Why is it so hard to say “I forgive you”? Don’t miss these practical tips for how to forgive (even when you don’t really want to).
I forgive you.
Few words in the English language are more powerful, and yet the idea of forgiving someone who has let us down, hurt us, or betrayed us, can sometimes feel almost impossible.
We might even pay lip service to the words, even as all those emotions and feelings of resentment and bitterness are still there, bubbling just below the surface. Our mouth says we’re over it, but our heart tells a different story.
The reality is that emotions are powerful; they drive us and shape who we are. We make important life decisions based on our feelings—love, fear, joy, hurt, anger—they all play a role in our core identity. Emotions rule our lives.
If you have kids, you’re aware of the spectrum of emotions they can feel over seemingly insignificant issues that arise. Every mom has had to deal with tears over a sandwich (mustard can be devastating), screaming fits over outfits and hairstyles, and impassioned lectures and debates over bedtimes and story choices. Kids have lots of emotions.
It makes sense; they’re trying to figure out this whole “human” thing. The strange part? When you realize that as adults we experience almost the same spectrum of emotions, over nearly the same somewhat insignificant issues (in the grand scheme of things).
Take, for example, when a friend lets us down. Most of us have been left in tears at one point or another from a friend who said something careless or didn’t come through like we thought they would. The devastation and emotion we feel is on par with my eight-year-old’s crushing disappointment at having their best friend choose someone else. And while as adults, we might not pout and storm around the house or pick on our sister, we still feel all the hurt, sadness, resentment and bitterness. Those same emotions are valid and they occur whether we’re two, 42 or 82.
But when we experience negative emotions–especially anger and resentment–for too long or when we can’t get ourselves back to the joyful end of the spectrum, that’s when things start to go awry. These very human emotions get in the way of our happiness. And that is why it is so important to teach yourself how to forgive, even when you don’t really want to.
The Positive Effects of Forgiveness
The scary truth is that years of little resentments and frustrations can build up and start to have an effect on our health and happiness. They can destroy our relationships with our spouse, friends and loved ones. While forgiveness for the sake of others is certainly noble, the reality is that we need to learn to forgive to protect our own well-being. Even those not-so-little resentments—sometimes those big things can destroy us if we can’t let them go.
Forgiveness can have some surprising positive side effects on our health, including lower blood pressure and a boosted immune system. When we forgive, we not only feel emotionally better, but physically better as well. On the flipside, people who experience sleep issues, frequent illness and other stress-related disorders may be seeing these issues creep up due to unresolved resentments and anger.
When we forgive, we feel lighter. We feel less frustration. Sometimes the other person might not even know we forgave them—or they might not even know we were harboring those negative feelings in the first place! It’s said that forgiveness is like unlocking a door to set someone else free, only to realize you were the prisoner all along. By letting go of the things we’re holding on to, we’re actually allowing ourselves to move forward freely and positively.
If you’re having a difficult time getting past something or if you’ve experienced abuse or trauma, you may need to reach out to a professional to help you work through your feelings. Forgiveness doesn’t mean diminishing the severity of actions or situations, but it can help the victim move forward, regain a feeling of control over their own life, and it can be an important part of the healing process.
How to Forgive (Even When You Don’t Want to)
There are many challenges to forgiveness, the least of which is the whole “forget” part. You might not be able to truly pretend something didn’t happen, nor is it even advisable or key to forgiving. We can’t actually wipe our memory clean and ever completely forget what happened or why we were upset, but we can stop choosing to replay the scenario over and over.
Repeatedly focusing on the same thought is called rumination. It’s the loop of tape playing over and over in your head while your spouse peacefully snores next to you, blissfully unaware their comment at dinner is still eating away at you. It’s the, “Ugh, I should have come back with something snappier or a cutting comment,” feeling after you have a confrontation. In laymen’s terms, it’s dwelling.
1. Write it Out
One way to forgive someone who has wronged you is to write down your feelings. Get out all those toxic feelings, hurts and resentments weighing you down. Now, don’t go writing everything down then mailing off an “anger letter” (which can be cathartic, but rarely makes things better).
Instead, write down your feelings and thoughts just to get them out. End the letter with how you intend to let go of the feelings and why you’re forgiving the person, then note you’ll be praying for them daily. And then–and this part is important–actually make a commitment to include them in your daily prayers for the next month.
You might just be amazed at how praying for someone daily changes your perspective. I know that every time I have used this technique, the results have been incredibly powerful.
2. Get Some Distance
Another key to forgiving someone is to distance yourself from the situation for a while. This is different than giving someone the cold shoulder or the silent treatment. Instead, it’s about giving yourself time to regroup rather than snapping and doing or saying something you’ll later regret.
Go for a walk and wait a few hours before angrily sending off an email or picking up the phone. Instead, take a few minutes to clear your head. Do some deep breathing and try to talk yourself through a little perspective. Will this matter in six months? A year? Five years? If the action of the other person was simply annoying, hopefully a few minutes of reassessment will give you a chance to realize it’s not worth getting angry about.
This doesn’t mean you should be a pushover and just pretend everything’s fine when it’s not. It simply means that time heals all wounds and occasionally the sting of certain actions can wear off quickly—before we react and make it worse.
3. Focus on the Positive
If you’re still having a difficult time with forgiveness, try focusing on the positive aspects of the person you want to forgive. A friend of mine recently shared this little exercise with me. Every time she was feeling annoyed or angry with her spouse, she would reference a little post-it note in her wallet where she’d written positive words she associated with him: hardworking, kind, funny, and so on. Whenever she felt annoyed, she’d look at the note and remind herself of all of the things she really loved about him, making it much easier to overlook some of the negatives.
You can do the same thing with a friend, your children or a family member. Write down or think of all the things you really appreciate about the person you’re trying to forgive. It’s likely you’ll find the positive aspects of your relationship far outweigh the negative feelings, so the bridge just isn’t worth burning.
4. Ask for Forgiveness
If you’re still struggling with forgiveness toward someone, consider expressing it and asking them to help you. While it sounds a little crazy, the reality is that sometimes honesty really is the best policy.
Express your feelings by saying, “I’ve been feeling really upset because of what happened. I’ve been harboring these negative emotions toward you and I wanted to work it out. I want to ask your forgiveness and help so we can resolve this and make amends.”
When you show a sincere desire to move past the emotions and resolve the negativity with the other person, chances are they will also feel the same way. Sometimes you might find out they have something serious going on and actually need your help and friendship.
Give yourself the gift of being able to let go of the things weighing you down and polluting your life, including resentment and bitterness. We’re all just humans trying to do our best and everyone is fighting a hard battle. Once we realize we’re on a level playing field, we can move toward resolution.
To recap, How to Forgive (Even When You Don’t Want to):
1. Write it Out
2. Get Some Distance
3. Focus on the Positive
4. Ask for Forgiveness
Other helpful resources:
- When Your Friends Let You Down
- Cultivate Meaningful Friendships
- 5 Ways to Comfort Someone Who is Grieving
- How to Make Friends as a Grownup: 7 Ideas for Expanding Your Social Circle
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