10 Lessons On Forgiveness & How to Forgive
Updated: May 8
As an abstract construct that only exists in the minds and bodies of humans, forgiveness is hard to understand. You hear about it your entire childhood and deal with it your whole life.
I’ve had a lot of experience with forgiveness because I’m human. I’ve been hurt a lot – some people have said sorry, others haven’t; some people I forgave quickly, others I’m still forgiving. I’ve hurt others too – I frequently apologize and seek forgiveness, out loud or in my mind. I’m always working on forgiving myself too.
What is Forgiveness?
To me, forgiveness is an ongoing act of love where you feel your pain and choose to release blame and anger for harm done to free yourself from suffering.
10 Lessons on Forgiveness
Of the many lessons I’ve learned, here are a few I find particularly helpful in understanding and practicing forgiveness:
1. You forgive because you love.
When you forgive from a place of kindness and as an act of love for yourself or others, it is deeply meaningful. But do you ever notice how quickly the words “I forgive you” can roll off your tongue without contemplation and without provoking any feeling?
If you forgive someone because you feel compelled to from obligation, command, duty, or habit, it can feel empty. Unforgiveness can feel tense, heavy, or tight. Forgiving because you are a caring human being enhances feelings of love within you, in a perceptible way – you might notice sensations of calm, relaxation, lightness, fullness, or openness.
2. Forgiveness is a choice that is only yours to make.
You do not have to immediately forgive someone who apologizes to you. If you ever feel pressured to say you forgive someone – pause. Be mindful. Be intentional. Forgiveness is a choice that deserves thoughtfulness, and it’s okay to take time with that choice. You might say “Thank you for apologizing. I need more time to sit with this before I am ready to forgive you.”
You also do not need another person to say sorry, be sorry, or show remorse for you to forgive them. You can make the choice to forgive someone all on your own.
3. When you forgive, you release the emotional debt you feel is owed.
When we feel wronged, we naturally desire justice and often assign responsibility for repairing the harm caused to that person. This makes sense, especially in the case of physical or material harm. But often we carry emotional injury that we wish the person would either know, feel, or resolve.
As adults, however, we are responsible for our own beings, including repairing our emotional wounds. It sucks and it’s not fair, but other people cannot erase your pain or take it away. You can heal yourself. Forgiving someone and releasing the emotional debt you feel they owe can help you regain the power and agency you need to heal.
4. Forgiveness is letting go of blame and suffering.
When you have already lost so much and need to stay in control, it can be protective to wear pain as armor, ensuring you won’t get hurt again. Blame and pain are powerful defenders that teach us to be on guard, keep our walls up, constantly remember the dangers, and be careful with our trust.
You can learn to protect yourself in other, less painful ways. When you forgive, you are not forgetting. You do not become weak, foolish, blind, or reckless. You give yourself permission to think and act from a place of compassion and consideration. You can even be more aware of signs of threat when you aren’t constantly in a state of danger and pain.
5. Not forgiving is exhausting.
It can be awful carrying around the hurt – in your thoughts, feelings, body, memory, and sleep. Maybe you rehearse, replay, relive, daydream, wish revenge, feel overwhelmed, hold grudges, gossip, stonewall, punish, or criticize. Sometimes you have no control over when your reactions come or how they show up. It can feel exhausting and powerless.
Maybe you don’t want to forgive, don’t know how to forgive, or can’t seem to forgive when you try. Sometimes you can’t even forgive yourself for things you’ve done. The burden of blame and shame is heavy, lonely, and tiring.
6. When you forgive, you release anger.
Forgiving doesn't mean you stop hurting. It doesn’t mean you forget or stop pursuing justice where it’s due. It doesn’t mean you don’t care – sometimes “I don’t care” is another way of saying “I can’t tolerate the feeling of caring”.
Forgiveness means you when you think of the person or problem, you feel hurt that isn’t raging angry. Anger is a powerful emotion that can motivate us to seek justice, but long term, hanging on to it can cause more stress, harm, and pain.
7. Staying forgiving is hard.
Sometimes you say “I forgive you” but reminders and triggers still make you feel angry or owed. Sometimes you get new information, change your mind, the feelings come back, or something shifts. Forgiveness is not a yes/no and done answer - it’s a lifelong kind of question.
You will be given plenty of opportunities in your life to forgive and forgive again. As you learn more about yourself and your relationships, you might even find out about or realize past hurts long after they happened. The choice to forgive remains whether it’s been a day, a year, or a decade.
8. Processing frustration and forgiveness can help you.
The challenges you have faced are not often easy to experience, but processing difficult memories and emotions can help you grow and become a better, happier human.
You might explore your pain with thinking, talking, writing, art, music, dance, or movement. When you process in a safe enough way, you can bring the experience into your awareness, allow it to move through your mind and body, feel the emotions as they are, regulate your thoughts and beliefs, and express them in a healthy way.
By processing the frustration, you make space for forgiveness and the endless possibilities that follow when you can move forward with more freedom.
9. Forgiving isn’t meant to be done on your own.
One of the hardest things about forgiving someone is that we often don’t know how to first understand or communicate the pain we feel. Usually, we feel shame, that we are bad for being harmed or angry. When you are hurting, it is natural to seek connection and support. Sometimes you don’t know how to do this or who to do it with, without getting more angry or more hurt.
When you can learn to share your individual pain and grief with other safe people, you can mourn together the losses you have endured. We are social, relational beings – when we support each other to feel the pain, we can then release blame and shame from our minds, bodies, and collective spaces. You might find it helpful to ask for help from a partner, friend, community, social group, or therapist.
10. You can create your own process of forgiveness.
If there is someone you want to forgive, you can create your own process of forgiveness. Take inspiration from your intuition, your past experiences, your community, and social resources. What will help you forgive?
You can write, draw, paint, speak, or find a song to sing or dance with to express forgiveness, then share your grief and letting go with someone you trust.
How to Forgive
In my lifelong journey of forgiveness, I have found a couple of helpful processes for how to forgive:
1. Say It Out Loud
Whether you are alone, with another person, or with the person who has hurt you, there is power in speaking the words of forgiveness aloud. It can be as simple as:
“I forgive you”
“_____, I forgive you”
“I forgive you for _____”
“I choose to forgive you”
You can say it once or many times. You can add context if it’s helpful, speaking from the “I” and from your feelings. Any emotion you feel is valid, real, and okay. If you can’t say the words, that’s okay, you might need to spend some more time processing the pain.
2. A Letter of Forgiveness
You can write your own letter of forgiveness, as little or as much as you need. You might just write “I forgive you” with the person’s name. After you write it, you might like to rip it into pieces or burn it. Here’s one letter of forgiveness I wrote:
I want to be free of the pain I’m suffering.
I’m so tired of this weight I’m carrying.
I wish I could forget how you trapped me in my fear,
but I’m still stuck remembering and feeling my reactions to your actions.
You were human, harmed and hurting – passing your pain onto me.
It’s not my fault those wounds became my responsibility.
It never should have happened.
I was powerless to stop it, frozen in my own skin.
I couldn’t flee or hide or fight or stand or move or feel or be me.
I have always been strong – I did the best my body could.
I survived how I was taught and resisted with my defensive parts.
I protected traces of me you could never erase.
I’m imperfect and I’m worthy.
I have the power to make a choice now.
I can put down the blame laid on me and let go of the blame I claimed.
I can unwind the anger from my DNA and release my shame from guarding me.
I am okay. People are okay. The world is okay.
I can trust in healing communities to bring light and peace.
I can love and be loved.
I am free.
I hope you’re sorry.
I forgive you.
3. Ho’oponopono Healing Prayer
Ho’oponopono is a Hawaiian prayer and ritual of forgiveness and ‘making good’ that has been shortened into a simple mantra:
I am sorry
Please forgive me
I love you
The prayer incorporates repentance, forgiveness, gratitude, and love. It encourages self-responsibility for everything in your life that you have participated in or been affected by. It can be offered for self or others, alone or together. You can write the prayer, repeat it as a mantra in your mind, or listen to meditations and songs.
I participated in a community activity where we were encouraged to say each line in pairs to different people. When I felt safe and connected with the person across from me, I was finally able to say all four lines out loud with incredible peace and joy.
Later, on my own, when offering forgiveness to someone specific, I found comfort in saying the person’s name, repeating the prayer (with a slight modification) and listening to this song while I allowed my mind to remember and release different experiences when I felt hurt:
I forgive you
I love you
You can do this activity solo, and you can also share these words with someone with whom you are seeking reconciliation, adding context to each line.
You do not need to communicate forgiveness to people that are not healthy or kind to you. Whatever you choose to do, make it your own process – safe and meaningful for you.
1. Caroline Myss: A Conscious Confession
On Oprah’s Super Soul Special: Caroline Myss: Myths and Truths About Healing, Caroline suggests healing can only happen with the soul.
At the end of the episode, Caroline guides folks through an exercise in remembering, imagining a memory or a feeling of someone you can’t forgive, and picturing them coming up to you and saying:
“I need to speak with you. I need to tell you something. I consciously knew what I was doing. I consciously knew it. And I have to call it something else. I sinned against you. It was a sin. I heard my conscience tell me not to do this, and I didn’t listen. And it didn’t matter to me. I know my actions redirected the course of your life. It was conscious. That was a sin because it was conscious. And how much it hurt you did not stop me. This is not a booboo, this is not an apology. I am confessing my soul to you and I’m asking now for your forgiveness.”
Is there someone you want to forgive?
We are all somewhere in the process of forgiveness with different people and situations in our lives including ourselves – whether we are unaware, open, unknowing, ambivalent, forgiving, or unforgiving. You can be more aware of what you believe now about forgiveness, have more control over shaping what you want to believe, and become more intentional about how you want to proceed.
Carol is a mother, psychologist, and the founder of Therapy Alberta, a private group practice with local psychologists, social workers, and counsellors offering individual, couples, and family counselling and therapy in Calgary and across Alberta.