We all make mistakes. It’s part of human nature, and seeing as no one is perfect, it’s bound to happen one way or another.
So if that’s the case, why is it so hard for some of us to forgive someone else?
To help us learn several reasons why forgiving others can be so difficult, we asked experts to share their insights.
Table of Contents
- Forgiving someone is often very difficult because it means letting go
- We were told to “forgive and forget” but we can’t actually forget
- We wait for the other person to apologize
- We don’t think we should
- We are afraid
- We’re convinced things must be fair in life
- We believe that the person who hurt us deserves a punishment
- We feel that forgiving makes us vulnerable
- We sometimes mistake forgiving for forgetting
- When it comes to forgiveness, it’s hard to forgive someone else until we forgive ourselves
- We fear being hurt again or being taken advantage of
- We believe that we must have an apology, an explanation, or closure before we can begin to think about a transgression fading into our past
- We haven’t received an apology
- We think forgiveness means the offense was okay and has been justified
- We dwell on the hurt and joy-stealing emotions
- We relive the hurtful memory over and over again in our heads
- We are not convinced that the person who hurt us won’t do the offending act again
- We think the act was committed against us personally
- We fear that our forgiveness will be seen as a message that says ‘you can get away with this behavior’
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist | Transformational Therapist
Forgiving someone is often very difficult because it means letting go
Letting go of being heard. Letting go of being understood. Letting go of being loved or valued. It also may mean letting go of receiving a deserved apology.
Sometimes you must forgive without ever receiving what you need from the other person.
This means, not only are you left with the original hurt or the injury that requires the forgiving but with having to find your way forward when the other person involved won’t take responsibility.
If you can remember that forgiveness is a gift you give yourself, and not the other person, the process of forgiveness takes on an entirely new feeling.
The next time you find it difficult to forgive somebody, try going through this three-step process:
Identify what you do not want
Maybe you no longer want to be cheated on or verbally abused or taken advantage of financially. Maybe you no longer want to work for a boss who doesn’t respect you or be friends with someone who can’t appreciate you or belong to a community where your contributions are not valued. Whatever it is that you do not want, identify it.
Now, I want you to realize that knowing what you do not want is huge! How long have you put up with unwanted or unacceptable conditions? Most of us keep repeating the same patterns over and over again, for years.
So, if something has happened that allows you to feel strongly that you are ready to make a change about what you will not tolerate, be grateful. This is a big moment.
Identifying what you do want
Knowing with clarity what you don’t want allows you to expand into knowing more about what you do you want. You do want a partner who loves cherishes and respects you. You do want a job that pays what you are worth. You do want friendships that feel supportive and caring.
Step two can be fun! And, it can get you into the receptive mode. When you get excited about what you do want, journal about it, write a statement of clarity about it or fantasize and daydream about it. These actions super-charge your desire and increase your receptivity to the new conditions you are calling in.
When you start to feel happy and excited about what’s coming, you will find that it’s easier to forgive what happened in the past and let it go.
Cultivate feeling good
Step three is where you get out into nature, you do things that bring you happiness and you put yourself in a state of appreciation. Step three is where you become ready to receive that wonderful new life that you just imagined for yourself!
And if you’re paying attention, you’ll start to see signs that you’ve positioned yourself in exactly the place you need to be to live beyond any self-defeating pattern, relationship or condition.
After you have explored all three of these steps, you may find that forgiveness is no longer a question because you are now ready for more and more of what you do want.
In fact, you’ll find that you may even be grateful for the situation that allowed you to take this journey towards transformation. Enjoy!
Rob Magill, MA, ICAADC, CCPG, DOT-SAP, LPCTBHI
Certified Telebehavioral Health Practitioner, Magill Counseling
There are several reasons forgiving others can be so difficult.
We were told to “forgive and forget” but we can’t actually forget
Especially when we were really hurt. A lot. How can anyone forget that? And if forgetting is a part of forgiveness, who can forgive?
We wait for the other person to apologize
Forgiveness is about the one forgiving the other person. It isn’t a response to their apology.
We don’t think we should
There can be a lot of pressure – from friends, family, etc. – to not forgive someone. Especially if they had an affair, etc. But forgiveness isn’t our friends’ or family’s decision to make. If it seems amazing to them to forgive, good! Set an example of how to be a bigger person.
We are afraid
We were hurt by the other person. Why should we trust them until they show us they won’t hurt us again? Forgiveness doesn’t mean a lack of boundaries. It is possible to forgive someone but have very little to do with them until they do change their behavior.
It is important to remember that forgiveness isn’t about the other person changing their behavior. Or apologizing. Or, really, anything about the other person.
Forgiveness is about letting go of the hurt, pain, and need to be proven right. You can still maintain boundaries with the other person. So why not release yourself from not forgiving the other person?
Registered Clinical Counselor | Registered Psychotherapist | Director, Real Life Counseling
Who hasn’t heard the advice to ‘forgive and forget’? It’s so commonly given, but in reality, it’s easier said than done. Even though we may want to let go of the painful emotions and forgive, it really can feel like a big ask. Why is that so? Here are some beliefs that make forgiveness more difficult than it already is:
We’re convinced things must be fair in life
A sense of justice is culturally universal. Since we were kids, we were taught that things in life should be fair. And for the most part, it’s a good thing; it teaches us to be team players, good citizens, and kind human beings. It’s what makes our society thrive.
However, holding tight on this sense of fairness and demanding it from the world can hold us back when we experience unfortunate events in our life that we perceive as unfair.
One of these experiences is being hurt or offended by someone, especially when we did nothing wrong to ‘deserve it’. If we are convinced that things in life should and must be fair all the time, this situation of injustice brings imbalance to the world. It’s against the rules we constructed in our mind about how life works.
Our internal sense of justice goes against the idea of forgiveness; instead, our instinctive reaction is exactly the opposite – we feel the need to make things even. That is what makes forgiveness so hard – it’s contrary to our automatic reaction that comes from our deep belief of what’s fair.
We believe that the person who hurt us deserves a punishment
Withholding forgiveness is our way to reclaim a sense of power and control. We let ourselves be vulnerable enough to be hurt, and refusing to let go of anger and resentment can be our way to protect ourselves and somehow ‘hurt the other person back’ or ‘make them pay for what they did’ in hopes that will make us feel better.
Additionally, many people think that forgiving the person who hurt us means we’re letting them off the hook. However, the truth that many people don’t realize is that forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself, not to the person who hurt you.
As a famous quote says: “Refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Holding on to resentment and grudge is unhealthy. It is a drain for our emotional energy. By trying to punish the other person with your bitterness and anger, you ultimately hurt your own health and wellbeing. Letting go of the anger and bitterness is, actually, dropping your own burden.
We feel that forgiving makes us vulnerable
Anger often serves as a ‘shield’ that protects us from more painful emotions, such as grief, shame, or the feeling of abandonment. Letting go of it can make us feel temporarily exposed. However, in the long run, anger and resentment can blur our objective view on things and prevent us from learning and growing from the situation.
On the other hand, our decision to forgive puts us on the driver’s seat, freeing up space to let us focus on learning and adapting and improving our “protective strategy” in the future.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you are wise to choose to not hold onto the toxic emotions anymore. It takes a lot of power and strength to do that.
We sometimes mistake forgiving for forgetting
To forgive does not mean that you accept and agree with the behavior that hurt you. It does not mean to forget and move on as nothing happened. Forgiveness is about letting go of anger, bitterness, resentment, and the need for vengeance, and allowing yourself to process and heal the hurt.
Forgiveness doesn’t even have to include confronting the other person; they don’t even have to know if you let go or not. It’s about you, restoring your peace of mind and taking care of your wellbeing.
Sr. Negotiator | Mediator | Communications Expert, Compassionate Mediators
When it comes to forgiveness, it’s hard to forgive someone else until we forgive ourselves
Deep down, beyond the hurt we feel from “someone else,” is the hurt we feel about having betrayed ourselves or harmed ourselves in some way.
We don’t forgive ourselves for getting into that relationship, for taking that job, for not speaking up for ourselves, for not honoring ourselves, not respecting our time. We don’t forgive ourselves for all the times we’ve abandoned ourselves or withheld from ourselves.
If you want to truly forgive another, you must first forgive yourself.
And this is actually so much easier than we think it is. Bring to mind whatever role you played in the situation where you think someone else did something “unforgivable.” Then say to yourself, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Because that’s the truth.
Even events such as being sexually assaulted – it seemed like a good idea at the time to not fight the attacker. For whatever reason. It seemed like a good idea at the time to live.
Forgive yourself for making the choices you made because they truly did seem like a good idea at the time – or you wouldn’t have made that choice.
Does that mean you’ll always make that choice? No, often you’ll make a different choice, although sometimes you may make the same choice again. Why? Because it will seem like a good idea at the time.
One of my personal practices if I’m struggling to forgive someone is to recognize that the only thing I have to forgive is my perception of the situation and that person. “I forgive myself for ever thinking you were anything less than a perfect child of God”, as A Course in Miracles would say.
Relationship Therapist | Adjunct Professor of Counseling Psychology, Columbia University
We fear being hurt again or being taken advantage of
It is very hard to forgive someone who knowingly wronged you because they have proven they are capable of prioritizing their own wants ahead of your own.
The person has become a proven you-hurter, and it’s human nature to struggle to forgive when you wonder if the person might commit the wrongdoing once again and to also question if they haven’t fully had the philosophical shift required to properly care for you.
There is a hierarchy of wrongdoing, making it harder to forgive someone the worse their offense. No one likes to feel duped or made the fool by having been taken advantage of.
It can be hard to do the “forgetting” part of “forgive and forget” because the neural pathways that create the bad memories have already been established in our brains — and are so easy (and painful) to go back to.
Writer | Motivational Speaker | Life Design Coach | Founder, The Optimists Journal
Human beings are works in progress, so mistakes and forgiveness have always been part of our equation.
We believe that we must have an apology, an explanation, or closure before we can begin to think about a transgression fading into our past
We want that person who wronged us to be the one who also heals our wound. When we are in this place, what we haven’t yet realized is that forgiveness is a “heads I win, tails you lose” proposition that has very little to do with the perpetrator and everything to do with our own autonomy.
Forgiveness is for us so that we can live freely. It teaches us the depth of our strength and mercy that we can show another human.
Forgiveness happens in little moments, in realizing that we are all human, life is not perfect and that not one of us is defined by one choice that we have made in our lives.
Forgiveness is the only healthy way forward. Being free is so much more important than being right, forgiveness comes easier when we realize that fact. Although we can learn from these painful experiences, eventually, forgiving has a lot to do with letting go of the ways you believe you were wronged.
Use what you learned to set boundaries for next time, but know that most of the time, especially when it comes to matters of the heart, we hurt others from the place where we ourselves are hurting. That is not unique to a certain ‘type’ of person, it’s all of us.
If you have ever wished to be forgiven, put your own forgiveness out into the world to heal.
Stephanie Wijkstrom MS, LPC, NBCC
Psychotherapist | Founder, The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh
We haven’t received an apology
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who find it difficult to apologize. More and more, we embody our own grace by deciding to love and accept people despite their poor behavior and lack of accountability for it.
However, when people are the best versions of themselves, they do become accountable for their actions and they do try to see others’ perspectives and the ways that they may have hurt or disappointed another. When this happens, it is often easier to forgive.
Licensed Professional Counselor | Principal Therapist & Owner, Arcadian Counseling
We think forgiveness means the offense was okay and has been justified
It’s hard to forgive someone because many people misunderstand what forgiveness actually means. Many people mistakenly believe that forgiving someone means you are essentially saying the offense was “okay” or “justified” and you are “letting them off the hook.”
When in reality, forgiveness is about giving up your right to vengeful feelings or to harbor the offense. Forgiveness isn’t about forgetting and oftentimes, requires remembering.
Forgiveness is about accepting the offense and letting go of the painful emotions attached to the offense.
Writer, CompareAutoInsurance | Clinical Mental Health Counselor
Forgiveness is a gift – it is a gift we give and we receive. It is not always easy to forgive those who hurt you, and it’s humbling and often hard to ask for forgiveness. One of the things that I have learned is that forgiveness and forgetting are two entirely different things.
Forgiving someone is almost as important to you as it is to the one you are forgiving. It is good for mental health, relieving stress, and lowering anxiety levels. Forgiveness is a gift and, by definition, gifts are given without being asked and without expecting anything in return.
We dwell on the hurt and joy-stealing emotions
Depending on the level of hurt that you are forgiving, it may be one of the most difficult gifts you give. But just because you forgive someone for their trespasses, that doesn’t mean you should forget. Live and learn, and use the lesson for growth and reference as you progress through life. Don’t dwell on the hurt and joy-stealing emotions. Instead, choose to embrace life and embrace control over your feelings.
It is harder to forgive than to not forgive. It is harder to forget than to remember. But both are choices that will impact your life. Besides, the saying is true, the best revenge is being happy and not letting them get you down. If only it were that easy.
Sexuality and Relationship Coach | Owner, GreenAura Wellness, LLC
The saying goes, it is very hard to earn someone’s trust, yet very easy to lose it.
We relive the hurtful memory over and over again in our heads
When someone we care for hurts us, we go through a myriad of emotions, from sadness to anger and often resentment.
The longer we hold on to that memory, the more attached we become to it. The more we hold on to the anger, the easier it becomes to justify our feelings and actions.
Forgiveness comes from a place of understanding. When we are angry, we disconnect ourselves from the offender. We can be impulsive and we can become so focused on the pain that it becomes difficult to arrive at that place of understanding.
We are not convinced that the person who hurt us won’t do the offending act again
We hold on to the hurtful experiences and assume that if we forgive, we will be hurt again. It seems easier to put up a wall around our hearts and keep the person that hurt us at a distance.
It often feels that dealing with the situation in this manner is the safer option, however, guarding ourselves and being unable to forgive hurts both ourselves and the offender.
Forgiveness is not always easy, but it is healthy.
Forgiving someone helps us live in the present. It decreases stress and helps with depression and anxiety. Not forgiving someone can harm you more than it harms the offending person.
It can take a toll on both your emotional and physical well-being. While we may never forget that we were wronged, it is in our own best interest to forgive.
Mindset Coach | Founder, Utmost Performance, LLC
We think the act was committed against us personally
They believe that the person intentionally chose them as a target for the words or actions that caused harm. A lack of being able to forgive comes from an individual who has been hurt and can do nothing but focus on the wound inflicted upon them.
Tied to believing that they were targeted, the individual is lacking a deeper understanding of the person who wronged them. The event that hurt the individual was merely an outward reflection of what is going on in the person who hurt them.
Expressing empathy and looking to understand why the individual chose to act or speak to them a certain way would soften the depth of the wound inflicted.
Making your feelings of hurt, disappointment or anger known to the perpetrator would also move the healing process along that would hopefully end in forgiveness.
Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality | Relationship Expert, Maple Holistics
Sadly, we live in a society that instead of fixing that which is broken we simply get a new one, whether it’s a phone, TV, or even a relationship. Forgiveness does not mean in any way that the wrong that was done is to be condoned or ignored.
We fear that our forgiveness will be seen as a message that says ‘you can get away with this behavior’
Remember that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean you must forget.
It’s okay to be guarded after forgiveness in order to avoid repeated pain. Nevertheless, real forgiveness of the past is essential for our own growth and happiness, allowing us to live in a healthier present. Forgiveness allows us to choose happiness and wellbeing over holding on to anger.