Forgiveness is an important part of human relationships and overall wellbeing, but it does not always come easily for everyone. There are many complex reasons why certain people struggle to forgive others after being hurt or wronged. Understanding these reasons can help us have more empathy and patience for those who have difficulty letting go of pain from the past.
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the act of voluntarily giving up feelings of resentment or vengeance against someone for an offense or mistake they have made, and letting go of negative emotions associated with the event. It does not necessarily mean forgetting, condoning or excusing the offense.
Forgiveness can be considered on different levels:
- Decisional forgiveness – making a conscious choice to let go of bitterness and anger and not seek revenge.
- Emotional forgiveness – replacing negative emotions with more positive attitudes of compassion and empathy.
- Relational forgiveness – restoring trust and rebuilding a damaged relationship.
True forgiveness takes time and does not happen instantly. It can be an ongoing process of understanding, accepting, and healing.
Why is forgiveness difficult for some people?
There are a number of emotional, psychological and situational factors that can make forgiveness challenging. These include:
The severity of the offense
More severe transgressions that cause deep hurt often take longer to recover from. Crimes of abuse, betrayal, deception or violence can be extremely hard to move past. The greater the perceived wrong, the harder it is to let go.
Anger is a natural reaction to being harmed. If anger is suppressed rather than expressed in a healthy way, it can turn into resentment and become an obstacle to forgiving. Processing anger helps open the door to forgiveness.
When an offense seems unjust, a person may be unable to forgive until they feel the scales have been rebalanced. Forgiveness may have to wait until fair punishment, compensation or a genuine apology has occurred.
Still at risk of harm
If the offender remains a threat, has not changed their hurtful behavior, or the relationship is unsafe, a person may wisely refrain from forgiving in order to protect themselves from further harm.
Past unresolved hurts
Old emotional wounds from childhood or from prior unhealed betrayals can make a person more sensitive to new offenses. Past trauma predicts difficulty with forgiveness.
Lack of empathy for the offender
If someone lacks insight into why the offender behaved as they did, they may be unable to empathize with their situation. This makes it harder to let go of anger.
Pride and the need to be right
Letting go of anger and judgment requires humility. Admitting wrongdoing or that one may have overreacted takes courage. Pride can stand in the way.
Seeing the world in polarized categories of “all good” and “all bad” leaves no room for understanding mistakes, nuance and growth. This rigidity makes forgiveness unlikely.
Believing the offense was unforgivable
Sometimes we decide that certain acts are so heinous that the perpetrator can never be worthy of forgiveness. This mindset severely hampers the process.
Some personality types struggle more with forgiveness. Narcissism, neuroticism, hostility, distrust of others, perfectionism and the need for structure are all traits that correlate with forgiveness difficulty.
Why is forgiveness important?
Though letting go of bitterness often requires time and effort, forgiveness offers many benefits:
- Improved mental health – Less anxiety, depression, stress and hostility.
- Better physical health – Lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms, reduced risk of disease.
- Stronger relationships – Renewal of trust, intimacy and communication with the offender and others.
- Personal growth – Learning empathy, humility and resilience. Breaking negative cycles.
- Peace of mind – Replacing negative thoughts and feelings with positive ones of compassion.
In short, forgiveness allows us to heal, let go of burdens from the past, and open our hearts to give and receive love again. It is an act of courage and maturity, benefiting both the forgiver and the forgiven.
Steps to work towards forgiveness
Forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply is challenging. It does not mean excusing their actions. Here are some steps to help if you have a sincere desire to forgive:
- Allow yourself to feel the hurt and express your emotions – Don’t minimize or deny the pain. Admit it and let it out through writing, talking to a friend or therapist, crying, screaming into a pillow. Suppressed emotions get stuck inside you.
- Gain perspective – Try to understand the context, reasons and insecurities that may have caused this person to act in hurtful ways. See the bigger picture.
- Release the urge for vengeance – Revenge escalates cycles of harm. It won’t undo the hurt. Accept that it will not make you feel better.
- Practice empathy – Think about times you made mistakes that hurt others. How would you want to be forgiven? You shared humanity.
- Write a letter – One you don’t send. Get out all your feelings and then burn or shred it. This symbolic act can help purge emotions.
- Accept an apology – If one is offered sincerely, appreciate it and acknowledge the growth. If no apology comes, release the need for one.
- Release the negativity – Rituals like meditation, prayer, therapy can help let go of rumination. Negativity only breeds more. Fill your mind with positive thoughts.
- Make meaning from suffering – Find lessons, wisdom and growth that came from the pain. See how you have changed. Help others who suffer.
- Move forward – You can’t change the past but you do control your future. Invest your energy into creating what you want ahead.
With patience, intention and support, many people can find their way to letting go of past hurts through forgiveness. The freedom and lightness it brings is worth the effort.
When is forgiveness not advised?
While forgiveness is often held as an ideal, there are situations where it may be unwise or unsafe:
- The offense is still ongoing and continuing – Forgiveness under continued abuse enables more abuse.
- The abuser is unaffected and unrepentant – Forgiveness without changed behavior removes consequences.
- The victim would be revictimized – Some offenses cause trauma requiring extensive therapy before forgiveness can be considered.
- It goes against moral principles – Some acts are potentially unforgivable if they compromise what you value most.
- The risk of repeated harm is high – If trust cannot be re-established, offering forgiveness may be risky.
- The offender has not apologized or shown remorse – Forgiveness may prevent potential learning, growth and reparation.
- Self-respect and values would be compromised – Do what is right for you; know your limits and boundaries.
Ultimately, each situation is unique. Forgiveness should come from a place of empowerment, not weakness. Victims should never feel pressured to forgive. Some hurts may simply be too much to overcome or excuse.
Forgiveness is an individual choice based on a complex range of factors. For some people, letting go provides healing and freedom. For others, moving on without forgiving is the healthiest option. Do what feels right for you. Give yourself time to work through any process. Seek support if needed. Know that however you find your way to peace, it is the right path for you.