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A white dove with the words forgiving.

To Err Is Human; To Forgive, Healthy

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How To Forgive (And Why)

There’s an old saying that holding onto a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. If only it were so simple and easy as just choosing to let go!

But it’s not, is it?

When people have wronged us and/or wronged our loved ones, it’s hard to forgive, especially if they have not changed. For that matter, it can be hard to forgive ourselves for mistakes that we made, too.

Either way, “drinking that poison” can be close to literal, in terms of what harboring such anger and resentment can do for our cortisol levels.

So, what to do about it?

If you have a dialogue with the person, our previous article on communication may help a lot.

If you don’t, there are various other angles that can be taken:

The Unsent Letter

You can even send it, if you like, but it’s not the point here. The idea is to write to the person, expressing your grievances. But, (as per the above-linked article on communication) try to focus at least as much on your feelings as their actions. “When you did/said x, I felt y”, etc.

This is important for helping you process your feelings. If you send the letter, it’s also important for the other person to be able to understand your feelings.

Sometimes, we feel the things we do so strongly because we don’t have an outlet for them. Pouring out our emotions in such a fashion, on the other hand, means (to labor the metaphor) they’re no longer bottled up. Even just in and of itself, that can provide us a lot of relief.

And when we the negative emotions are no longer such high pressure, it can be easier to let go of them.

Mindfulness

Following on from the above idea, a good strategy can be simply sitting and feeling everything you need to feel, noticing it without judgement, like a curious observer.

Sometimes what we need is just to be heard, and that starts with hearing ourselves.

Compassion

There’s a Buddhist exercise that involves actively feeling compassion for three people: a loved one, a stranger, and an enemy. Many people report that it’s actually harder to feel compassion for a random stranger, than an enemy. Why? Because we don’t know them; we don’t know what’s good and bad about them in our estimation.

If you’re reading this because you want to be able to gain the peace of being able to forgive someone (even if that someone is yourself), then in at least some respect right now, that person is in the “enemy” category. So how do we unpack that?

To err is human. Everybody screws up sometimes. And also, everyone has a reason (or a complex of reasons) for acting the way they do. This does not mean that those reasons excuse the behavior, but it can explain it.

You don’t get angry at a storm for soaking you through. Even if you might not understand the physics of it in the way a meteorologist might, you understand that there were things that led to that, and you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So why do we get angry at someone else for wronging us? Even if we might not understand the personal background of it in the way their psychologist or therapist might, we (hopefully) understand that there were things that caused them to be the way they were, and we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And ourselves? We probably know, when we made a mistake, why we made it. Maybe we were afraid, insecure, reactive, forgetful, or too focused on some other thing. Whatever it was, we did our best at the time and, apparently, our best wasn’t as good as we’d like.

If we didn’t deserve forgiveness, we wouldn’t be critical of our past selves in the first place.

And, the science is very clear that it’s important for our health for other reasons besides cortisol management, too.

And as for others? They did the best they knew how. Maybe they were afraid, insecure, reactive, forgetful, or too focused on some other thing. Same story, different character.

Remembering that can be key to “accepting the apology we never received”.

Forgiving without forgetting

Developing the ability to forgive is a useful tool for our own mental health. It doesn’t mean we must or even should make ourselves a doormat.

“I forgive you” does not have to mean a clean slate; it means remembering that the thing happened, and just not holding on to the anger/resentment associated with it.

It may be water under the bridge now, but it might have been a devastatingly destructive wave at the time, and continuing to acknowledge truth that is sensible. Just, from a position of peace now, hopefully.

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