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Embracing Forgiveness: Why Holding on is Only Hurting You

Hurt People Hurt People

On our journey through life none of us makes it out unscathed. At some point we will hurt others and we will be hurt—it’s an inevitable part of navigating human relationships. With it we will likely need to grapple with forgiveness: both being forgiven and forgiving others. And that’s where it becomes a little messy.

Forgiveness is one of those complex ideas that people understand in different ways. We all have different beliefs about its impact and necessity. As a psychotherapist, I have met clients who are adamant that they won’t forgive— that the act against them is unforgiveable. Holding onto anger feels like their right of passage and feels like a source of strength.

But holding on to hurt and anger is not strength. It is the equivalent of drinking poison with the hope that it will harm the other person.

Then there are others who want deperately to forgive but don’t know how to. No matter how hard they try to move on, the past seems to haunt them and keep them locked in their pain.

Understanding Forgiveness

Forgiveness can often be interpreted as letting someone off the hook. However I know from seeing countless people in pain that forgiveness is the only way to let ourselves off the hook.

Forgiveness is not about condoning harmful behaviour or forgetting the past. It is an intentional process of letting go of resentment and the desire for revenge. It allows us to find peace and move forward. True forgiveness can lead to emotional freedom and improved mental health, but it requires more than a simple apology from the person who hurt you.

How We Forgive

To forgive and let go there are things we may need from the person who hurt us. These include the following:

Acknowledgedement: Acknowledgment from the other of how they hurt you validates your feelings and experiences, making you feel heard and understood. It also lays the groundwork for rebuilding trust.

Responsibility: If the other person can accept full responsibility for their actions without shifting blame or minimizing their behaviour, this will help you to believe they genuinely understand the impact of their actions and are committed to making amends. Taking responsibility requires empathy on their part and the ability to see the situation from your perspective. This empathetic understanding helps in bridging the emotional gap between you and the other person.

Remorse: Expressing genuine remorse is another critical component in the forgiveness process. Remorse goes beyond a simple apology; it involves a deep sense of regret and sorrow for the pain caused. Genuine remorse is often reflected in the other person’s behavior, demonstrating a commitment to change and preventing future harm.

Amends: Making amends is about taking actionable steps to repair the damage caused. It shows you that the person who hurt you is willing to go beyond words and take tangible steps toward making things right.The process of making amends should be collaborative, involving open communication to understand what you need to feel safe and valued again. It is a continuous process that requires patience, consistency, and dedication.

Commitment to Change: A commitment to change is essential for you to believe that the forgiveness process is worthwhile. The person who hurt you must demonstrate a sincere intention to alter their behavior and avoid repeating the same mistakes. This involves self-reflection, personal growth, and sometimes seeking professional help to address underlying issues that contributed to the harmful behavior. Seeing this commitment can provide reassurance that your pain has led to positive change.

Open Communication: Open communication is the backbone of the forgiveness process. It involves honest, transparent, and respectful dialogue between both parties. You need to express your feelings, needs, and boundaries clearly. The other person, in turn, needs to listen actively and empathetically, without becoming defensive or dismissive.

When the Person Who Hurt You Isn’t Here

There are times when the person who hurt you is no longer around—whether due to distance, estrangement, or their passing. In such cases, the process of forgiveness can feel even more challenging. However, it is still possible to find peace and let go of the past.

  1. Self-Validation: Without the presence of the other person, it becomes even more important to validate your own feelings and experiences. Acknowledge the pain and hurt you have endured. Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal as a way of processing them.
  2. Imaginary Conversations: Engage in imaginary conversations with the person who hurt you. This can be done through writing letters that you don’t send, or by talking to an empty chair. This exercise can help you express your feelings and say what you need to say, even if the other person is not there to hear it.
  3. Seek Support: Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist about your feelings. Sharing your story with someone who listens empathetically can be incredibly healing. They can provide the acknowledgment and validation you need.
  4. Forgiveness Rituals: Create a personal ritual to symbolize letting go. This could involve writing down your grievances and then burning the paper, or creating a memory box where you place objects and letters related to the hurt, and then putting it away. Such rituals can help you find closure.
  5. Focus on Self-Healing: Engage in activities that promote your own healing and well-being. This can include mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, or other forms of self-care. Prioritize your emotional and physical health as part of your healing journey.
  6. Embrace Acceptance: Acceptance is a key part of letting go. This means accepting that the past cannot be changed, and that you can choose to move forward. Acceptance does not mean you condone what happened, but that you acknowledge it as part of your life’s story and decide to move beyond it.

When Forgiveness Feels Impossible

No matter how much you may want to forgive to unburden yourself of your pain, sometimes it feels impossible. Perhaps the impact on your life has been so massive that you must face your pain every day and feel trapped in it. In this case it is important to seek professional help.

Forgiveness is also not a one time thing. You don’t decide to forgive someone and then wake up the next day feeling fine. You may need to forgive someone for their act multiple times before you finally feel free and can honestly say you feel neutral towards the person or the act. In ‘The Book of Forgiving,’ author Desmond Tutu says, “Forgiveness is a process. A choice you make over and over, every day, until you’re free of hurt.

One of the biggest things that has helped me when I have needed to forgive is understanding the life cicumstances and hurts of the other person. For someone to hurt us they are most likely carrying a lot of their own pain. The quote “hurt people hurt people” captures this idea well. People who inflict pain on others often have their own unresolved issues and traumas.

This does not excuse their behavior, but understanding their background can help you see them as flawed human beings rather than just the source of your pain. Recognizing their struggles can create a space for empathy, making it easier to move toward forgiveness.

A Gift to Yourself

Forgiveness is ultimately a gift to yourself, not the other person. It is also a complex and deeply personal journey that requires effort from both parties. As the injured party, you need acknowledgment, responsibility, genuine remorse, amends, commitment to change, and open communication from the person who hurt you. This requires time and patience to heal and rebuild trust. If the person who hurt you is no longer around, self-validation, imaginary conversations, seeking support, forgiveness rituals, focusing on self-healing, and embracing acceptance can help you find peace and let go of the past.

As a psychotherapist, I have seen the profound impact of forgiveness on individuals’ emotional well-being and relationships. It is a powerful tool for healing and moving forward but it must be approached with sincerity, empathy, and a genuine desire to make things right. By understanding and addressing your needs, you can create a pathway to true forgiveness and lasting emotional freedom.