Mindfulness tools like therapy, journaling and meditating have all become popularized in recent years because, at the end of the day, we all want to be better versions of ourselves. We’re told that the pillars of self-improvement are love, gratitude and forgiveness. However, it’s this last pillar that can sometimes be difficult to master.

Letting go of the little things isn’t all that difficult; it’s forgiving what you can’t forget that can challenge your tolerance. While it’s certainly easier said than done, it isn’t a totally impossible feat. Let’s take a deep dive into the journey of forgiving what you can’t forget.

What Is Forgiveness?

Apologizing and forgiving are principles that have been taught to us since early in our adolescence. However, they certainly take new shape within adulthood when offenses can hold more dire consequences.

Licensed therapist and author of “Anger Management Essentials,” Anita Avedian notes the distinction between forgiving and forgetting, sharing, “They say, ‘forgive and forget,’ but this is a false narrative since true forgiveness is not about forgetting. Instead, forgiveness is about being able to remember the hurt, but not live through it over and over again. It is about being able to be around the source of the pain and not be triggered by it because we have moved on. Forgetting is not forgiveness, because it leaves us at risk of the offense occurring again. Forgiveness is about growth, not stagnation. It is about moving forward, not being stuck. It is about the future, not the past.”

As the most important member of your own team, it’s crucial that you protect your worth. This means not letting yourself bypass disrespect in the name of peace. According to Avedian, forgiveness is not:

  • Getting over the situation quickly
  • Keeping a record of all wrongdoing merely to use it in the next argument
  • Ignoring, justifying, or dismissing bad behavior
  • Evening the score or fantasizing about ways to get back at the offender 
  • Condoning or excusing mistreatment and acting as if it never happened
  • Accepting bad behavior from people under the guise of “that’s just who they are”
  • Forgetting or not addressing our feelings when being treated unfairly
  • Letting the person who hurt us have a pass because they apologize 

The Benefits of Forgiveness

When it comes to true, heart-centered forgiveness, there’s scientific evidence to back the benefits. From lowered risk of heart attack, anxiety, depression, and stress, to improved cholesterol levels and sleep, the healing that accompanies forgiveness is why the action is ultimately more for you than the other party. The weight off your shoulders lends itself to a monumental sense of relief.

You’ll notice an improvement in all of your relationships, as forgiveness promotes empathy and understanding, which are crucial for building deep, genuine, and meaningful relationships. Similarly, being able to forgive is a sign of emotional strength and resilience, leading to a deeper understanding of yourself and bringing a sense of inner peace and balance. 

If you’re ready to embark on a journey of forgiving what you can’t forget, Avedian walks us through the four phases of forgiveness, broken down into simple bites for even the most stubborn hearts or deeply rooted wounds.

First Phase of Forgiveness: Acknowledgement

It’s important to first acknowledge that you are in pain and be willing to let go of the resentment due to the offense. If you don’t give yourself permission to forgive, the next phases cannot be completed. Are you ready to let go? 

Second Phase of Forgiveness: Letting Go

Before letting go, it’s important to understand what is holding you back from forgiving; otherwise, you may find yourself stuck in phase one. Take the time to ask yourself, “Why am I holding onto certain thoughts and behaviors?” Here are some of the reasons why you may hold on to resentment, the obstacle we face when forgiving: 

You Are Upset

It’s inherently difficult to forgive someone with whom we are angry. One of the main reasons why people get angry is because certain expectations have been violated. If you are injured in any way, you instinctively disconnect from the person who harmed you to protect yourself and your feelings from any further threat. 

The Offender Does Not Seem Worthy

Once you’ve been hurt by someone, depending on the significance of the relationship, you may feel that the offender is not worthy of your forgiveness right away. Furthermore, you don’t want to condone hurtful behavior, so you may refrain from immediate reconciliation. 

You Don’t Want To Let Your Offender Go Unpunished

It’s upsetting when your offender doesn’t recognize how their actions have impacted you. If they go unpunished, it’s unsettling, as they may repeat the offense. It’s natural to want justice and know that they were punished for their “bad behavior.” You also want to feel acknowledged and validated, serving as fuel to hold onto your resentments. 

No Apology, No Closure

The power of an apology may go unrecognized but is felt deeply when it is withheld. For many, closure is rooted in an apology — there is no possibility of forgiveness if there is no proof of remorse for hurtful actions. 

Third Phase of Forgiveness: Compassion

In this phase, you need to find the compassion to forgive. Compassion creates a foundation of trust and openness to allow for forgiveness to take place. No matter where you are in the process of forgiveness, compassion is necessary. Begin with the understanding that we all make mistakes. You, too, may have once misjudged or acted out of fear and ended up hurting someone. 

As you begin to grow in compassion, the struggle you may feel with forgiveness will decrease. Compassion also soothes us when we are faced with the possibility of forgiveness when closure has not happened. Forgiveness and compassion build your tolerance to distress and ultimately benefit the relationships you form. The key to forgiveness is learning to manifest compassion as a lifestyle.

Fourth Phase of Forgiveness: Release

Release it. Remember: forgiving does not need to mean forgetting — it means that you are able to move past the anger and pain you’ve been holding onto, which can be a liberating feeling. In order to forgive, we must take tangible steps and commit to processing and releasing our feelings. This is beneficial but requires consistency to change. Ask yourself which of the following ways do you forgive:

1. I forgive you, but I will definitely treat you differently 

2. I forgive you and let go of the offense 

3. I forgive you upon the condition that you change 

If All Else Fails

At the end of the day, you deserve the peace that accompanies forgiving what you can’t forget. If moving through these four phases still leaves you holding onto resentment, licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Cynthia Shaw offers these last checkpoints:

Are there things left unsaid: Sometimes we hold on to an experience and struggle to forgive when we haven’t had the chance to truly share how an event or an individual affected us. It can be helpful to process the event with either a trusted individual, a trained professional, or with the person the incident occurred. Typically, we are looking for validation and a space to be heard and understood. 

Looking at the entire picture: Recognizing the entire picture means taking a step back and examining the experience more objectively. Are there pieces of the situation that we may have missed? Was there a misunderstanding? In a similar vein, are there alternative qualities of the person in whom we are struggling to forgive? While they may have made us feel X, do they not also harbor kindness and sincerity? Taking a moment to identify additional aspects of the situation or additional qualities of the person we may be struggling to forgive can help in loosening the reins. 

Giving the benefit of the doubt: If we are choosing to forgive someone or something and accept what has happened, giving someone the benefit of the doubt can aid in shifting the narrative. For example, while this person made me feel X, they did not intend to make me feel that way. When we give the benefit of the doubt, we are choosing to understand alternative perspectives and hear another’s point of view. 

Identifying other memories: When a memory is difficult to forget, it can be helpful to create new memories with either the person we are trying to forgive or about a situation that has occurred. For example, if we caught our partner cheating, but are choosing to work through our relationship, is there a way to create new memories with this person? 

Being patient: It’s okay to struggle in your efforts to forgive. Being patient can help in the process of forgiveness. The process is not something that should be forced, but something that should be processed and worked through.