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Why Forgiveness Is So Hard (but Important)

Three ways to move past your innate instinct to avoid forgiveness.

Key points

  • Humans are programmed to avoid danger or anyone who has proven to be untrustworthy.
  • When people expect their lives to resemble fairy tales, they don’t equip themselves with the proper tools to deal with conflict effectively.
  • Letting go invites peace and the release of unresolved conflict, and can boost mental health.
Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels
Source: Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

You’re not a bad person if you’re finding it difficult to forgive someone; you’re human. As human beings, we’re programmed to avoid danger or anyone who has proven to be untrustworthy. Therefore, thinking about forgiving someone who harmed us goes against our very instincts. More often than not, it is wise to listen to your instincts. But if they’re keeping you trapped in a memory that doesn't allow you to move past the wrongdoings of others, it's time to make the tough decision to forgive. Following are three ways to move past your innate instinct to avoid forgiveness.

1. Admitting the Challenges to Yourself. From early childhood, many of us have grown up with fairytales that show people with seamless relationships resolving conflict perfectly, as if relationships don't carry the realities of disappointment, disagreements, or hurt. When we expect our lives to resemble those unrealistic fairytales, we don’t equip ourselves with the proper tools to deal with conflict effectively. Afraid of being wrong or unable to see a clear resolution, we cut people out more quickly instead of trying to work things out. This is especially true if we already feel betrayed, as facing our problems simply adds another layer of anxiety. But in order to forgive, it’s important to be honest with yourself about the difficulties and challenges it will take to move past the dispute. Knowing that it's not just about the betrayal but also about the anxiety you feel when trying to resolve it, is key.

2. Releasing the Heavy Burden. As influential teacher Ajahn Chah explains in his book Food for the Heart, when we choose not to follow the path of letting go, we decide to carry a heavy rock around with us, weighing ourselves down. We don't know what to do with the stone, so we keep carrying around those negative feelings and pain. Even if others explain to us the benefit of throwing away the emotions—or the rock, as Chah puts it—we're still afraid to let it go. We've been carrying it for so long that it's become a part of us, and we continue to carry it until we get so weak and tired that we have no choice but to let it go. It's only then that we can finally feel at peace and recognize how physically and mentally heavy that rock was. Letting go invites peace and the release of unresolved conflict.

3. Know It Takes Courage. Many people think that they show courage and strength by holding grudges and cutting people out of their life who offended or betrayed them. But the real power comes from listening to your pain, finding ways to manage during those times, and noticing your anxiety without suppressing it, avoiding it, or passing it on to someone else. It means finding the courage and strength to say, "I am hurt, and I am not sure what to do. However, I do want to find a way to forgive." Real courage is knowing that forgiveness will be hard but finding a way to do it anyway.

When we are unwilling to forgive, we carry around with us unresolved emotions. This is especially true if our unwillingness to forgive is with an important figure in our life like a parent, grandparent, sibling, and so on. If we don't find a way to forgive and resolve the conflict, we will carry those unresolved emotions into our other relationships. We will also be more likely to attract people in our life that can easily trigger us and bring up old wounds. If you can't forgive your critical father, for example, and work on the feelings that criticism brings up for you, you will be more sensitive and reactive to others' perceived negative comments. When holding onto a grudge, resentment, or anger, your willingness to love and be loved will be stunted. If you cannot forgive, you'll have trouble being open, loving, and forgiving in future relationships.

Several research studies have found how unforgiveness correlates with mental and physical health issues. People who suffer from low self-esteem and negative self-worth don't readily accept themselves and their own mistakes, leaving less room for them to forgive others. Unwillingness to empathize with your own mistakes can lead to an increase in depression symptoms and negative emotions. Perpetually thinking of past hurt and pain increases the risk of anxiety and sleep troubles. Studies also show that an unwillingness to forgive contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, and chronic stress.

As you can see, you might be creating more anguish for yourself by holding on to your anger. Just remember that you have no control over what other people decide to do. You only have control over how you choose to deal and respond to what others do.

Healing is a process and can't be rushed; it's a long-distance run, not a sprint, and it takes time to recognize you've been avoiding big emotions instead of moving through them. Many of us have our own feelings to face around the person or people who hurt us. We must understand the impact the offense has on us before we can truly forgive. When you go through the lengthy process of understanding your offender's actions and the depth of the pain they’ve caused you, you will be able to let go.

More from Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D.
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