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How to Truly Forgive Someone

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistFebruary 25, 2021

We’ve all heard the familiar expression “forgive and forget.” The forgiveness part is fairly obvious -- we pardon the offender. And while there are plenty of petty offenses that are too minor to hold in memory, we probably never forget being wronged in a major way (at least I don’t).

Truly forgiving isn’t about literally forgetting, but about wiping the slate clean. We forget an offense the way we forgive a debt -- zeroing it out. Our memory of being wronged is still intact, but we no longer hold the offense against the other person.

Clearing the slate means we no longer see the person in a one-down position, as though we’re morally superior not only for having been wronged but for being magnanimous enough to forgive. There’s no condescension in true forgiveness.

Forgiving in this way can be difficult. Some thoughts that might help:

See yourself in the offender. When we’re ready to release the burden of resentment against someone who has wronged us, we can start by seeing ourselves in the other person. That means recognizing that we could just as easily have hurt them -- and have likely done similar things ourselves. For example, it’s easier to forgive my wife’s irritability after she’s had a bad night’s sleep when I recall my own grumpiness while battling insomnia.

Consider forgiveness as a part of humanity. We might also realize that forgiveness is deeply embedded in who we are -- that it’s a fundamental part of our truest nature. We are continually forgiven for all the ways we fall short -- we make a careless mistake while driving but don’t cause an accident; we hurt our partner, and our relationship is restored; we offend our friend, and they choose to forgive.

For some of us, this dimension of forgiveness will have religious or spiritual implications. Forgiveness is freely offered to us -- freely given -- and we can enter more fully in the flow of life by offering our forgiveness in turn.   

Extend forgiveness to yourself. For most of us, the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. We struggle to let go of the harm we’ve caused to others or the ways we’ve let ourselves down. We haven’t forgiven the years we were caught in the grip of addiction or the thousands of dollars we wasted in casinos, or the affair that devastated our family. And the less we’ve forgiven ourselves, the harder it will be to forgive others.  

Even when we say we’ve forgiven ourselves, we often hold onto self-resentment that eats away at our soul. True forgiveness requires wiping our own slate clean, willingly and generously, without any lingering residue, like deep cleaning a white board. We go beyond wiping the board with a dry eraser, leaving traces of what was written on it and an overall smudgy appearance. We bust out that special spray that came with our white board and wipe it with a lint-free cloth till it shines.

If you’re struggling to forgive others, search within yourself and see if self-forgiveness might be available. Offer yourself more grace and see what happens in your other relationships.

When to Forgive?

Forgiveness is a very personal decision, especially when we’ve been assaulted, abused, or otherwise seriously hurt by someone. I wouldn’t tell someone they ought to forgive, any more than I’d tell them they ought to love someone. And while there’s strong research evidence showing that forgiveness is good for us, it doesn’t happen on command.

If you’re ready to forgive -- or you want to be ready to forgive -- gently invite yourself toward it. Ask if now might be the time. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. There’s a time for everything, even to hate. Maybe today the answer is “no.” Maybe tomorrow it’s still “not yet.” And then one day, the resistance we kept encountering is surprisingly absent. We feel around inside ourselves and can’t find it anywhere.

We feel so much lighter, relieved of a burden that was no longer ours to carry. Far from feeling morally superior, we can’t believe our good fortune that forgiveness found us.  


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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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