It feels uncomfortable to me when someone says, “Will you forgive me?” In most cases, you pretty much have me at the look in your eye. If you’re big enough to show up to talk about it: we’re good. It’s over. Let’s move on!
It’s different for everyone, I know. In fact, Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages also published a book on the languages of apologies. He realized that, as with love languages, different people experience forgiveness in different ways. For some people, the exchange of words is important. For others, it might be seeing a change in actions, or someone taking full responsibility vs. making excuses.
It’s hard enough to give and receive forgiveness when BOTH parties are committed to the process. But, how do you forgive when no one’s asking for it?
- How do you forgive someone who has never acknowledged the harm they’ve done?
- How do you forgive yourself for something you’ve done or a mistake you’ve made?
Below are some guidelines for both of these categories. As you read, please remember: forgiveness is often not a one-time event. It’s a process that takes thought and intention, discernment and self-awareness.
It’s one of the most important muscles you can develop. It’s powerful, and for that very reason: it’s incredibly important to pace yourself. Forgiveness involves heart, mind, and soul buy-in.
How to forgive someone who hasn’t acknowledged the harm they’ve done
As much as words aren’t my primary language of apology, there are a few instances where I’ve longed to hear an “I’m sorry.” It’s not because I want you to grovel. It’s because something you did caused harm. It left shards in me that have taken time, effort, and work to dislodge. I want to hear those words, because it would help us both heal more completely. It would be good for you to see your blind spot. And it would be good for me to know you see me and understand how your actions hurt.
Unfortunately, we don’t always get to work through a rupture directly with the person who has hurt us. And yet, we still have to heal the slivers (or daggers) that have entered into our hearts. In those cases, we forgive because it’s good for US.
1.) Before you even consider the process of forgiveness, ensure you are safe and far removed from the hurtful behavior.
Forgiveness does not mean you that you don’t change how you interact with the person. In fact, you might need to remove yourself entirely from a relationship before you can even begin to process the idea of forgiveness.
–You can forgive someone AND maintain healthy distance.
–You can forgive someone AND have firm boundaries.
–You can forgive someone AND let consequences play themselves out.
2.) Once you’ve established a healthy distance, notice the feelings that are inside of YOU.
Forgiveness is as much about what goes on inside of you as it is about the other person. It’s about acknowledging and releasing anger, resentment, hostility, and pain. But don’t rush the “releasing” part. First, really take the time to work through and heal the hurting parts of you:
–What emotions surface when you think of the person?
–Can you extend compassion to those feelings? Do you understand them and why they’re there?
–Do you have a safe person, friend, or counselor who has witnessed the experience of pain WITH you?
3.) As you tend to your own heartache, it’s then that you can being to release the resentment, anger and pain you’ve carried.
You may never again be in the same kind of relationships with this person. But YOU will be FREE.
How to forgive yourself
In some cases, it might be YOU that needs forgiveness. In this case, the problem is that you have to figure out how to ask for—and receive—forgiveness from yourself.
If you’ve heard the MercyMe song, “Dear Younger Me“, it’s a great example of extending grace to yourself. I have to admit that this song doesn’t quite reflect how I talk to myself. 😬 In fact, I interact with myself more like an exasperated, albeit loving, parent: “What was wrong with you? Why couldn’t you get this through your thick skull?” I’m working on it. Regardless, here are some steps to work through if you’re struggling to forgive yourself.
1.) Get clarity on true guilt vs. false guilt
Are you mad at yourself for something you actually did wrong? Or are you condemning yourself for something that is not your fault? It’s an important distinction, so take some time to notice.
–Is there a concrete thing you did that you can name? If so, name it. Get clear.
–OR, are you mad at a younger version of yourself for what she did not (and could not) know?
2.) Consider the both-and approach.
If you’re struggling to forgive yourself for something you did wrong, consider the possibility of both forgiving yourself AND trying to change:
—You can forgive yourself AND acknowledge your wrong.
—You can forgive yourself AND try to grow and change.
—You can forgive yourself AND hold space in your heart for sorrow (without beating yourself up).
—You can forgive yourself AND move forward with confidence. In fact, truly forgiving yourself is giving yourself a shot at a fresh start.
3.) If you’re struggling to forgive things you did long ago, imagine that younger version of yourself with compassion.
Recognize that he or she did not have all the benefit of hindsight that you have now. You might consider that younger version of you as child of your own. Would you hold over their head stupid mistakes that they made? Or would you invite them in, and say, “it’s OK. It’s over. Let’s learn from those mistakes and move forward together. I’m here with you now.”
While my posture of “forgiveness” toward my younger self doesn’t come out in a nice tender lyric, it does come out in my actions. It goes something like this: “I’m going to show you how to do it better now that we know more. I can’t make up for the past. But I can do it differently now. I’m going to work hard to apply new skills we’ve learned. I see how in many ways you did your best, because parts of you just weren’t on-line yet. But I’m here now. Come join me. Let’s try again. We just might get it right this time.”
Forgiving yourself is about inviting that younger version of yourself into your here and now. Instead of exiling yourself with hostility, it’s about extending a hand of grace, an invitation to a new way of moving forward.
Extending forgiveness—whether toward yourself or others—is *not* weak or passive, nor does it make you a doormat. In fact, wholehearted forgiveness, when it’s done well, demonstrates tremendous power and strength. Forgiveness is intimately connected to the heart of God’s character. It’s woven into the process of healing, growth, and transformation. When you experience a glimpse of authentic forgiveness, you’re on holy ground.
No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame. —Psalm 25