WhiteStepsSmallHave you ever felt this way? "I'm having a hard time forgiving. I know I should - but I don't really know where to start." Such feelings are very common, particularly among those who are feeling troubled or distressed in some way.

Such individuals feel the heavy weight of unforgiven offenses. These hurts continue to bring pain long after the original offenses took place - sometimes years or even decades after. Old resentments often breed ongoing problems with trust, closeness, and security in relationships. They can interfere with sleep, contribute to depression, and trigger physical health issues. They can get in the way of promising new relationships - because of deep suspicions and fears born of old hurts.

Learning to forgive is one of the most important lessons in life. Some people struggle with forgiving other people they have felt hurt by. Others find it difficult to forgive themselves of old mistakes and weaknesses. Some really struggle with forgiving God - feeling He has forgotten them, or abandoned them, or deprived them of something they valued highly. Forgiving oneself and others is an essential ingredient for a serene and happy life. Some simple steps can help get you started on this important journey:

Step One: Recognize the Need to Forgive.

Step Two: Identify What Exactly Needs to Be Forgiven.

Step Three: Consider "Intent Versus Impact."

Step Four (When Needed) : Understand and Prevent Intentional Harm.

Step Five: Find Ways to Let it Go : Verbally, Physically, and Spiritually

Step Six: Move On with Joy

Step One: Recognize the Need to Forgive.

When someone has hurt you, it's natural to think that it is their responsibility to set things right. Sometimes they do make efforts in that direction. But most often, they are either unaware that they have offended you, or they defend themselves with excuses as to why they believe their behavior was justified. Either way, if you are waiting for them to resolve the hurt they created for you, you will likely remain stuck and frustrated. You remain trapped in the impact of their hurtful and unrepaired behavior. This is not in your best interest - especially longterm.

Recognize that you should forgive not because the offender needs or deserves it - but because you need and deserve the relief of letting that old heartache go. Most often, those you need to forgive will be completely unaware of your desire or struggle to forgive them. This may remain a very private battle for you, within the quiet reaches of your own heart. It is important for you to forgive - not necessarily to release those who hurt you, but to release yourself from the pain of hurtful experiences that otherwise can continue to get in the way of your own happiness and peace.

Step Two: Identify What Exactly Needs to Be Forgiven.

You can't forgive effectively unless you clearly recognize what it is that you're forgiving. Sometimes it is helpful to develop a timeline of events that you feel have hurt you. This is not to "wallow" in your misery, but rather to identify the specific task before you - like looking over a messy kitchen before you dive into washing the dishes and sweeping the floor. Who do you feel has hurt you? When and how often did it happen? What impact did it have in your life and your feelings? Such questions will help to "define the agenda" for your forgiveness efforts.

You can do this "identification work" in several different ways. One the simplest ways is to simply write or type it out. You might use a "list" format, identifying people you've felt hurt by, and the particular events that were involved in this hurt - recording these elements with bullet points in a vertical list format. Or you might develop an actual "timeline," drawing out a horizontal line representing your life, and indicating relevant events in chronological order. You may want to identify not only the events themselves, but also the impact those events had on you and others.

Another strategy is to talk it out with someone you trust. This might be a close friend, family member, or even God. If you are dealing with particularly painful issues, it may be a good idea to involve a professional counselor in this identification work, so that person can be on hand to help you heal these hurts after identifying them.

As you do this work, remember that identifying hurts is never an end in itself. You must move on to the other steps to resolve identified hurts, rather than just focusing on the hurt itself - otherwise, the wounds may fester rather than heal.

It can also be helpful during this "identification stage" to also identify positives in your life, rather than just the negatives. If you're doing a horizontal timeline, for example, you might plot hurtful experiences "below the line," and positive, uplifting experiences above the line. Creating a chronology of the good things in your life, besides the painful things, can leave you with a more balanced, hopeful perspective that can greatly facilitate the healing process.

Step Three: Consider "Intent Versus Impact."

Most of the circumstances we experience as hurtful were never intended to be so. We all have "filters" that affect how we interpret words, events, and body language that we are exposed to in our relationships. Very often, our personal filters may create an impact of pain for us, though the actions of the other person may have been intended kindly. This is extremely common in dealing with personality differences, gender differences, and background differences. An action intended kindly from one person may be perceived as threatening, demeaning, or even devastating by the other person. Consider, for example:

  • A husband who comes home later than expected after completing a pressing project at work. His intent: "I am being a good and diligent provider for my family, to provide for their needs - even though it's challenging at times." Impact on his wife: "He loves that job of his more than he loves me and the kids. I'm so sick of coming second. If he loves being gone so much, maybe we shouldn't even be married."
  • A wife who says no to her husband's romantic advances after a long day caring for the kids: Her intent: "I love you too much to just go through the motions. I am so tired right now that all I feel capable of doing is just dropping off to sleep. Maybe this weekend we can find some time to be together, when we're both more relaxed and rested." Impact on him: "She rejects me all the time. I guess I'm just not important to her any more. After all, she has the kids now. Guess there's no point in trying any more - she just doesn't want to be close to me at all."
  • A dedicated father correcting a child's misbehavior: His intent: "It's my responsibility to teach my child how to behave while he's young. If he doesn't learn this lesson now, he'll face much bigger consequences for this behavior later, in the real world." Impact on the child: "Dad is such a jerk. He's always trying to control me and tell me what to do. Why should I listen to someone who hates me and doesn't ever trust me?"
  • "Negative filters" are a very common feature in human perception - but never more than when someone is depressed. One of the major features of depression is that people broadly interpret neutral or even positive experiences in a negative way. So "forgiveness" is almost invariably an issue for those who struggle with depression, as many experiences may have felt hurtful to them (passing through their negative filters) that were never intended to be negative.

But certainly, even non-depressed people have their vulnerabilities and their filters. The vast majority of the time, events that require forgiveness were never intended to be hurtful. Even some of the most damaging and destructive behaviors (such as substance abuse, suicidal behavior, viewing pornography, or even infidelity) are typically not directly intended to harm others. Rather, they are generally intended as ways (however misguided) to cope with overwhelming stress or emotional pain.

Obviously, such actions only add (unintentionally) to the cycle of pain for that individual and those close to them - which is generally not recognized till after the fact (sometimes long after.) Recognizing the non-malicious intent of people you feel have harmed you can greatly help the healing process - and often helps repair relationships that have become strained by such misunderstandings and hurtful events.

Step Four (When Needed) : Understand and Prevent Intentional Harm

While most offenses are unintentional, every so often an offense is very directly intended, planned for - even premeditated. Criminal offenses, domestic violence, terrorism, child abuse, and bullying are among these kinds of "intentional harm" experiences. It is important to recognize that such offenses are never carried out by healthy, self-confident, mentally well individuals. Most often, perpetrators of such intentional harm need psychological treatment and sometimes legal intervention - not just forgiveness. Otherwise, the cycle of pain is likely to continue - both for them, and for those they intentionally harm.

Those who harm others intentionally are often acting out old unresolved pain in themselves. Very frequently, they were abused or bullied as children - and are now moving from "victim" to "victimizer" in an attempt to feel more powerful. These issues do not go away by being quietly "forgiven" by those harmed. When someone is caught in a web of old pain, one abusive episode is never enough to satisfy them - for one simple reason: Hurting someone else does nothing to ease your own hurt. It does nothing to resolve the original pain experience. So such individuals often move from victim to victim, from offense to offense - until the cycle is directly faced and broken, and the original pain is finally dealt with.

Some victims of such offenses wonder - how can I simultaneously forgive my offender, and turn him in to the authorities for treatment and legal consequences? When the cycle is understood, the course is more clear. You must forgive the offender, for your own peace and wellbeing. And, when the offense is serious, you must help stop the cycle of pain - for the offender, and for other potential victims. These seemingly opposite actions are part of the same healing package.

At times, intentional offense occurs in a less serious, but still damaging context. It may not reach the level of clearcut "domestic violence" or "child abuse," for example. But it is not uncommon for someone who feels offended by an "intent vs. impact" offense to retaliate in a very intentional way: "The only way I can tell you how much you've hurt me is to hurt you back." This is particularly common in marriage. A spouse may feel neglected, discounted, or disrespected by an unintentional offense - and then strike back with hurtful words or actions intended to create pain. Sometimes such spouses will feel "The only way I can ever get your attention is to get mad at you." There are better answers to such dilemmas - they involve creating positive connections, rather than negative connections. (See the "Marriage" section of this site's Bookstore for some excellent resources on building a stronger positive connection in marriage. Books by Sue Johnson and John Gottman are particularly helpful.)

Fortunately, intentional offenses are relatively rare. Most hurtful experiences really are of the "intent versus impact" variety: well-meaning people doing the best they can, from their own limited frame of reference, with unintended hurtful consequences. It is important to recognize the difference, and to respond accordingly, in carrying out the forgiveness process.

Step Five: Find Ways to Let it Go : Verbally, Physically, and Spiritually

Verbal "Letting go:" For many people, simply writing or talking out the hurtful experiences helps to release the poison of old pain. In ongoing relationships, such as marriage, talking openly to clarify "intent versus impact" helps to restore mutual understanding and trust, and opens the door for each partner to make more educated, effective choices in the future. Sharing the hurtful experience with a trusted confidante, such as a counselor or church leader, provides significant relief to some. Writing out the pain helps increase objectivity and emotional release. In one form or another, releasing private internal pain through verbal expression is an important beginning for most people.

Physical "Letting go:" Sometimes talking or writing about it just isn't enough. In such cases, a physical release can also be important. It might be as simple as a good long cry - or screaming your old pain into your pillow or into an open field, and then walking away from it. Very often, it can be helpful to plan a symbolic release of some kind. Physically letting go of something can often be amazingly powerful in helping you to emotionally let go of it. This could be something like:

  • tying written notes about your old pain to helium balloons; releasing them; and watching them fly away.
  • collecting old dead flowers or leaves (each one representing an old offense), and tossing them one at a time into a white water stream, or out an open car window as you drive - watching them float or blow away.
  • tossing something representing your old pain into a dumpster or garbage can in an area that is symbolic for you, then walking away and leaving it there.
  • taking an old dead leaf, tearing it up (each piece representing a specific offense) - then blowing those pieces away or burying them under a tree, where they will decompose and then nourish new life.
  • Be creative. Develop a plan that is meaningful to you, in physically "letting go" of some kind of representation of your old pain. Carry it out. Then, if you have a memory of that old pain, remind yourself "I already let go of that," and remember the place and circumstances in which you physically released that pain. You may have to do this more than once, if the offense was serious, or if there are lots of pieces to your pain.

Spiritual "Letting Go": Some people also benefit from beliefs or rituals that allow for spiritual release. Alcoholics Anonymous reminds its members "Let go, and let God." Some meditate, releasing their cares through intensive and appreciative focus on that which is good. Many Christians find comfort through their belief in a compassionate Savior who bore their sorrows, carried their griefs, took on himself the sins of all mankind, and has risen above all these afflictions to invite those who follow him to higher, holier ground. Some religions provide symbolic physical rituals for cleansing and redemption (such as baptism or sacrament) that can offer a spiritual vehicle for old pain being washed away.

In the forgiveness process, many people find it helpful to tap into several or all of these "letting go" strategies. In cases of serious longterm abuse or other offense, the work needs to be handled gently, gradually, with great sensitivity and compassion, over the process of time. Real forgiveness - particularly of serious offenses - cannot be forced, and cannot be rushed. It happens a stage at a time, a level at a time.

Step Six: Move On with Joy

This final step is the driving force behind the whole forgiveness process. Old baggage is left behind - old pain is explored, resolved, and set aside - precisely so the individual can move on in life with joy and satisfaction. Relationships become more positive, close, and understanding; mood is brighter and more hopeful; spirituality deepens, physical health improves. Memories of painful past events are now linked with positive memories of healing those events, and letting them go. Children are raised in health and happiness, without destructive cycles from the past being replayed and passed on to future generations.

Forgiveness is a journey, not an event. It can be a long and challenging journey, with many inroads and hidden pathways. But it is a journey well worth pursuing - step by step, a little at a time, over the process of time.


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