What exactly are we talking about when we talk about forgiveness? Why is forgiveness such a struggle? How do we actually and truly forgive? And how does forgiveness benefit the person who forgives someone who has harmed them?
At one time or another, we’ve all been hurt, by a friend, family member, boss, or colleague in the workplace. We can then find ourselves stuck, replaying and ruminating over an unpleasant, unkind, or unfair experience. We resent and blame the person who did us wrong, and continue to hold their actions against them, even if they have admitted their wrongdoing, attempted to make amends, or asked for forgiveness.
A choice for our own good
One of the most powerful insights on the folly of holding a grudge and choosing not to forgive comes from Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, who famously said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” His granddaughter, Ndileka Mandela, told The Tennessean of her grandfather’s choice to forgive those who imprisoned him for 27 years, “Hating would have destroyed him. He would have come out a bitter person, and the system would have won. He had a lot of reasons to hate. He teaches us that it's all about choices. As much as he was justified to hate, he chose not to.”
In a 2017 American Psychological Association article, Bob Enright, a University of Wisconsin psychologist who has led pioneering research in the field of forgiveness about the value of letting go of toxic anger, explained, "When you get rid of anger, your muscles relax, you're less anxious, you have more energy, your immune system can strengthen."
Forgiveness is a healthy way forward, something we can do for our own good.
Why the past remains present
An inability to forgive can leave us in a prolonged state of negativity, anger, or low self-esteem. We may continue to replay past hurts long after they have taken place. When this happens, not only has the hurtful experience itself impacted our lives in potentially devastating ways, but it also continues to influence our relationships and interactions with others.
Why we hold on
Even when we feel the weight of resentment and blame, and would like to be able to free ourselves from the weight of a negative experience, we struggle with why and how to forgive. We feel that forgiveness means letting someone off the hook for their selfish or thoughtless actions or see forgiveness as a failure to stand up for ourselves.
We often hold onto past hurts as a way to shield us from experiencing the same hurt again, but that can leave us stuck reliving negative events. We can remain in a state of anger and negative thought patterns. Failing to authentically forgive another person is not good for our mindset, moods, or progress.
Deciding to let go
Forgiveness is not something we dole out or bestow upon others; it’s a process. It's about us processing our pain, and understanding the hurts that we internalize resulting from experiences that we have judged as negative. A 2021 article from Harvard Health Publishing and Harvard Medical School describes the REACH method, which begins with the process of objective recall of the incident of hurt or harm; emphasizing, or putting yourself in the shoes of the perpetrator; altruistic gift, meaning to see the value of the gift of forgiving others through your own past intentional or unintentional harmful actions; committing to forgive in a letter to the person who has harmed you (which you do not actually send), and, finally, to hold on to your act of forgiveness.
I often work with patients to process their anger and resentments, and arrive at a place of forgiveness. The exercise of writing a forgiveness letter has proven to be a tremendously powerful and effective way forward. And it begins with a look at the story in full.
The story in full
The forgiveness letter begins by looking at the story of a past hurt in its entirety. Even with a person who has done you wrong, the story of your relationship with them is unlikely to be entirely one of hurt and harm. Usually, when someone comes into your life, it is in a positive way. A person who has done you wrong may have brought much good into your life initially and helped you to learn and grow before things turned bad.
As you write, try to see what the person who hurt you has shown you and what lessons of growth have come from the experiences with them. There are many moving pieces at play when others cause us pain. It is important to look deeply into ourselves and see what the mirror of a painful experience with another person has shown and taught us, not only about the other person but about ourselves.
The good and the bad
You have a choice to release yourself from your pain through forgiveness, rather than personalizing it and carrying it as a weight, in fear of it repeating, again and again. Keep this in mind as you work on this letter.
Think about a past hurt in full, and write it down, in the form of a letter. Include the good as well as the bad. Sometimes, the good this person brought to you was greater insight, a hard lesson, or a new skill set that helped you handle the bad they brought in! You need to remember everything. Hold yourself accountable for your own actions, and acknowledge your learning and growth.
Release and relief
Conclude your letter with a statement of closure that forgives both the other person and yourself. Acknowledge all that you have learned and how you have grown from this experience. Concede that while this person has caused you pain, they have also taught you to become a better, stronger version of yourself. Forgive them for all intentional and unintentional hurts, and forgive yourself for being so hard on yourself, and for personalizing and remaining stuck in resentment and anger.
Your forgiveness letter is not meant to be shared with anyone. You may decide to keep it to yourself or tear it into pieces.
Moving on in positivity
Forgiveness is choosing to provide yourself with closure to a hurtful experience. After all, no one deserves to occupy space in your heart and mind and steal your joy.
Forgiving those who have hurt us means that we let go of the personalization of a negative experience. Most importantly, forgiveness allows us to move forward in positivity.
When you’re ready to forgive
- Understand that forgiveness requires deep, authentic reflection.
- Reflect on the whole story of your past hurt. See your part in the story as well as the other person’s.
- Take stock of what you have learned, and how you will use it in the future.
- Write a letter that tells the whole story, including how you have learned and grown from this experience.
- Pay attention to how forgiveness has positively impacted your life and relationships.
- Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are struggling with forgiveness.