Learn to forgive even when it feels impossible

Hugging couple

You can forgive someone without condoning what they did.

Photo credit: Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Learning to forgive is an important part of our personal development.
  • You can forgive someone without condoning what they did.

Few of us get through life without being wronged by someone important to us, such as a family member, spouse or friend. From that moment on you can’t stop dwelling on what happened, and your bitterness can last a lifetime.

So how do you move on from something like that? You have to forgive them.

That may seem impossible, but learning to forgive is an important part of our personal development, and makes the difference between life controlling you, and you controlling your life.

Mostly, people think of forgiving as choosing to excuse someone. But you can forgive someone without condoning what they did. And forgiveness is actually for you, not for them. What we forgive, we let go.

Forgiving’s also not the same as forgetting. You’ll always remember what happened, but your memories will be manageable.

Don’t try to forgive before you’re ready. And if you feel you just can’t? Think deeply about that, because if you can’t forgive someone important in your life, then your relationship isn’t really worth having. 

Not that forgiving is ever easy, but it’s always a positive experience. It’s possible that you’ll never get an apology, and it’s particularly hard to forgive someone who won’t admit they’re wrong. Just remember that the benefits of forgiveness are for you, not for them.

Initially, you’ll probably be going through a whole range of emotions, perhaps including anger, shame, depression or loss. But as you forgive, you’ll find that those feelings gradually fade away.

Changing your perspective

Start that process by clearly defining the behaviour that offended you, and being able to say exactly what it is about it that is wrong.

Accept that your emotional responses to the hurt are normal and unavoidable. If your feelings are especially intense, consider talking everything through with a counsellor. In any case it’s a really bad idea to discuss your feelings with anyone else. Family members remember forever. Friends gossip. Counsellors keep everything secret.

Forgiveness means changing your perspective on what happened, so that you include any role you might have played in it, and deepen your understanding of what occurred. Try to empathise with the person who hurt you, and accept that people often have surprisingly little conscious control over their actions. And little understanding of their unconscious drives.

As you do that, you’ll gradually find that what happened no longer intrudes into your thoughts. Resentment slowly becomes acceptance, and you find you’re looking to the future and not the past.

But even as you forgive, you’ll no longer have the same relationship with the offender. Maybe any sort of relationship is impossible. But if it is, you’ll actually be building a new one. The old naively trusting one has gone forever.

But you could well end up with something better than before. With new skills that make hurt much less likely in future. And with your new wisdom, perhaps deeper and more meaningful. At which point where you can truly trust one another again.