Express YourselfIn contemplating how to forgive someone, it may or may not help to express your feelings to the other person. If the relationship is important to you and you would like to maintain it, it may be very useful for you to tell the other person -- in non-threatening language -- how their actions affected you (see this article on conflict resolution for tips). If the person is no longer in your life, if you want to cut off the relationship, or if you have reason to believe that things will get much worse if you address the situation directly, you may want to just write a letter and tear it up (or burn it) and move on. It still may help to put your feelings into words as part of letting go. People don’t need to know that you’ve forgiven them; forgiveness is more for you than for the other person.
Look For the PositiveJournaling about a situation where you were hurt or wronged can help you process what happened and move on; however, the way you write about it and what you choose to focus on can make all the difference in how easy it becomes to forgive. Research shows that journaling about the benefits you’ve gotten from a negative situation -- rather than focusing on the emotions you have surrounding the event, or writing about something unrelated -- can actually help you to forgive and move on more easily. (Read this piece for more on that forgiveness research.) So pick up a pen and start journaling about the silver lining next time you find someone raining on your parade, or keep an ongoing gratitude journal and forgive a little every day.
Cultivate EmpathyWhile you don’t have to agree with what the other person did to you, when working on how to forgive, it often helps to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Research has shown that empathy, particularly with men, is associated with forgiveness, and can make the process easier. Instead of seeing them as ‘the enemy,’ try to understand the factors that they were dealing with. Were they going through a particularly difficult time in their lives? Have you ever made similar mistakes? Try to remember the other person’s good qualities, assume that their motives were not to purposely cause you pain (unless you have clear indicators otherwise), and you may find it easier to forgive.
Protect Yourself and Move OnOne of my favorite clichés is: ‘First time, shame on you; second time, shame on me.' Sometimes it’s difficult to forgive if you feel that forgiveness leaves you open to the future repeats of same negative treatment. It’s important to understand that forgiveness is not the same as condoning the offending action, and it’s OK (and sometimes vital) to include self-protective plans for the future as part of your forgiveness process. For example, if you have a co-worker who continually steals your ideas, belittles you in front of the group, or gossips about you, such ongoing negative behavior can be difficult to forgive. In fact, blanket forgiveness of someone who is continually hurting you isn’t necessarily a good idea for your emotional health anyway. However, if you make a plan to address the behavior with human resources, move to another department, or switch jobs to get out of the negative situation, letting go of your anger and trying to forgive will bring the benefits of forgiveness without opening you up to further abuse. You don’t need to hold a grudge in order to protect yourself.
Get Help If You Need ItSometimes it can be difficult to forget about the past and forgive, particularly if the offending acts were ongoing or traumatic. If you’re still having difficulty knowing how to forgive someone who’s wronged you in a significant way, you may have better success working with a therapist who can help you work through your feelings on a deeper level and personally support you through the process.
When you’ve been hurt, figuring out how to forgive can be difficult. These strategies should be helpful in your journey of letting go and releasing the stress of the past. (See this article for more on the benefits of forgiveness, and scroll down for more resources.)
McCullough ME, Root LM, Cohen AD. Writing about the benefits of an interpersonal transgression facilitates forgiveness. Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology, October, 2006.
Toussaint L, Webb JR. Gender differences in the relationship between empathy and forgiveness. Journal of Social Psychology December, 2005.