by Penny Steen

One of the most difficult things we all have to do is to forgive someone who has done us harm.  Whether it’s an investor who has swindled us; a boss who has taken credit for our work; a neighbour who has labeled our child “a bully”; a family member who has cut us out of the will, or a friend who has made a slighting remark, we all face the challenge of forgiving those who have trespassed against us.
We hear and read about people who forgiven terrible wrongs, and think: “I could never forgive the drunk driver who killed my spouse” or “I could never forgive someone who abused me as a child.”  And yet we are told, not only have these crimes been forgiven; but that the person who has been hurt has truly healed, and moved on to live a rich full life.
So how is it that they can forgive such monumental acts, and we can’t forgive someone who has lost some of our money or made a slighting remark?  What are these “forgivers” doing that’s different?

1. They admit they’ve been hurt.
They are willing to look past the anger that quickly took over the sense of hurt they felt when the incident took place.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the anger.  It can help get us through shocking situations; it creates a sense of saving face…if only with ourselves. It helps us feel powerful.  We feel like we’re getting even; and so we hold onto it and stoke it.  Over and over, we call to mind what the wrong-doer did.  We talk about it with others. It consumes our thinking. 
If we hold onto it too long, it becomes an avoidance tactic—we don’t want to think about the hurt; the shock we felt at the time of the incident because that makes us feel vulnerable.  But admitting we’ve been hurt is crucial.

2. They give the hurt back.
They aren’t interested in “getting back at”; they are interested in being “for” (in favour of) “giving” (handing the hurt back to the person who hurt them). 
Here’s one way to do it. Find a private place; put your hands in front of your chest or stomach—wherever you can feel that hurt residing—and let your hands sweep it out of you toward the person who dumped it there.  Picture it going inside them in a forceful river; or push it onto them with a big splash. Chose an image that works for you.  Keep doing it until you feel emptied. (You may think you’ll feel foolish doing the exercise, and therefore avoid it.  But it’s a powerful one and worthy of a momentary feeling discomfort.)

3. They own their part in it.
We dazzle ourselves with thoughts of getting rich, and hand over our money to thieves when they promise to make our dreams come true…then blame them when they make off with it.  We are aware of our boss’s ego, and the inclination to take credit for another’s work, and we make no identification on the work that is ours.  We know the bull-dog protectiveness of the parent down the street; the vindictive nature of a family member; and our friend’s tendency toward cutting remarks. We know all this, and yet are somehow surprised when the punch comes.
People who forgive know they have a responsibility in creating the situation—perhaps only a small one—but small or big, they own it.

4. They develop compassion for the wrongdoer.
One of the strongest techniques forgivers use is to put themselves in the other person’s shoes.  In doing so, they might see that their boss is terrified of losing his or her job, and is doing everything they can to shore up their credibility…even if it means “stealing” someone’s work.  They might even go further and imagine the boss as a young child with a bullying father…a father who believed that corporeal punishment (read beatings) should be metered out on a daily basis for even the smallest of infractions.  This is the reality this person woke up to every morning, and went to bed with every night.  Terrified?  Believe it…they still “live” it; it accompanies them in all their professional and personal interactions, and blinds them to the harm they do others.

5. They gather their courage and say “their words”.
People who are good at forgiving say this is still the most difficult step in the process. And there’s no denying it’s a hard one. A highly-respected colleague once said: “It used to take everything I had to screw up enough courage to go to the person who offended me, and say what had hurt or upset me until I realized it was just as hard for everyone else to screw up their courage.  Knowing it was just a matter of gumption made it a lot easier.
I also realized that in facing the situation sooner, I avoid that petty feeling I used to have when wanting to address it after too much time had gone by. Nowadays, I rarely get the comment: “Why didn’t you come to me with this before?” that used to leave me feeling so foolish.”
It’s a scary step for us to say “the words” but it beats carrying the ill feelings and resentment that poison our future relationship and negotiations with them. 
And if in return, we get an apology, that is just plain wonderful—but it’s not the deal-breaker. Someone’s refusal to offer one has nothing to do with the ability to forgive.  In fact, people who are good at forgiving even let it deepen their compassion for the other person…for the inability to say a simple: “I’m sorry” is the surest sign of a stunted soul. 
On the other hand, the ability to forgive is the truest sign of a great one.


  1. There is a great deal of Positive Psychology research showing that not only is forgiveness doing all of the above, but they are also benefitting psychologically, emotionally and physically from the action. People who have a strength in forgiving are lower in anger, anxiety, depression and hostility.

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