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How to forgive: a step-by-step process, part 1

How to forgive: a step-by-step process, part 1

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An unkind word. An overheard remark. A betrayal of trust or vows. Hurt is packaged in more ways than we can count. Looking for an escape from the pain we search for a compassionate ear, only to be told to “just forgive and move on.” It’s as if, by magic, all of the hurt should dissipate like dew in the morning sun. Right?

We’ve all been taught the concepts, heard the stories. One person crosses a threshold of what seems to be an overwhelming amount of inflicted pain to forgive and shake the hand of the individual who caused the pain. This is the “hero’s journey” that sooner or later we will all be called upon to make.

But is it easier for some people to forgive than others? In theory we all understand the commandment that we are to forgive everyone, whether or not we experience our idea of justice or even an apology. Most of us can grasp this idea on an experimental level, but sooner or later, on a practical level some of us may start scrambling for the loophole, confident that the commandment surely didn’t really mean everyone. What if it is just too hard? What if we just don’t know how to forgive?

Forgiveness means letting go of those negative feelings and thoughts that prevent us from healing and finding peace. This includes giving up anger, resentment, hate, revenge, bitterness and even a demand for justice.

For many people, the gulf between the hurt or anger of a betrayal and the peace of letting go seems insurmountable. Is there hope for someone struggling with the pain of unresolved hurt?

In part one of this two-part article, we’ll discuss the psychological reasoning of why forgiveness can be tricky for some. Part two will focus on proven tools that can facilitate this often difficult process.

What is forgiveness?

First, we need to understand what forgiveness really is.

“Forgiveness is relinquishment,” says Mark W. Muesse of “To relinquish something is to release whatever power it holds over us.” It is letting go of those negative feelings and thoughts that prevent us from healing and finding peace. This includes giving up anger, resentment, hate, revenge, bitterness and even a demand for justice. It is disarming the negative emotions associated with an event and no longer allowing them to determine our thoughts, words or actions. It’s finding peace and wishing the offender well no matter the state of a current relationship.

Forgiveness, however, is not forgetting, condoning, excusing the act or even reaching reconciliation. Probably the hardest part of forgiveness is respecting the agency or free will of the other party. We hope that by making the decision to forgive we will help the other person from repeating the mistake, but there are no guarantees of a change of heart on the part of the offending person.

Why must I forgive, and why is it so hard?

“Bitterness, anger and resentment involves so much emotional effort and commitment on a conscious and unconscious level, [that it] ties us up to where we can’t enjoy life; we can’t truly focus except on momentary issues," says Mary Lee Roberts, a licensed professional counselor based in Houston, Texas. "It becomes an obsession and hurts us physically. By not forgiving, we are choosing to preserve the pain associated with the memory.”


When we’ve forgiven, we can get rid of negative behaviors and allow love that has been blocked by those negative emotions. Forgiveness returns physical harmony and wellbeing.

“Forgiveness sets you free from the chains of emotional bondage of what others have done,” Roberts states.

It sounds logical enough. Then why is it so hard to forgive, to let go? Roberts lists four factors that may hinder this process.

  1. An addiction to anger. We may get a rush or a feeling of being alive — especially if life seems boring. Anger gives us “great stories to tell” by putting us in the spotlight or stirring up sympathy. It may be hard to give up some of these social “perks.”
  2. We are all hardwired to protect ourselves. Whenever we generate negative emotions — like anger or the desire for revenge — it gives us an illusion of protection: “As long as I am angry at you then I’m protected from you; you can’t hurt me. As long as I want bad things to happen to you, you can’t hurt me again,” Roberts explains. We have a fear of being vulnerable and of being hurt again.
  3. It may be hard to let go if we feel that somehow we deserved the hurt or betrayal. We may not want to accept any responsibility in the part we have played. “Then it becomes a struggle of inherent worth, of a worthiness to be loved,” Roberts says.
  4. We have not been taught how to forgive. We may have been raised in an environment where forgiveness was perceived as a weakness.
Whatever dynamics play into our situation or personality, there is hope.

“Anyone can learn to forgive,” Roberts insists. Sometimes all we need is a little guidance and a little practice.

Roberts believes that before any steps in forgiveness can be taken, a person must go through various stages of loss and grief.

“Whenever there is a need to forgive, a circumstance has taken place which has caused a loss (or even the fear of a loss) to occur: emotional, psychological, reputation, trust — anything.”

We are now ready for REACH. In part two we discuss this five-step tool developed by a renowned psychologist to aid people in this forgiveness process.

Ramona Siddoway is a freelance writer who has published articles in Belgium, Angola, and the United States. She currently resides with her husband in Houston, Texas. You can read more about forgiveness at

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