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Forgiveness

How to Forgive and to Get Forgiveness

Discover tips and techniques for forgiveness.

Key points

  • Forgiving someone means overriding the natural impulse to strike back.
  • Forgiving is not deciding that what the other person did was justifiable or excusable.
  • The more you practice forgiveness, the more quickly other people may forgive you, too.
 Alex Shute/Unsplash
Source: Alex Shute/Unsplash

Cowritten by Charlie Huntington and Tchiki Davis, Ph.D.

Have you ever struggled to forgive someone? Held a grudge longer than you wanted? Felt shame or guilt about hurting someone else and didn't know how to ask for forgiveness? Forgiveness is essential to maintaining and repairing relationships—but that doesn’t make it easy. Many of us struggle to forgive and to get the forgiveness we want. In this post, we’ll talk about forgiveness, how to give and get it, and why it's important.

Forgiveness, in simplest terms, is letting go of angry feelings and thoughts toward somebody who hurt you and replacing them with positive feelings and thoughts. When we forgive, we accept that something bad happened to us and say that we want to move on. We become willing to see the other person for more than what they did that hurt us. But moving from anger to more positive emotions can be a lot harder than it sounds. When somebody hurts you, it is natural to want them to feel what you’re feeling. Forgiving that person means overriding that natural impulse to strike back (Wade et al., 2008).

At the same time, forgiving is not deciding that what the other person did was justifiable, excusable, or OK. When you forgive somebody, you’re not absolving them of blame—you are deciding that you won’t hold what happened against them. What they did was still wrong, but letting go of your feelings about it has become more important. Whether or not you ever want to interact with somebody again, you can still forgive them.

You might have noticed that when you don’t know the person who hurt you very well, it may be easier to let go of the negative feelings you have (Worthington, 2005). In fact, you might not even need an apology from the person who hurt you (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). However, forgiving someone you are closer to may require more effort on your part or an apology from that person (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000).

Often, we forgive when the benefits of forgiving start to seem more important than the benefits of staying angry. We might miss the company of the person we’re angry with or be tired of feeling upset every time we hear their name. But there is a range of health benefits to practicing forgiveness (Witvliet & McCullough, 2007; Worthington & Scherer, 2004) that make it worth your while to learn more about how to practice forgiveness.

How to Forgive Someone

Forgiveness has to happen in your own head; if you say you forgive somebody, but don’t mean it, that forgiveness isn’t driven by your conviction. To be ready to forgive someone, you can ask yourself if you believe the three following statements (McCullough, 2009):

  1. The other person deserves forgiveness.
  2. You could get something positive out of forgiving them.
  3. You are at least relatively safe from being hurt by this person, in this way, again.

If you’re thinking about a harm you experienced and not feeling ready to agree with these statements, that’s OK, too! Everybody has their own pace for becoming ready to forgive.

The next step, which is optional but often helpful, is to tell the other person your side of the story.

How to Get Forgiveness From Someone

Before you try to ask for forgiveness, there are some helpful questions to ask yourself (Holmgren, 2002). First, you can check to see whether you are rationalizing that your behavior was OK—are you holding on to the belief that you didn’t do anything wrong? You might also ask yourself if you are hesitating to take full responsibility for your role in what happened. Finally, you can check to see if you have any judgments of the other person that might make it hard to ask for forgiveness. Do you think the other person is overreacting or does not have a right to be upset? It might help to talk about your answers to these questions with a trusted friend, loved one, or mentor before you ask for forgiveness.

Once you have answered those questions to your own satisfaction, here are four steps you can use to get forgiveness from someone (Cornish & Wade, 2015):

  1. Take responsibility. Acknowledge what you did and what the consequences were for the other person. Do not focus on any responsibility they might share for what happened, even if you think they are also to blame.
  2. Express remorse. Tell the other person how you feel when you think about what you did. If possible, try to focus more on feelings of regret than feelings of shame, because expressing shame might bring the focus back on your emotions.
  3. Offer amends. Say you would like to make things better and ask the other person what might help. Come prepared with a few ideas of your own. Describe how you plan to change your own behavior.
  4. Describe your hopes for the future of your relationship. Maybe you hope the other person will feel safe trusting you again, or that you can be friends again someday. Remember, though, the person doing the forgiving decides whether to forgive and what kind of a relationship they want in the future.

In Sum

Forgiveness is a useful tool for reducing feelings of anger and resentment and being able to repair relationships. Whether you are forgiving yourself or someone else, you give yourself a chance to feel better and live a healthier life each time you put forgiveness into practice. The more you practice forgiveness, the more quickly other people may forgive you, too.

Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.

References

Cornish, M. A., & Wade, N. G. (2015). A therapeutic model of self-forgiveness with intervention strategies for counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 93, 96-104.

Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: APA.

Holmgren, M. R. (2002). Forgiveness and self-forgiveness in psychotherapy. In S. Lamb & J. G. Murphy (Eds.), Before forgiving: Cautionary views of forgiveness in psychotherapy (pp. 112–135). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., Tabak, B. A., & Witvliet, C. v. O. (2009). Forgiveness. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 427–435). Oxford University Press.

Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and guilt. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Wade, N. G., Johnson, C. V., & Meyer, J. E. (2008). Understanding concerns about interventions to promote forgiveness: A review of the literature. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 88–102.

Witvliet, C. V. O., & McCullough, M. E. (2007). Forgiveness and health: A review and theoretical exploration of emotion pathways. In S.G. Post (Ed.), Altruism and health: Perspectives from empirical research (pp. 259–276). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Worthington, E. L. (2005). The power of forgiving. Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Worthington, E. L. Jr., & Scherer, M. (2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: Theory, review, and hypotheses. Psychology and Health, 19, 385–405.

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