Sometimes, sorry really does seem to be the hardest word. It has to be, otherwise why else would this friend/partner/colleague/random asshole on the street refuse to acknowledge they did anything wrong?
However, holding on to people’s wrongs only hurts you. Chances are that a person who hurts you in some way feels one of several ways:
- They feel genuine remorse over what they did, but they have a sense of personal pride that they can’t risk denting or a feeling that their act was justified.
- They don’t give a sh*t.
In either case, what does refusing to forgive them add to your life? You don’t need to welcome them back into your life with open arms. These feelings of resentment will start to shape how you think and the way you connect to others.
And you might end up being someone who needs to apologize for their actions in the future if you let negative emotions mold you.
We can fight with a person we love. A friend might deeply hurt our feelings. Perhaps we’re neglected by a relative. All of these things hurt, of course. But none have to cause long-term harm if we harness the power of forgiveness.
We found some techniques that might help you forgive someone, especially someone who’ll never say they’re sorry.
Before giving you tips on forgiveness, we need to look at what forgiveness actually is. And for a concept that sits behind many types of religious thinking, there’s a lot of science behind its benefits, too.
For a start, there’s more than one type of forgiveness. A 2019 study splits forgiveness off into decisional and emotional forgiveness.
Here’s the key difference:
- Decisional forgiveness. Involves making an active decision to replace negative behaviors toward the person who’s wronged you with positive ones. For example, you decide to start sharing memes with them again. You may still resent them, though. But you’re trying to move past it.
- Emotional forgiveness. The genuine replacement of negative feelings toward the person with positive ones, like love and empathy.
The study came to the conclusion that decisional forgiveness, or simply going through the physical motions of forgiveness, isn’t enough to have any cognitive benefits — it’s really about emotional forgiveness.
How easy is emotional forgiveness though? It’s not like we can just switch off traumas and transgressions against us. A 2019 study about forgiveness after a spouse cheats found that the chance of emotional forgiveness is higher for those who had a stronger relationship beforehand.
Fully letting go is hard. But it’s definitely worth trying, and here’s why.
In 2012, researchers found that conditional forgiveness — so, not loving everyone indiscriminately but forgiving people with the expectation they’re sorry and have learned not to repeat their behaviors — can actually reduce your risk of dying.
So when you hear “I’ll hold this against you till my dying day,” that person might actually be bringing forward their expiry date.
Forgiveness, really, is about having mastered self-control. If you’re able to forgive someone, you’ve been able to assert yourself over your feelings. That’s incredibly empowering. And science agrees.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’re saying their actions are A-OK and that they or anyone else can do the same thing without affecting you. But it’s a surefire way to improve your peace of mind and quality of life on your own terms.
It’s super brave to counter feelings of righteous fury with a get-out-of-jail-free card. But taking these steps could well serve as your first stage of the healing process.
1. Peace into the present
Whether you realize it or not, if you hold on to resentment, you’re living in the past, where all of the hurt unfolded.
This small truth may just free you up a little. Being fully present in the “now” means that the past and future, over which you have very little real control, are less relevant. That realization has power.
And right now, you’re reading this. No one is making you feel bad — perhaps recent or even distant memories may be surfacing and playing havoc with your mood, but you are safe at this very second. And this one. And this one.
We ran through the seven parts of life you can really control. Focusing on those instead of worrying about the memories and theoretical scenarios you can’t. The role of this person’s actions will get smaller and smaller in your mind’s eye.
2. Flip your focus from others to yourself
Instead of thinking of the person who has wronged you, it may be better to take ownership of your feelings and switch the focus to you. When we allow someone to upset us, we grant them tremendous power over our well-being.
Try to sit with your emotions without judging them. Center yourself, and say, “Yes, I feel angry/disappointed/screwed over… but I can choose to feel something better. I can feel/think about/focus on something else.”
Their actions matter less than your mental health moving forward. The good news is, your thoughts are your jurisdiction. They’re yours to do with as you please.
3. Take responsibility for your feelings
Self-help author Wayne Dyer said, “By changing the way you choose to perceive the power that others have over you… you’ll see a bright new world of unlimited potential for yourself… you’ll know instantly how to forgive and let go of anything.”
This means that when we recognize that it’s us, and only us, that determines how we feel, we gain a superpower. We shed victimhood when we shed judgment and blame.
When we own how we feel, we can decide to feel good. And feeling resentful becomes a knowingly destructive choice.
4. Own your part
In many of life’s ups and downs, we’re quick to jump to judgment without assuming any personal accountability. Let’s say your sister is always making digs at you.
Did you write her off as a moron the first time you met, so she only gets your sarcastic, icy side? If your boss is currently micromanaging you, is it because you dropped the ball the last couple of months because of your breakup (and you kinda know it)?
If someone else is solely responsible for your misery, you’d have to wait for that person to change before you can be happy. But what if you could take positive steps right now? Wouldn’t that feel like a relief?
Well, you can. And it probably will. So own the bits of the situation you can — make more of an effort to reach out to your sister, for example, or open up a dialogue with your boss about how to refocus.
5. Stop looking to feel slighted
It’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself about whether you’re the type of person who goes through life looking for slights to complain about.
Do you wait for a terrible driver to swear at, a colleague to snub for various reasons, or a big opportunity to fall through so that your feelings of the world being against you are vindicated?
When we lose our willingness to be a victim, we’re essentially asserting our power. We’re saying “I have control over how I’m going to feel. And today, I feel good.” There’s nothing more mighty than that.
And feeling power over yourself and the situations that head your way can be quite central to forgiving someone, according to research from 2010.
6. Apply a loving lens
This allows us to be thankful for all of life’s (difficult!) lessons.
The Dalai Lama once said, “The enemy is a very good teacher.” Treat the people and actions that have hurt you as a lesson so that you can move on at lightning speed.
Are you upset because your S.O. does not treat you with enough respect? What does this teach you? Do you need to be less tolerant of people’s bad behavior? To be more assertive? To stop using self-punishing language in front of them?
When we see our life’s experiences through a loving, patient lens, we learn how to grow a lot quicker.
Finally, ask yourself: Would you rather forgive them or feel like sh*t?
Let’s be real for a second. If you don’t forgive, your only other option is not to. When has hating on someone ever made you feel good for extended periods? It doesn’t. And it never will.
Choosing not to forgive quickly uses up your limited daily energy and makes you feel powerless and bitter. Everybody meets people that hurt them. Your choice is what to do next.
Susie Moore is Greatist’s life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for free weekly wellness tips on her website and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!