Why We Struggle to Embrace Forgiveness

Written by on October 16, 2015 in Emotional Mastery, Personal Accountability with 44 Comments

The Struggle to Forgive A friend betrays a confidence. A coworker undermines you with your boss. A neighbor borrows your car and returns it damaged without a word of apology. A trusted peer demeans your work to a mutual client. You had a fight with your overbearing sister-in-law and now your brother is giving you the silent treatment. Your husband has an affair.

To live is to accumulate experiences that bruise, irritate and throb, and occasionally leave permanent wounds. Over the years we warehouse an endless stockpile of resentments and develop an assortment of coping strategies: the silent treatment, denial, and forgetting, dissociating, and subtle (or not so subtle) forms of retribution. All of which enable us to avoid forgiveness, which is far more difficult work for most than the avoidance laden responses we choose to rely on.

How do you forgive someone when every fiber of your being resists? How do you look at them lovingly when you still have the memory of their unloving action? How do you let go of the way you wish things had worked out if only they had made a different choice? ~Author Unknown

Forgiveness as an Ideal

We admire and praise the virtues of forgiveness, the ability to forgive and forget and to freely let go of anger, resentment and the desire for revenge toward a person who has wronged or betrayed us in some way. And research has shown time and again that the act of forgiveness not only symbolically lifts a burden off our shoulders but can reward us physically with lower stress levels, a healthier heart, higher pain tolerance, lower blood pressure and even an extended life.

However, as with all lofty concepts, the actual act of forgiving is honored more in principle than in reality. The fact is that no matter how many “helpful tips” we’re presented, we already pretty much know what we need to do to embrace forgiveness; we just don’t want to do it.

To move beyond that barrier requires identifying your core attitude – the “why” behind the reason you struggle to forgive. Fortunately, this is not as difficult as you might imagine because chances are that if you take the time to think of a few examples in the past where you’ve faced the choice of whether or not to forgive you’ll find one of the following patterns will emerge.

Why it’s So Hard to Give Each Other a Break

Human behavior suggests that it is in our nature to retaliate when we have been hurt by another person. Our pride or self-esteem is injured. Our expectations end in disappointment, and dreams are shattered. We’ve lost a piece of ourselves and we feel we rightfully deserve compensation for the damages.

As if this weren’t enough, there are a few other compelling factors which block our motivation to forgive.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution means that in our effort to understand the behavior of others we tend to focus on their personality and disposition rather than external circumstances. On the other hand, when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we are more likely to do just the opposite.

An example would be if we get called into work at the last minute on our day off to cover for a coworker and in our emotional state we forget about a hair appointment we had scheduled. We know that the situation we find ourselves in is not the result of our character, but our circumstances and so we regret the oversight but give ourselves a pass. But if our hairdresser no shows for an appointment we make a judgment on what led to the event based on assumptions about their personality and behavior … the inconsiderate jerk. Overcoming this tendency requires breaking the habit of making assumptions about others and whenever possible choosing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

The “It’s All About Me” Effect

Taking things personally is something that we all know we shouldn’t do, but that few of us are capable of suppressing. Logically we know that in the vast majority of missteps are not personal, and yet – whether good or bad – the tendency for most of us is to assume that things are all about us.

For instance, take a situation where you find out that a group of your friends went on a night out and didn’t invite you. It’s your choice whether to put it down to a misunderstanding or to nothing, or you can get upset and end up alienating your friends and reducing your chances of getting invited next time – or ever again. Of course, the former response is the healthier of the two, but it’s just so darn tempting to override good sense for the short-term satisfaction of making a point.

Our Old Nemesis: Fear

Our inherent survival instinct reminds us that if we forgive, we risk a repeat performance and the next time could be far worse. As if this weren’t bad enough this form of fear has a way of spilling over into other relationships. Anytime someone shows the slightest similarity, either in person or behavior, to the offending party your defenses go up even higher in an effort to prevent being hurt again.

The Pay-Off

We may not like to admit it but self-righteousness indignation can be very gratifying. Our refusal to forgive becomes a part of who we are. Initially, it’s our pass into the “victim” club and in time we assume the role of one who is standing firm and “true to his or her convictions” and take pride in our constancy of character, paying little heed to the impact of our performance on ourselves or others .

What it Takes to Forgive

Once you have a basic understanding of the motivation behind your resistance triggers you will be in a far better place to follow through on the steps to learn how to process forgiveness. But first, it’s worth taking a moment to become clear about what forgiveness is not because most of us hold at least a few misconceptions.

Forgiveness is Not Reconciliation: Although reconciliation may follow forgiveness, it is possible to forgive without reestablishing or continuing the relationship. The person you forgive may be deceased or no longer part of your life. You may also choose not to reconcile, perhaps because you believe a relationship with the other person is not healthy for you.

Forgiveness is Not Forgetting: Forgiveness is not about denying or suppressing feelings or your past. It’s when you can remember the wrong that was done without feeling resentment or a desire to pursue revenge.

Forgiveness is Neither Condoning or Excusing: Forgiveness does not minimize, justify, or excuse the wrong that was done. The harsh truth is that sometimes even good people do bad things, and we may find ourselves on the receiving end of that behavior. You can forgive someone and still take healthy steps to protect yourself, including choosing not to continue the relationship.

Anyone can hold a grudge, but it takes a person with character to forgive. When you forgive, you release yourself from a painful burden. Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened was okay, and it doesn’t mean that person should still be welcome in your life. It just means you have made peace with the pain, and are ready to let it go. ~Doe Zantamata

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you must choose whether or not to forgive set aside some time to be alone with your thoughts. Then, keeping in mind your resistance triggers, take your time working through the following four steps.

Think About the Behavior That Angered or Hurt You

Accept that it happened, how it made you feel and how you reacted. In order to get to forgiveness, you need to first acknowledge the reality of what occurred and how you were affected.

Look for the Lesson

What did the incident teach you? Every experience changes us in some way and you have the power to choose how you will perceive that change. For example, maybe you learned something about yourself, your needs or boundaries that you can use to improve your overall life satisfaction in the future.

Try on the Other Person’s Shoes

As human beings, we are all flawed and sometimes we will disappoint each other. We can never truly know the full extent of another person’s burdens and while this is not an excuse to give others the green light to stomp on your feelings, it is a reminder that from time to time we all deserve the benefit of the doubt. When you were hurt, maybe the other person was dealing with a problem or hurt of their own and ignorant about the effect they were having on you.

Express Your Forgiveness

This is – as they say – where the rubber meets the road. If you are unable (or unwilling) to express forgiveness directly, then do it on your own. Write it down in your journal or say the words – “I forgive you” – out loud, adding as little or as much explanation as you feel is merited.

Forgiveness puts the final seal on what happened that hurt you. You will still remember what happened, but you will no longer be bound by it. By working through your feelings and learning what you need to do to strengthen your boundaries and having your needs met you will be far better able to take care of yourself in the future. Forgiving the other person is a wonderful way to honor yourself. It frees you from the burden of lugging around hurt and resentment and affirms to the universe that you deserve to be happy.

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living  click here.

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44 Reader Comments

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  1. sherill

    Forgiveness is easier said than done, specially if we can still feel the pain inside and I totally agree that it takes a person with character to forgive and release yourself from a painful burden”. Thanks for sharing a very helpful post. Beautifully written and I love it. :)
    sherill recently posted…The #1 Thing They Didn’t Tell You About The Law of AttractionMy Profile

    • You are so right Noah, but I think the issue that you’ve highlighted so well is that at least part of the reason it’s so hard is we direct all our energy and emotions on the pain caused by the other person instead of focusing on healing ourselves. There are some actions that can never be condoned under any circumstances, but that’s not what forgiveness is about. The bottom line is it’s about survival and reclaiming our life and ultimately choosing not to forgive causes us more pain that to forgive and move on. That shift in thinking can change our entire reality. Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation!

  2. Marga Retha

    Knowing how beneficial it is to forgive others who have harmed us, why do we find it near impossible to forgive ourselves for past mistakes and failure? Forgiveness should start with ourselves.
    Marga Retha recently posted…What is Equine-assisted Psychotherapy?My Profile

    • Very good point, and yet it is true that it’s often much harder to forgive ourselves. Every mistake we make is a lesson learned that helps us to grow and make better choices in the future. Thanks so much for stopping by and contributing to the conversation!

  3. We can all relate with this post. I agree with your statement that we all know what it takes to forgive but some are not willing. I have learnt in life that we forgive someone, not to excuse their behaviour, but for our own sake. Thanks for sharing this post, it really hit home with me.

  4. Donna Merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    What a great way to explain forgiveness. You covered many aspects of someone else’s behavior, and also our own reactions when it comes to this topic so well.

    I will forgive, but not forget. When forgiving another, there is an inner peace that comes. If we hold on to things, it just is like carrying a heavy load and it just doesn’t sit well with me.

    Forgiving my ex was the best feeling of all. But I cannot afford to forget the lengths he is capable of to be abusive. I can have a conversation with him after many years, but need to laugh off his crazy comments.

    Donna Merrill recently posted…What’s Your ROI?My Profile

    • Even though we never actually knew each other back in the day, you and I share so much similar history and your reference to your ‘Ex’ surely falls into that category. People who knew us both during the dark days can’t understand how I was able to forgive but it freed me to move forward and that changed my life for the better in so many ways. Thanks so much for sharing and contributing to the conversation Donna!

  5. Dana

    This is a topic I think many of us can relate to.

    I know it was easy enough for me to continue to replay the hurt and anger I had felt toward those who hurt me in one way or another.

    Eventually, I realized that while I was so busy judging them, I was perfectly capable of hurting others as well, even though I had never meant to.

    That, in and of itself was an eye opener for me.

    Eventually I realized that hatred is heavy. And not only that, but when we live in a state of anger, it’s almost impossible NOT to find reasons to be upset with others, over anything and everything.

    Whatever our default position is, we find evidence to support it, even when we don’t think we’re looking.

    I agree that we can forgive others without giving them permission to be in our lives, and of course, not forgetting what had taken place.

    It’s the simple act of breaking the chains that bind us to the person and the circumstances. It’s easier to do this when we can remember to be the observer of our lives, and to use our emotions as the tools to help guide us in our actions – toward ourselves, and others.

    We all do the best we can with whatever we have to work with at any given time.

    I know how grateful I am to those who have forgiven me for my own asinine behavior in the past. I feel much lighter since I have given this back to those who have hurt me as well.
    Dana recently posted…Are We Allowing Our Past to Create Our Lives?My Profile

  6. Marquita — I think when someone does something that hurts your feelings, you’ve got to have the courage to say, “You hurt my feelings when you…..” Do it as close to the event as possible. The offender may not even be aware she said or did something hurtful. Clearing the air as quickly as possible can help get the event behind both of you and move on with the relationship.
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…I Picked My Doctor’s and Hairdresser’s Names Out of a HatMy Profile

    • Excellent point Jeannette – it’s true that more often that we may realize the ‘other’ person doesn’t even realize how they hurt us so all the more important to speak up. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation!

  7. Jeri

    I have mostly been able to forgive my ex for literally abandoning me in the worst of ways because I know keeping that bitter energy within myself would only spur me on with negative emotion. That being said, with that forgiveness comes no desire to ever welcome him back to my life in any sustainable way. The hurt is just to much, tough as I let it go, it has lessened.
    Jeri recently posted…#Podcast: Blondie & the BritMy Profile

    • Well said Jeri and that’s why I included in the article that forgiveness is NOT reconciliation. People will disappoint us and sometimes in the worst possible ways. My sister-in-law’s husband walked out on her 2 months before the birth of their first child with nothing more than a “I changed my mind, I really don’t want the responsibility of all this.” Now THAT is just about as low as someone can go, but we somehow manage to recover. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation.

  8. Kimba

    Forgiveness is a BIG obstacle for moi. Your recommendation to “try on the other person’s shoes” has helped me to achieve forgiveness in some circumstances. However, I find that in some situations, when I think I’ve reached forgiveness, the old hurts can surface when I least expect. Letting go of old wounds is indeed tough.
    Kimba recently posted…Stray Dogs & Ugly PumpkinsMy Profile

    • There is no question it is tough to let go Kimba, but ultimately you have to ask yourself what you are gaining by hanging on? It certainly isn’t hurting the other person – that would be like taking poison and expecting someone else to kick the bucket. The only person it hurts is you – which is the whole point of embracing forgiveness. Keep working on it! Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation.

  9. Stella Chiu

    Hi, Marquita
    It takes a great effort to forgive people because it is not our nature to born with. Forgiveness may take as a form of weakness. Our pride and ego got into ways. Yet we must put forgiveness as our priority not for the sake of person who offended us but for the sake of ourselves (this is the only time where and when the “self center” principle is working at its best).

    The result of Forgiveness is huge – you get your freedom back ie you are no longer bonded by the past events that you can’t change. It may surprise a lot of people, many illnessess, including cancers are result of um-forgiveness. Even many cancers or other illness occur among children can be disappeared from the acts of forgiveness of their parents to relatives, friends, etc
    Thanks for your post.
    – Stella Chiu
    Stella Chiu recently posted…Forgiveness is the Ultimate Key for the Healing of CancerMy Profile

  10. I have read and heard so much lately about the topic of forgiveness, yet, your post is the best I’ve seen. My tendency has been to make myself forget people who hurt me, as opposed to forgiving them. I do understand that forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, and that often, we must forgive ourselves for things that happen, before we can forgive another. I truly do believe in looking for the listen and that there is value in all that occurs if we are open to receive it. My favorite quote is , “Forgo forgiveness in lieu of understanding.” Neale Donald Walsch. This resonates strongly with me because if you can come to an understanding about someone or something, forgiveness can become unnecessary and we can all benefit from greater understanding.

    • Wonderful quotation Michele. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I’m glad that you found value in my article. I know a lot has been written about the subject of forgiveness and yet so many people continue to struggle with it.

  11. William Rusho

    I believe in forgiveness, and also to forget. I am not taking about forgetting the dead they did, but those who did it.
    We forgive those who are close enough to be forgiven, the ones who did something wrong, but we know they did not mean it, or it was out of anger.
    We should forgive the others, those that hurt us on purpose, or out of selfish needs. But these people should be forgotten, They will repeat their actions, for that is their nature and you should not have them in your lives.

  12. Another perfectly timed post in my life today! I actually have an important person in my life whom I have needed to truly & deeply forgive for the last year. Although our relationship has moved passed the incident in many ways, I know that my heart is still not clear of it.
    You made really good points and I know part of my problem is that I don’t want him to think his behavior was okay just because I say out loud, I forgive you. That is pure stubbornness on my part.
    Thanks for inspiring me (again). I will write out my forgiving words and practice them and then have this crucial conversation.
    Rose M Griffith recently posted…Loving Hawaii…Sunsets, Fresh Fruits, BeachesMy Profile

  13. Dave

    I’ve been on a little digital retreat that has been revitalizing, in many different ways. I think I need to do it more often, or perhaps make it a part of my daily life in some capacity. But, I digress. It’s also good to be back :-)

    You are always able to bring a fresh perspective to words I have heard before, but have never fully comprehended. You’ve helped me to see what forgiveness is, and more importantly, what forgiveness isn’t, which may be just as important.

    It’s a breath of fresh air when you realize that forgiveness is not reconciliation, forgetting, or condoning. It is a way for you to release the tension inside so that you are able to move on with your life, whether you choose to keep the person involved inside your circle, or outside of it. Ironically, the only rational way to make that decision in the first place is through the act of forgiveness.

    When you come to the realization that forgiveness is truly for yourself, and not the other party, it becomes an empowering course of action. Thanks Marty, as always, for your always motivating and thought-provoking words :-)
    Dave recently posted…BewitchedMy Profile

  14. Lenle

    Marquita, I once read somewhere that you forgive someone, not to excuse their behaviour, but for your own sake. What you wrote here about basically says the same thing. You don’t have to like what was done to you, you just have to forgive the other person – not the act.
    Nice to have a clear explanation of what forgiveness entails.
    Lenle recently posted…Wine Making – Just For FunMy Profile

  15. The power thing really hit me… to give someone that power of you? Well I’d have a hard time forgiving myself for that. But this is perfect, it really shows what forgiveness is and that it doesn’t mean what they did or didn’t do is okay. Excellent post!
    Jacqueline Gum recently posted…A Break For Where’s The JusticeMy Profile

  16. Erica says:

    It always shocks me when someone lends someone else something so valuable as their car. An acquaintance friend once asked me if she could borrow my car when she was in from out of town asked me to borrow my car and I just looked at her like she was crazy.

    And yes, none of us are perfect. It is important to let go of others being perfect and everything being about us. Personally, if I keep finding myself being let down byt the same person, I just move on. Nothing personal but I don’t have time for those who aren’t a positive addition to my life.
    Erica recently posted…How to Lose Belly Fat – Fact vs. FictionMy Profile

  17. Beth Niebuhr

    Those are pretty nasty things to forgive that you listed at the top of the article! And then I read about people who forgave the person who committed a mass murder such as the one in the church in Washington DC not so long ago and I wonder how they can. Your article takes the mystery out of that. The fact that they can then put it behind them is key.
    Beth Niebuhr recently posted…Blog Post IdeasMy Profile

    • Glad you found value in my article Beth. Your example of the murders in DC is spot on and I used to wonder about how people could forgive someone for killing their child, but it happens and while I get it and have managed to forgive quite a lot in my life, I’m human enough to admit that would take some serious work on my part. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Phoenicia

    Your article really hit home with me. I agree with your statement that we all know what it takes to forgive but some are not willing. Forgiveness is far more about us than the other person. As you say forgiving someone means they no longer have a hold over you. You are free to move on, to love again.

    I have struggled with betrayal but have decided to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have enough love to give. I will however walk away on realising that I am being unappreciated.

    • Well said Phoenicia and your point about walking away is why I outlined the most common misconceptions about forgiveness. Thanks so much for sharing and contributing to the conversation. :-)

  19. We are holding back because we are afraid to get hurt again, as usual. Forgiveness is easier said than done. I am a believer that the hurt does not define us but a whole part of our healing.
    Mahal Hudson recently posted…Good life…does it exist?My Profile

    • I think most things we resist are easier said than done Mahal. You referenced the point I made in my article about how we hold back for fear of being hurt again … and that is a choice. Can it possibly be more difficult to forgive someone who has hurt your feelings or betrayed you in some way than a mother forgiving the murderer of her child? And yet is happens all the time. I can’t say it often enough we can’t always choose the circumstances of our life, be we can ALWAYS choose our response and reactions to those circumstances. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation!

  20. Mark

    What an eye opener Marquita!

    And I really like where you shared and explained under the “What it takes to forgive” section, that, “forgiveness is not reconciliation.”

    That is a great distinction and one that could easily be confused with the other!

    And I also love where you share how learning to forgive puts the final seal on what happened that may have temporarily hurt you!

    What a wonderful and extremely helpful post,as usual M! Thanks so much for sharing it!
    Mark recently posted…How And Why You Definitely Should Be Using Email Marketing Especially If You Hate To Write!My Profile

    • Glad you liked the article Mark! It is SO true, there are many misconceptions about forgiveness and the most persistent is that it’s giving the offender a “pass” but that is not at all true, and neither do I believe in the “forget” part that is so often quoted. Everything that happens to you – for better or worse – is contributing to the person you are so why would you want to deny anything about yourself? We may not have the power over all of the events in our life, but we absolutely have power over how we choose to view and respond to them. :-) Thanks for contributing to the conversation my friend.

  21. Suzie Cheel

    I love how when I come to your blog the words almost always resonate with something else I have read or written and today I read an Oprah quote on forgiveness: Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different, it’s accepting the past for what it was, and using this moment and this time to help yourself move forward.
    Why I love The Journey work by Brandon Bays is the process really for me has shown me a way to fully forgive.
    Thank you you fill my heart with joy xxoo
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…The Business Oracle Card Brings a Clear MessageMy Profile

  22. I think more people would be able to forgive if they understood it doesn’t mean what the other person did was okay, or even that the person has to be welcome in his life. Those are two of the biggest objections I hear.

    Forgiveness is key, because it is the only way to be free from the burden of what’s happened.
    Willena Flewelling recently posted…Little Robbie’s Big DayMy Profile

    • Well said Willena. The challenge is being willing to lower the barriers so that we can learn to understand what forgiveness is and isn’t. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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