In my psychotherapy practice I often sit with people who are struggling with forgiveness. Many of us, whether in therapy or not, have a hard time forgiving both ourselves and others. Someone close to us betrays our trust. Someone takes something from us, be it a purse, a car, or our very sense of safety in the world. We're told when this happens that we must not act like victims. We're “survivors" of every awful thing that befalls us.

We seek the experience of forgiveness in order to free ourselves from hatred, anger, grief and again, victimhood. But forgiveness is one of those things that is easier said than done. It's hard to forgive when we still feel wronged. And then it's hard to forgive ourselves for holding a grudge!

Forgiveness is supposed to result in better health, closer relationships and, for all I know, fresher breath. Who wouldn't want those things? But there's a problem that's not often addressed, and that is the fact that forgiveness, like love, is an emotion -- not just a policy, an attitude, or a set of behaviours. Since it's an emotion, genuine forgiveness, like falling in love, happens spontaneously if at all.

Falling in love feels wonderful and has many benefits too, but everyone knows it's sort of a happy accident - we don't get to choose whether, when or with whom we fall. Being in love is spontaneous and natural, something to be enjoyed when it's present and perhaps longed for when it's not. Unlike with forgiveness, there's no moral imperative to fall in love.

We need to stop forcing ourselves to forgive before we're ready. We can't make ourselves feel something we don't feel. Nor can we choose not to have the feelings we do have. If we're hurt, we're hurt. If we feel vengeful or avoidant rather than forgiving, then that's just how we feel right now. Our only choice with feelings is to either acknowledge what's true for us emotionally, or struggle against that truth. If we allow ourselves to fully grieve our hurts, we can make room for the emotion of forgiveness, if it's ever to grace us with its presence.

While we may not be able to manufacture forgiveness, we can create the right environment for it in the following ways:

1) Let yourself off the forgiveness hook

You're not obligated to forgive anyone for anything. It doesn't make you a bad person if you're having a hard time letting it go. All it makes you is a person who's been well and truly hurt. Healing takes time.

2) Accept and allow ALL emotions to run free in the privacy of your heart

This doesn't mean acting on your feelings, talking about them, or ruminating on the facts of what happened. It means experiencing and tolerating your feelings, here and now. You've earned the right to feel whatever you feel.

3) Don't be in a hurry to leave your hurt behind

The harder you try to divest yourself of your hurt feelings, the more they'll continue to cling to you. Embrace the paradox; try to feel as hurt you can, so the hurt can move through and out of you faster. Again: Don't act it out, just experience it on the inside.

4) Give names to your feelings

Do you feel hurt, betrayed, outraged, victimised, angry, or something else? Or all of these? Putting words to your emotions in the present is more soothing than replaying what happened in the past.

If you can surf the waves of loss, betrayal and despair then you'll be open to the heights of spontaneous joy, gratitude, generosity and yes, even forgiveness.