psychological Association: “Don’t cry over spilled milk-The research on why it’s important to give yourself a break.”

Greater Good Magazine: “The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself,” “Just One Thing: Forgive Yourself.”

Almost everyone has one of those moments they can't forgive themselves for. You know the ones: They randomly resurface in your mind, tormenting you. The time you said an unkind thing about your best friend and they were standing right behind you. The time you turned in work riddled with mistakes to your boss. The time you yelled at your kid just because you were having a tough day. Or maybe you cheated on someone, or lied, or stole. If the memories of these actions are taunting you, popping up at inopportune times, and reminding you of your shortcomings—whether or not the thing you did was truly bad—you haven't forgiven yourself yet. And no matter what it is you did, you should.

Forgiving yourself is important because if you don't, you risk letting these misguided actions redefine your sense of who you are, says John Delony, Ph.D., a mental health expert and the host of the Dr. John Delony Show. There's a common misconception that refusing to forgive yourself proves you're more sorry, but what it actually does is hold you back, he explains. "We may feel like approaching the world through the worst thing we've done buys us some extra grace, but it doesn't," says Delony. "It actually causes us to enter into relationships in a down position. Perhaps more importantly, choosing not to forgive yourself is really choosing to live life less joyfully," he says. 

So if learning to forgive yourself is so important, how do you do it? Delony offers tips and strategies for finally letting go of the actions that haunt you.

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1 Disconnect Your Mistake From Your Identity

If you’re beating yourself up for doing something wrong, and then beating yourself up for beating yourself up, you’re never going to feel better. Instead, acknowledge that your guilt did serve a purpose, but that purpose isn’t torturing yourself for eternity. “Your brain has a vested interest in making sure at all times that you remember you’re a person capable of hurting somebody, so that you never do it again,” he says. This is why these mistakes end up feeling so overwhelming to us—we don’t want to make them again, so our brains harp on them to create a constant warning signal. But if you can recognize that you haven’t done it again, and that the memory is serving its purpose, you can begin to stop obsessing. “It’s hard, because your body has such a vested interest in you not forgetting what you did,” says Delony. “You have to decide: This is a thing that happened, not who I am.” Rather than carrying the fear you’ll mess up again around as a constant threat, says Delony, turn it into wisdom: I learned my lesson, and I won’t do that again.