Why should we forgive?

Because forgiveness has strong links to our wellbeing.

So why is it then that we often find it so hard to forgive?

It can be a really difficult thing to achieve. For many, it’s even hard to contemplate or attempt!

There are 5 main blockages to forgiveness.

  1. Firstly, forgiving is a really brave thing to do. We have to find the courage to actively let go of an upset even when there is every justification to hold on to it. That’s both big and brave!
  1. Secondly, there is a common misconception that forgiveness means turning the other cheek, or worse, to condone what was done. When someone has wronged us, the idea of condoning that behaviour may not only feel wrong, but can feel like we allowing someone else to take us for granted, treat us however they like and that we’re made a fool of. Forgiveness has nothing to do with condoning. It’s not about saying, yes it’s ok that you lied/cheated/hurt me. It’s a deliberate act of letting go of the hurt.
  1. The third obstacle is the religious connotation attached to forgiveness. This can of course be a real driver for many to actively practice forgiveness, but for the atheist or agnostic, this notion that forgiveness is a religious act can act as a barrier. Something they can’t or won’t relate to. Of course, this isn’t true. Forgiveness, much like gratitude, are practices that whilst they’ve been advocated within many religious traditions for thousands of years, they have never been ‘owned’ by a certain group and followers of specific beliefs, and indeed are increasingly linked empirically with general happiness and well being. Whatever beliefs or non-beliefs we subscribe to.
  1. Fourthly, forgiving can leave us feeling vulnerable to experiencing more upset and pain. This is of course true, however, we are vulnerable in all relationships. Allowing someone to get close to us only feels special and valuable, because we’re vulnerable.
  2. We don’t want the person in our life anymore and we assume forgiving them will have to mean allowing them back in. We can forgive our philandering partner or our unreliable friend and still end the relationships. The forgiveness is the active decision not to harbour ill feelings and hurt, resulting in a greater peace of mind that will benefit us. We can forgive and move on.

Some say there is no such thing as forgiveness, just poor or fading memories. Certainly, the reduced intensity of the memory and associated feelings will help us come to terms with what happened and move on, but simply forgetting isn’t the same as forgiving.

Because forgiveness is an act of will. It’s about deliberately letting go of animosity and ill will, involving an active process, rather than simply forgetting the hurt.

So why is it so important?

It is important from two perspectives – both a wider social and an individual one.

The social one is about the fact that it is essential to social stability. If we did not kiss and make up after every minor tiff, we’d all be stomping off in separate directions. ‘Team human’ depends on cooperation – it’s a key element to its success. In fact, researchers have observed signs of forgiveness in primates, suggesting that there is an evolutionary reason why it is a part of our make-up. In other words, it’s not just a human made concept – it’s something our world and society depends upon.

On a personal level, when someone hurts us deeply through a particular act (e.g. betraying us, hurting someone we love or a partner having an affair) many emotions are aroused. Principally fear and anger which come from the part of our brain called the amygdala. This is our flight-or-fight primitive brain. Whilst we do need to acknowledge our feelings and allow ourselves to feel angry, hurt and upset for a period of time, if we allow this to fester we can get stuck in this negative place. When we ruminate, or think about the hurt, the amygdala prompts the negative and painful emotions to be reproduced. It’s essential to let go of these feelings and actively forgive. The opposite is very harmful for our mental wellbeing.

How to let go?

  1. Give yourself an amount of time to just feel the pain. Don’t fight it and allow yourself to really wallow in it if you like! But will a deadline.
  1. If you find yourself ruminating after the deadline has past, realise that a lot of the painful feelings are now triggered by your amygdala in response to your own thoughts. It’s not the other person doing it to you anymore. It’s you!
  1. Accept that it happened. It can’t be undone!
  1. Don’t ask why. Demanding an explanation can be pointless as they may not know why they behaved that way themselves. Or if the person isn’t there to ask the question of (for example in case of suicide or death), the why questions will keep you prisoner. Let go of them and again, accept what has happened.
  1. When it’s about someone we chose to still have in our life, establish an agreed contract. Basically, one promises not to repeat their behaviour, while the other agrees to leave it in the past. There’ll always be trigger points that remind you of the pain – establish a way to discuss how you feel at those.
  1. Accept an apology. When you’re upset, you may suspect someone of faking their apology, or of just saying the words to get things back on track. Try to accept the apology – think of it as the crucial platform for further communication. Once they know you accept their regret is genuine, you can start to rebuild the relationship. This also reduces the risk of repeat offences.
  1. Accept the lack of an apology. When someone isn’t around anymore, or it’s a relationship we won’t be continuing, there may not be an apology at all. When we find it within ourselves to still let go, forgive and move on we’ll enjoy a greater peace of mind. When we don’t, the other person is in control.
  1. Accept vulnerability. As discussed previously, it can be very hard feeling vulnerable to future betrayal, as there’s no guarantee they won’t hurt you again. Vulnerability is key to intimacy and closeness so try to see it as a necessity towards mending the relationship. If you’re always wondering ‘what if?’, you won’t be able to get close again. Or get close with another person, may that be future partners or friends. Accept that there are never any guarantees of anyone behaving a certain way forever. Anyone might do something hurtful to us in the future. What is guaranteed is our own loneliness and feelings of isolation if we don’t allow that risk in our lives.

To finish, I share a quote by Gandhi that is so true:

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Give yourself a bit of time, and then be strong. For you!






The Business Case for Forgiveness