Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


When You Can't Forgive

Three conditions that need to be met for forgiveness to occur.

Worawut17 / AdobeStock
Source: Worawut17 / AdobeStock

Experts urge us to forgive as quickly and fully as possible.

According to the pros, we should try to forgive for the sake of our own health and happiness.

Refusing to forgive, they say, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

Have you heard that before? I have. Many times.

It sounds good. The only problem is that it blames the victim. Forgiveness is an emotion, and we don't get to choose our emotions.

Let’s take a real-life case study: me.

Years ago, I was injured in an accident in a restaurant. Since it was the restaurant’s fault, I expected my medical bills to be paid without question.

I was shocked when the restaurant’s insurance company denied my claim. Their gamble that I wouldn’t go after them in court for the amount of money I spent on my recovery was correct.

The insurance company’s refusal to honor the claim added insult to physical injury. Even though today I’m completely healed physically, satisfied with my life, and rarely think about the incident, I still have not forgiven them.

Why not?

Contrary to popular belief, forgiveness is NOT a choice we get to make. It’s something that tends to happen naturally when certain conditions are met.

Condition #1: A good apology

Note I said a “good apology,” not just an apology. Many people say “I’m sorry” in a way that leaves much to be desired. (Have a look at my article on How to Apologize for ideas on how to do it better.)

When someone hurts you, a good apology goes a long way toward helping you forgive them. If they don’t offer one, or if it doesn't seem sincere, a key ingredient goes missing.

In my case, the restaurant manager offered a sincere and repeated apology at the time of the accident. I’ve never felt angry with the restaurant itself. Just the insurance company that had the power to make it right, and chose not to.

Condition #2: A good outcome

An emotional, spiritual and/or physical injury that’s permanent is very hard to forgive, especially when an apology is withheld.

If my physical injuries from the accident had never healed, I would be the most bitter person I know. And if anyone tried to tell me I should forgive, it would only add fuel to the fire.

Permanently injured people need compassion and understanding, not education about the benefits of forgiveness. Contrary to the zeitgeist in the U.S., there is such a thing as a victim.

Condition #3: An end to the offending behavior

You might get a good apology. You might even heal completely from the injury. But if it keeps happening again and again, you have to wonder how serious the person (or organization) is about your well-being.

If your partner criticizes you or — Heaven forbid — beats you up, you may get a heart-felt apology afterwards. You may heal physically and even emotionally.

But when partner violence becomes a pattern (and it does), one day you’ll find you can no longer forgive.

This isn’t a sign that you’re getting worse at forgiveness. It’s just that Condition #3 has not been met.

Ongoing bad behavior is less forgivable than a single incident. Once might be an accident. Twice is a pattern.

Forgive Yourself First

Forgiveness tends to happen naturally when all three conditions above are met.

Keep in mind, most of us WANT to forgive people. Who wants to live in a state of pain over something that happened in the past? Nobody.

So if you’re having a hard time forgiving someone, don’t berate yourself about it. Ask yourself which condition hasn’t been met yet.

If you’re missing an apology, still suffering the consequences of the injury, or if the behavior has been repeated, let yourself off the hook.

Forgive yourself for not forgiving. Don’t blame the victim.

More from Tina Gilbertson LPC
More from Psychology Today