• When we have been wronged, forgiveness might be the furthest thing from our minds

  • The act of forgiveness is, however, as much about looking after our own mental and emotional health as it is about the other person 

  • If you are struggling to move on from past hurts and betrayals, seeing a therapist may help – find yours here

Do we really forgive and forget? In reality, our brains find it hard to forget upsetting events and perceived betrayals. In life, forgetting may be unlikely, but we can learn to forgive. Knowing how to forgive someone is an essential life skill. It serves us well in our love lives and professional relationships. It saves friendships and restores our faith. And we definitely benefit from it when those in our lives are able to forgive us when we inevitably screw up.

Forgiveness allows us to move on; it removes us from feelings of anger and hate. Everyone has something that they can be forgiven for and that they must forgive. Forgiveness allows us to leave what is in the past in the past and focus on our present and future. The act of forgiving is critical to our emotional health. By refusing to forgive someone, we’re choosing to hold on to the anger and bitterness that their actions created. When we choose to hold onto this anger and let it eat us up, it can make us irritable, impatient, distracted, and even physically ill. 

We have all experienced hurt and betrayal – some more significant than others. Forgiveness may be the last thing on our minds when someone does something awful, but forgiveness is not just for the perpetrator – it’s essential for our own wellbeing. Forgiveness is all about us, and not about the other person. We don’t forgive other people because they deserve it. If that were the litmus test for when to forgive, it would rarely ever happen. Instead we choose to forgive those who have hurt us because we cannot fully let go of the destructive emotions inside of us until we do. Forgiveness is not a only justice issue – it’s a heart issue.

Forgiveness cannot be forced – it is a choice you must make yourself. Forgiveness takes courage and a lot of effort and patience. To forgive does not mean that you forget the experience. It also does not mean that you are condoning what happened or minimising the offence. It is not a sign of weakness to forgive. If anything, it is a sign of great strength to be able to move forward from a painful past.

We can learn from past experiences. We need to take what we can learn, be mindful of the lesson, and move on. This may mean moving on with or without the person who hurt us. Even in the middle of the situation, we can learn something about ourselves — what pushes our buttons, where we might have sensitivities, and how we handle getting hurt by someone we care about. With this new knowledge, we’re better equipped for future relationships and the inevitable conflicts that will come with them.

Why is it so easy to hold a grudge?

Being hurt by someone, particularly someone you love and trust, can cause anger, sadness and confusion. If you dwell on hurtful events, grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility can take root. If you allow negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, you might find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice.

When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge — or embrace forgiveness and move forward.

Without practising forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

If you're unforgiving, you might:

  • Bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience
  • Become so wrapped up in the wrong that you can't enjoy the present
  • Become depressed or anxious
  • Feel that your life lacks meaning or purpose, or that you're at odds with your spiritual beliefs
  • Lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others

Does forgiveness guarantee reconciliation?

If the hurtful event involved someone whose relationship you otherwise value, forgiveness can lead to reconciliation. This isn't always the case, however. Reconciliation might be impossible if the offender unwilling to communicate with you, or isn't in your life at all anymore. In other cases, reconciliation might not be appropriate. Still, forgiveness is possible — even if reconciliation isn't.

What if the person I'm forgiving doesn't change?

Getting another person to change his or her actions, behaviour or words isn't the point of forgiveness. Think of forgiveness more about how it can change your life — by bringing you peace, happiness, and emotional and spiritual healing. Forgiveness can take away the power the other person continues to wield in your life.

What if I'm the one who needs forgiveness?

The first step is to honestly assess and acknowledge the wrongs you've done and how they have affected others. Avoid judging yourself too harshly. If you're truly sorry for something you've said or done, consider admitting it to those you've harmed. Speak of your sincere sorrow or regret, and ask for forgiveness — without making excuses.

Remember, however, you can't force someone to forgive you. Others need to move to forgiveness in their own time. Whatever happens, commit to treating others with compassion, empathy and respect.           

How do I reach a state of forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a commitment to a personalised process of change. To move from suffering to forgiveness, you might:

  • Recognise the value of forgiveness and how it can improve your life
  • Identify what needs healing and who needs to be forgiven and for what
  • Consider joining a support group or seeing a counsellor
  • Acknowledge your emotions about the harm done to you and how they affect your behaviour, and work to release them
  • Choose to forgive the person who has offended you
  • Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life

As you let go of grudges, you'll no longer define your life by how you've been hurt. You might even find compassion and understanding.

What happens if I can't forgive someone?

Forgiveness can be challenging, especially if the person who's hurt you doesn't admit wrong. If you find yourself stuck:

  • Practice empathy – try seeing the situation from the other person's point of view
  • Ask yourself why he or she would behave in such a way – perhaps you would have reacted similarly if you faced the same situation
  • Reflect on times you've hurt others and on those who've forgiven you
  • Write in a journal, pray or use guided meditation — or talk with a person you've found to be wise and compassionate, such as a spiritual leader, a mental health practitioner, or an impartial loved one or friend

Be aware that forgiveness is a process, and even small hurts may need to be revisited and forgiven over and over again. It is also important to note that some relationships are toxic and unhealthy – forgiveness should not be considered a means of keeping people in your life who repeatedly do you harm. You can still, in time, seek to forgive these individuals for your own peace of mind and emotional health.

Further reading

Is forgiveness the key to happy relationships?

Therapy helped me recover after an affair

My ex was abusive: do I warn their new partner?

Can you recover after an affair, as a couple?

How therapy is helping me heal from past abuse