How to Forgive Someone, Even When It Feels Impossible

How to Forgive Someone, Even When It Feels Impossible

Forgiveness is something you do for yourself—not for the other person.

“Forgiveness is not for anyone but yourself. It’s to release the pain, to release the incident, to recognize that it happened and things may have changed, but you’re okay.” That’s how psychiatrist Christina Lynn, MD, Medical Director of the Behavioral Health Unit at Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina defines forgiveness.

But forgiveness is complicated. Whether you want to forgive a friend for betraying you, a significant other for being unfaithful or a coworker for gossiping—it can sometimes feel impossible. However, understanding what forgiveness actually means might change your perspective on the forgiveness process as a whole. Not to mention, holding on to grudges and negative thoughts may have all sorts of health consequences, like increased stress levels and high blood pressure.

So, how are you supposed to go about forgiving someone, should you forgive everyone and how does forgiveness play into your health and well-being? Here are some factors to consider when it comes to forgiveness.

What forgiveness does and doesn’t mean
Before you start the forgiveness process, it might help to understand the ins and outs of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is acceptance of the situation as it is. You’re accepting that the situation hurt you, that you changed because of the situation and that you are a different person because of the situation,” says Dr. Lynn. Forgiveness can also be described as letting go of negative thoughts, bitterness and resentment towards someone who has done something to betray you.

But Lynn emphasizes that it doesn’t mean you’re okay with what somebody did to you. You’re just saying, “This happened. Now I’m going to live from this point further.” It doesn’t mean you’re forgetting or pretending that the negative situation didn’t occur, nor does it mean that you are encouraging the person to act a certain way.

And forgiveness doesn’t mean you necessarily have to pick back up with the person either—you don’t have to reconcile if you don’t want to. If you do choose to reconcile, that is a totally separate decision from the decision to forgive someone.

How quickly you forgive may depend on the circumstances
Your journey to forgiveness may depend on what actually went down, so don’t beat yourself up if the process is a longer one. For example, people who’ve experienced sexual violence may avoid forgiveness, which is understandable. In fact, some survivors might even feel empowered because to them, avoiding forgiveness is regaining some of the control they lost.

“Honestly, I think that forgiveness depends on what happened with the person and how much pain it has caused you,” says Lynn. “If somebody took your chips from your lunch bag, you're probably going to forgive them a lot more quickly than if somebody hits your car.”

Forgiveness has some health perks
Constant anger and resentment can send you into “fight-or-flight” mode, or the natural reaction to serious situations (fighting or fleeing away from). This response can have a negative impact on your heart rate, blood pressure and immune response, which in turn can contribute to depression, heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions.

But on the flipside, forgiving someone who’s wronged you can also have some health perks. Studies show that if you’re able to forgive someone, you may:

  • lower your risk of heart attack
  • sleep better
  • experience less pain
  • lower your risk of anxiety, depression and stress

Forgiving someone can also calm you down, both in the moment and long-term. And once you release and let go of the situation, you may even notice that you’re better able to empathize with the other person.

You don’t have to tell the person you’ve forgiven them
One misconception about forgiveness is that you have to tell the other person that you’ve forgiven them. The fact of the matter is: it’s a personal decision whether you tell them or not, and telling them is not part of the actual forgiveness process.

“Some people think that telling the person you forgave them means you’re saying that what they did was okay, but it really just means you’re healing,” says Lynn.

Before you make a decision about telling them, think about the potential outcome. “The person could be thrilled and change their behavior or they may even admit they didn’t know they offended you,” says Lynn.

So, what does she advise? “I don’t recommend that people go back and say ‘I forgive you,’ unless they feel that’s part of their healing or that they need to say that in order to repair the relationship.”

Ultimately, you’ll have to make the best decision for your situation, your future relationship with the other person and your emotional and physical health.

Ready to forgive?
If you’ve determined forgiveness is the best route for you, there are many things you can do to heal. Here’s how to get started: 

  1. Write a letter (that no one will see): Not sure where to begin? Start by writing down your thoughts and feelings, says Lynn. “The first step is to get everything out so you’re not holding anything in. Write everything out freely and fully on paper.”

    Writing down your emotions, like how you reacted to the situation and how you’ve felt since the incident occurred can also help you recognize triggers that make you upset, and can encourage positive self-talk.

    Record your frustrations and any baggage left over from the situation in a journal. Then, you can burn it, dispose of it or even keep it to look back on later. You can also write a letter to the person—one that you don’t intend on actually giving them, says Lynn.
  2. Remember that you’re not going to change the other person: Remind yourself that no matter what you do in life, you are never going to change someone else, says Lynn. “The only person you can change is you.”

    Instead of focusing on how the other person is going to respond to what they did or didn’t do, focus on how you respond and how you can go forward with your life. “If you change and you really accept that change, that individual will change to meet you, but not because you forced them to change.”
  3. Try to understand their point of view: If it makes sense for your situation, you may want to think about why the other person betrayed you. Whether it be because they are dealing with some personal issues from the past or because they honestly didn’t realize how they were acting, understanding why they did what they did can help you heal, too.

Forgiveness can be difficult and complex, but if you’re able to do it, there are many benefits. If you’re having trouble forgiving someone who’s wronged you, see a counselor. They can help walk you through the process so you can move on with your life.

Medically reviewed in March 2018.

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