Every new year brings expectations for change and resolutions for better behavior. Perhaps you’ve promised yourself you’ll spend the next few weeks changing your dietary habits, or solidifying a daily gym routine. Last year I channeled my resolution-related energy into forgiving someone who hurt me—and I didn’t do it for their benefit. I did it for my own good. And as we move into 2021, it’s something I’m still working on.
If you’ve never heard it before, hear it now: Holding onto grudges is bad for your health, and just thinking about forgiving people who’ve wronged you can leave you better off. And there’s empirical evidence on how best to go about forgiving them, even if you never plan on speaking to them again—and even if you only have an hour or two to spend thinking about them.
Why forgiveness can help you feel better—both mentally and physically
Before we get into the evidence on how best to go about forgiving someone, let’s start with why you might want to. A key to understanding forgiveness is that the act is less about making the world a kinder one and more about helping yourself. You also don’t need to believe someone deserves your forgiveness in order to forgive them; I, for one, am confident that the person who abused me deserves no such thing. So why try to forgive?
A growing body of evidence suggests that chronic anger can take a daily toll on your cardiovascular health and immune system. Letting go of the bitterness you feel toward another person can lower your anxiety, which directly impacts both your mental and physical health. Basically, feeling bad is bad for you—especially if those feelings are due to bitter or traumatic memories that frequently come to mind unbidden.
“We know that there are considerable negative impacts of ruminating on trauma,” says Sheila Addison, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Oakland, California. “Part of what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is is really a kind of intrusive rumination, where the injuries or the trauma keep intruding on your thinking and keep you in a state of hyper-vigilance and alarm.”
There are a lot of ways people can minimize the impact of a past hurt, and therapy is always a good start when possible. Many techniques revolve around helping people reconsider the way they think about those painful memories and try to remove some of the unhelpful feelings of pain or blame. Trying to stop recalling the time someone humiliated you in front of friends won’t actually help you think of it less often, but you can examine why the memory causes you so much anguish and work to see it in a less painful light. There’s evidence that forgiveness can be a great way to do that.
Forgiveness might not mean what you think it means
It’s easy enough to accept that you should probably forgive your brother for breaking your favorite action figure back in elementary school. But if someone has caused you real harm, you might wonder how it could possibly be healthy to forgive. My goal for 2020 was to forgive an ex of mine I hadn’t seen in several years. We were in a relationship for three years at an age when that represented a formative chunk of my young adulthood. At the time, I knew this person was manipulative and often unkind; in the wake of finally leaving them, I came to realize just how much they had relied on elaborate lies and intense coercion to keep me (and many other partners past and present) in a state of instability and anxiety. It took me a solid two years to feel like I wasn’t actively recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. By the end of 2019 I no longer felt the spectre of that relationship hanging over my head—except when it came to anger. I had not seen or spoken to my ex in more than three years, but I still thought of the injustice of it all not infrequently. I understood that this bitterness didn’t affect anyone but me, but the idea of letting go of it was still hard to grapple with.
As a survivor of abuse, the idea that I should consider forgiving my ex partner made me bristle a bit. That relationship is far enough in my past that I know I’m in no danger of reconnecting with my abuser or letting them hurt me again, but I immediately wondered how focusing on forgiveness in therapy might be harmful for someone more recently separated from (or still involved with) a genuinely dangerous person. If my therapist four years ago had counseled me to empathize with my abuser and forgive them, would I have let them right back into my life?
Robert Enright, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education who has studied forgiveness extensively, says he understands the concern. But he feels the issue is actually a semantic one.
“Most people have used the word forgiveness all their lives,” he says, but that doesn’t mean they understand what it means. “We have these really harmful coloquial ideas about what forgiveness is.”
The key, he says, is to separate the ideas of reconciliation and forgiveness from one another entirely.
Forgiveness, as Enright and his colleagues use the term, is something that is entirely your decision to practice, and the way to it is completely internal. “It’s a conscious decision to be good to people who were not good to you,” he explains, but while in some situations being “good” to a person might mean sitting down and talking with them and clearing the air, in others it might simply mean that you stop wishing them ill. It’s a virtue, Enright says, like kindness—it will inform the tone of the actions you take toward a person, but does not define what those actions must be.
The idea that forgiveness means hugging out your problems is a misunderstanding. To come back together with someone who has done you wrong is to reconcile with them, which is more about actions than feelings. “Reconciliation isn’t a virtue, it’s a negotiation tactic between two trusting parties,” Enright says. If you need to reconcile with someone to save a relationship that’s important to you, forgiveness can provide a more stable foundation for that process. But you don’t need to plan on repairing a relationship in order to benefit from forgiveness.
“You can forgive someone and still know that you can’t trust them,” Enright says. In fact, he says, in instances where the person who wronged you deserves to be brought to justice—whether you might report them to the police or simply distance you and your loved ones for your own safety—he hopes that letting go of bitterness and thinking more objectively about what’s been done can actually help make the process smoother and less painful for the survivor.
The forgiveness practices espoused by Enright and his colleagues might help rebuild trust where it is positive and healthy to do so, but seeking to let go of bitterness does not mean you have to let bad people back into your life. If someone has hurt you and wants to maintain contact or reconnect with you, you should trust your instincts—and the advice of trusted friends, family, and mental health professionals—in deciding whether or not that’s a good idea.
How to decide if you need to forgive and when it’s time to do it
I don’t believe I should have forgiven my abuser in the weeks and months following my decision to leave them. My anger, sadness, and bitterness were important protective mechanisms that kept me from allowing them to harm me further. It had been more than three years when I decided I wanted to let go of those feelings and forgive—and that’s perfectly healthy.
“It’s important to let people go at their own pace, and have a lot of permission to be in the angry, hurt, outraged, and suffering kind of places they need to be in,” Addison says. “And they need to be in a place where they can distinguish between allowing some grace and taking down a boundary.”
Even for more minor offenses, Enright says, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to forgive—and it might not be the right way to deal with your emotions.
“The initial step would be this question: On a 1 to 10 scale, how much pain do you have in your heart when you think about this person and what they did? If you’re at an 8, a 9, a 10, the next question is what you’ve been doing to help with that,” he says. “A person doesn’t necessarily need forgiveness if they’ve been finding relief from talking to a friend about it or from maintaining a jogging regimen. But if they’re harboring this self-labeled pain, the question becomes, do you want to try something else?”
I’ve often compared my recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder to caring for a deep and messy wound—one that keeps healing over, but with dirt and debris still trapped inside. Healing isn’t a linear process; you keep ripping the wound open, deliberately or not, and the deeper you can dig to clear out the junk, the closer to really being okay you get. Following this analogy, I’d say I’ve got a single, festering splinter of trauma tucked somewhere too deep to reach. I’ve put in a lot of hard, bloody, and painful work to heal, and I’ve given it lots of time. I don’t want to carry that shard of filthy wood around inside me forever. Forgiveness, for me, is not a first attempt or a complete solution: It’s something I’m willing to try because I deserve to be completely free.
How to forgive people who have hurt you
Enright has written a few books on the subject of forgiveness, as has Everett Worthington, a professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University. Worthington also has free materials available online that guide participants through a few variations of his REACH Forgiveness Model, which has proven effective in several studies (though outside experts say more work is needed to fully understand how reliably the system works).
The thought of doing a workbook about forgiveness might seem a little silly if you’ve never participated in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which is full of workbooks), but setting aside the time to physically write down your thoughts and feelings makes a huge difference. Everett’s studies suggest that the more time a person spends completing workbooks or engaging in talk therapy about forgiveness, the better their long term outcomes are. A 2018 analysis of all the available studies on Enright and Worthington’s protocols for forgiveness found they and similar models have a positive effect on patient well being, though that effect increases in group settings, and especially if the program is stretched out over a 12-week period. In other words, spending a couple of hours reading and thinking about the material in this article probably won’t be the key to radically changing your life, but it could leave you significantly better off than when you started. And the work you put in today can be the first step toward a series of truly game-changing personal interventions.
If you’re not ready to download a PDF, buy a book, or make an appointment with a therapist, here are the key steps to keep in mind as you set out to forgive:
Do no harm
“The first homework assignment we give people is to decide to do no harm to the one who hurt you,” Enright says. “We’re not asking them to go embrace that person, or not to seek justice if it’s needed. It’s about making a decision not to try to get back at them somehow, or demean them, or verbally destroy their reputation.”
Enright says to remember that this is a “heroic” act. “In the face of being harmed,” he says, “You’re choosing to do the opposite.”
Worthington refers to this portion of the process as “decisional forgiveness,” which is much easier than making an emotional change—but marks a crucial first step. Decide you are a strong enough person not to hurt the person who hurt you, because you are.
Work on changing your perspective of the incident
In Worthington’s free REACH manual, one of the exercises involves writing down the hurt you experienced (note: I messed up and made my experience “a three-year abusive relationship,” but you’re actually supposed to pick one specific hurt, which is a far more realistic goal to tackle than three years of countless hurts) and then, after a few other reflective exercises, write it down again “without emphasizing the perpetrator’s badness or your own victimization or the consequences this has had.” Comparing the two can help you understand what aspects of your memory are the ones causing you pain; ideally, those are the aspects you’ll stop dwelling on. Recognizing them is crucial to letting them go.
Bear the pain
Worthington, Enright, and Addison all say that sitting and thinking about the painful memories you’re trying to forgive is necessary before you can let them go.
“I use the analogy of a sponge soaked in water,” Enright says. “It’s heavy, but if you leave it out, that water will eventually evaporate and lift.” People who don’t stop to fully reckon with their emotional pain may never fully address it, or inadvertently push it back out to others.
Worthington’s workbooks feature an exercise I found particularly helpful while meditating on my bitterness: He suggests clasping your hands and holding them out in front of you as long as possible—long enough that it becomes uncomfortable—while focusing on all the negative feelings you have against (and as a result of) the person you’re trying to forgive. You will feel deep physical relief when you finally let your hands unclasp and fall, which is a feeling you can call to mind whenever thinking about those negative emotions. Remind your brain that this process is good for your whole body.
Work on changing your perspective of the perpetrator
A big part of forgiveness is working to see the person who hurt you as a person who has also been hurt.
“Hurt people hurt people,” Addison says. “Just recognizing that people are messy can help us to exonerate them a bit without taking down barriers that protect us from them.”
“If someone is fuming with hatred, you can’t ask them to just shut that off,” Enright says. “But we can begin to see the person who’s hurt us as a person, beyond the injustice we’ve suffered.”
He suggests working through a couple stages of empathy: First, consider the history of the person who wronged you and try to see them as a fallible, weak, wounded individual. Then shift to a global perspective, considering your shared humanity. Try to believe that they, like all of your fellow humans, have inherent worth simply by nature of existing.
“Compassion for the other begins to naturally grow in the heart,” Enright says. “It’s just a little glimmer of being willing to suffer with the other for all of their imperfections.”
Worthington suggests setting down two empty chairs and role-playing both sides of a conversation with your transgressor so you can understand their motives and possible feelings. Do you feel any sorrow on their behalf?
Remember that this doesn’t have to mean you understand why the person behaved the way they did, and absolutely doesn’t mean you need to justify their actions.
“When I have patients trying to forgive transphobic, racist, sexist, or homophobic people, we can loosen up some of that suffering without taking a step back toward them,” Addison says. “If we can come to some kind of a curious place—like, why on Earth would a person think that or behave that way—and make space to understand them more without having to accept their actions, we can start to see people as misguided and hurtful, but still more fully see them as people.”
Give a gift
“It sounds outrageous to give a gift to the person who hurt you, but that’s what forgiveness is,” Enright says. If this is a relationship that’s not dangerous or inherently harmful to you, returning a smile or a phone call could suffice. Enright suggests donating money to a charity in your transgressor’s name, if you can’t (or shouldn’t) see them again.
Do it all again
“It’s not a linear process,” Addison says. “It can come in waves.”
If you have a lot to forgive, just keep working on reframing small pieces of the puzzle. The more time you spend healing and letting go of bitterness, the better you’ll feel. Check in periodically to try to put a number on how much of the pain you’ve forgiven.
What to do if you’re the one who needs forgiveness
“I’m a couple’s therapist, and often forgiveness is critical with a trust violation,” Addison says. “The person who did the hurtful thing is often really ready for forgiveness, but the process for the hurt partner is almost always much, much, much longer. I tell the person who did the injury: Your biggest job, other than being transparent and taking responsibility, is knowing your partner needs to set the pace here.”
Addison says that pushing someone to move on and forgive you before they’re ready will often work in the short term—the aggrieved party will usually try to accommodate you. “But they bypass the actual process of trust rebuilding,” she says, and your relationship will ultimately suffer for it.
What to do after you’ve forgiven the person who hurt you
Unfortunately, making progress in terms of forgiving doesn’t mean you’ll never feel pain over your trauma again. Worthington’s workbook makes a point of addressing this: “When you see the person who hurt you and feel the negative feelings (anger, fear, sadness) pop up again, remind yourself: This pain, anger, and fear I’m feeling is not unforgiveness. It’s just my body’s way of protecting me so I won’t make the same mistakes I made last time.”
You may need to remove yourself from certain situations, or at least find things to distract you from your rumination over the person who hurt you. That doesn’t mean you’re not making progress.