As early as our preschool days, we’re taught the meaning and merits of forgiveness. Whether another child snatched our favorite toy or our big brother pulled our pigtails, letting go of grudges seemed relatively easy. But as we got older, and our relationships became more complicated, so has the very definition of forgiveness become murkier and more complex. Does it require reconciliation? Will it make us vulnerable? What if someone doesn’t deserve our forgiveness? Such doubts can keep us stuck holding onto toxic emotions, from anger to resentment, for years, compounding the stress and pain of the initial affront. And even if we want to forgive someone, we don’t always know how.
One key misconception that often foils our ability to forgive is the belief that it primarily benefits the person who wronged us, observes Emily J. Hooks, author of The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness. In truth, forgiveness is, first and foremost, a gift we give ourselves. “It’s the process of self-actualization that helps us move through hurt feelings in favor of self-love and empathy,” she explains.
Another definition that may surprise you is the resolution of grief, reveals Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. “When we’ve been let down or betrayed, our brain needs time to adapt to this destabilizing information,” he says. “That’s what the grieving process is and what forgiveness opens the door to: letting go of the past and bringing in a new present that allows us to heal.”
Proven to heighten self-esteem, improve decision-making and boost emotional resilience, forgiveness slashes toxic stress, opening our hearts figuratively and literally, explains psychologist Robert Enright, PhD, author of Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. “In one study, when cardiac patients who had forgiven a past wrong, later retold their story of the incident, they experienced significantly more blood flow to their hearts and less chest pain than before they were able to forgive.” Appropriately, Enright’s poetic shorthand for forgiveness is a “softened heart,” one full of compassion for others, and, just as important, for ourselves.
While its psychological, spiritual and physical benefits — including lower blood pressure, stronger immunity and even less chronic back pain — are clear, forgiveness can be difficult to extend, especially when our feelings are still raw. That’s why we asked top experts for easy ways to free yourself of the most common “grudge traps” and embrace this truly restorative, redemptive emotion.
Experts share their tops on how to forgive someone
1. Normalize your feelings
If this season makes the dull pain of an old grudge feel more like a fresh wound, you’re not alone. “The holidays make us more sensitive emotionally,” assures Enright. “We look back at times when we were treated unjustly and that hurt becomes more acute. It’s not unusual for joy and sadness to get mixed together during a time of celebration.” He adds that just knowing this will help you feel more connected to the rest of humanity and begin to make sense of your emotions.
2. Let go of hurt in “concentric circles”
Though receiving an apology may make it easier to forgive, it isn’t always necessary, notes Enright. How to begin without the catalyst of contrition? Think of the person through three perspectives: personal, global and spiritual, he advises. If, for example, a relative snapped at you at the holiday table, ask yourself what they may be going through on a personal level, such dealing with work or family pressures, or even with current reactions to a trauma in their past.
This doesn’t excuse their actions, but it does give you context. Next, expand your scope a bit further and think of them in what Enright calls global terms. “You both share a common humanity. If you are cut, you may bleed. The same holds for the one who hurt you,” he says. “You both need adequate nutrition and rest. You both will pass from this earth one day. You are both human; you share personhood.”
Lastly, to gain a spiritual perspective, ask yourself if there is anything that connects you beyond this earth. Of course, this perspective occurs for those who have what Enright calls a transcendent or faith-based view. “For example, you could ask yourself this: Are you both loved by God? It is harder to hate a person who is loved in this way. Also, do you share common values? This approach allows you to see the person from a wider angle, rather than simply through the lens of their stresses or even a shared common humanity,” observes Enright. “It may take a long time, depending on the severity of the injury, but you will feel more compassion for them — the beginning of forgiveness.”
3. Consider forgiveness without reconciliation
The common misconception that reconciliation is almost synonymous with forgiveness can prevent you from moving forward, says Enright. “Forgiveness is a gift given in the face of a moral wrong, without denying the wrong, whereas reconciliation is a negotiation between two people to come together in mutual trust,” he says. You can forgive without reconciling. Indeed, you can forgive and say goodbye to a toxic person at the same time.
The more you can visualize letting go of hurt feelings, the greater the relief you’ll feel, adds Hooks, who recommends coming up with a “vision statement,” that helps you picture the benefits of releasing a grudge, such as, “I want to be fully present in the moment rather than resentful or reactive; I want the confidence and emotional freedom to let this go. Then, when you’re ready, consider simply tell the person who wronged you, “I forgive you, but I’m not ready to reconcile,” letting them know that you need time. “Remind yourself that forgiveness and reconciliation can only be done on your timetable, not anyone else’s.”
4. Use honesty to open to healing
Just letting others know how their behavior impacted you can lead to healing. “In most instances, it’s important to say, ‘X really hurt my feelings,” says Leonard. “This softens their defenses, and they may respond with understanding: ‘I get that; I would have been hurt in your shoes, too.’”
Often, that’s all we want to hear. But if they lack emotional maturity, and blame you instead, you might need to create some space between you. “It can be impossible to forgive until you’ve recovered yourself, so you might say, ‘I just need a break,’ or ‘Let’s talk again when I’m in the right head space,’” adds Leonard. “You have every right to unplug from this relationship.”
5. Tell your story
“We tend to think that when it comes to forgiveness, it has to be all or nothing,” says Gayle Reed, RN, PhD, of the International Forgiveness Institute. “But it is possible to set boundaries and have a partial forgiveness.” She speaks from personal experience: After her divorce, Reed journaled a pro and con list, noting why it was important to maintain, at least in part, a healthy dynamic with her ex.
Seeing the reasons in black and white, like co-parenting the kids, helped her forgive. But resentment is a stubborn beast. To continually tame it every time it rears its head, share your story of forgiveness with a trusted friend, she urges. It reminds you how you overcame the betrayal and helps your brain remain satisfied with that, so that when resentment does creep in, you’ll be relieved of it almost instantly.
“Sharing your ‘forgiveness story’ signals to your brain that this is your new way of functioning: ‘I’m not just ending this, I’m moving forward a stronger person,’” Reed says. “I tell my stories of forgiveness all the time when I’m counseling people. It helps both of us heal.”
6. Consider half forgiving
In the end, if you’re not ready or if it’s simply too difficult to forgive someone entirely, consider a half-way approach. “Allow yourself to keep some aspects of a grudge while letting go of others,” suggests philosopher Kathryn J. Norlock, PhD., author of The Moral Psychology of Forgiveness. “For example, if you need to feel validated — that your feelings are justified — talk to someone you trust about it.”
Then release an aspect of the grudge that’s been holding you back, like the idea that this person is “bad.” You might remind yourself of their redeeming qualities or ask yourself if their experiences in life might shed light on their behavior. This doesn’t justify their actions, but it does give you a more compassionate perspective that will help you heal.
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