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How to Forgive in Six Steps

Forgiveness 101.

Key points

  • Forgiveness is about releasing yourself from the prison of the victim role.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened is okay, it means that you choose to not hold on to pain.
  • Forgiveness is a decision. Healing will follow.

We’ve all been there—in the course of your life, someone did something awful that hurt you for which you harbor resentment. If you google "forgiveness," there are many articles about the merits of forgiveness—in essence, how it benefits you, how much better things would be if you let go, and how it’s about releasing yourself from the prison of the victim role.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened or what someone did to you is okay but that you choose not to hold on to pain—that’s agency. It’s not letting the person who wronged you off the hook, but about freeing yourself from carrying around the heavy burden of having been wronged.

When I was twelve years old, my family visited extended family in the Midwest—cousins with respective families that hadn’t talked to each other for decades. The reason: one of the wives had made chicken soup when the other visited for dinner, and a bone was left in the soup that one of the brothers almost choked on. He didn’t die, but from that day forward, they didn’t speak. Neither family was willing to forgive the other. I wondered then and wonder now if maybe they didn’t know how to.

How do you do it? Forgive someone who’s wronged you, who’s done something terrible, or said something really hurtful to you?

We all carry baggage. The key to a sense of personal peace and joy is processing, learning and letting go. Letting it go is among the greatest gifts you give to yourself. Forgiveness is letting yourself out of the jail of holding on to pain.

These are some of the best steps toward forgiving:

  1. Just think about possibly forgiving: You begin with entertaining the notion of forgiving—just thinking about it. You ask yourself, "Maybe it’s time?"
  2. Imagine what it would look and feel like: If you think forgiving might be the way to go, think about what it would look like if you were to forgive the person who wronged you. How might your exchanges differ, if at all, or how would you then regard the person in the context of what happened? Does it mean you would have to see the person or resume a fractured relationship? Does it mean that things would be brushed under the rug? Would you trust them? Would you lose the status of the injured or wronged party? And what comes along with that? Would it look like what happened was not as awful as it was for you? Thinking about it begins to shed light on what might be the reason for holding on to hurt. That’s a step closer to letting go.
  3. Ask yourself if this is the right time: How do you forget and forfeit the feelings of hurt that have been the result of what happened? What replaces those feelings? Do you feel pressured to forgive this minute, or can you work on it gradually? Give yourself the space and permission to take the time you need.
  4. Plan to protect yourself from future hurt: How will you protect yourself from future hurt? It doesn’t mean you can or should trust the person going forward. It means that you trust yourself to move on—that’s the gift to yourself. But you can plan to, for example, limit time together with the person or plan an exit in the event they say something hurtful again.
  5. How will you fill the space of not holding a grudge? What will be your new narrative? Something like, “That person did something really awful to me but I’m past that.” It’s a greater sense of, “I’ll be alright, even if something horrible was done to me.” It’s a shift from victim to empowerment—the relinquishing of your role as a victim, empowering yourself to feel differently, choosing to not hurt as much and eventually heal.
  6. Make the decision to forgive: Allow yourself to heal with time. Forgiveness is a decision. Healing will follow.

One thing I’ve learned as a therapist is that people can be in their own world, looking at life through their own lens, and sometimes don’t even realize they’ve hurt someone with words or actions. Evil exists in this world and some hurt imposed on others is purposeful and deliberate, but we have the option to relinquish hurt. To do so is a powerful choice and subsequent gift we give ourselves.

Forgiveness is not easy. Figuring out how to forgive someone is oftentimes the work of therapy—time well spent investing in yourself. But the consequence of holding on to resentment and hurt comes with the price of carrying around a burden that you might want to shed.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today