How To Forgive Someone

You don’t have to forgive someone, but you gain so many benefits if you do. In this article, I teach you how to practice forgiveness. It doesn’t matter whether you need to forgive the world, yourself, or another person.

By Ed Latimore Last modified

You don’t have to forgive someone, but you gain tremendous peace of mind if you do. If you learn how forgiveness works, then you’re on the path to forgiving the world, your enemies, and yourself.

People more easily hold grudges than forgive trespasses against them. It’s cathartic and feels correct to carry malice towards an individual who wronged you.

This is because most people don’t understand the process of forgiveness. They don’t know what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not:

  • A truce
  • A friendship with the one who wronged you
  • Letting the anger subside
  • Getting even
  • Letting go
  • Forgetting what happened

Forgiveness is also not a substitute for justice.

In learning how to forgive, remember that criminals still have to take responsibility for their actions. Let’s start by discussing why you can still forgive someone while still punishing them.

This is the biggest point of confusion most people have about forgiveness. Before we go any further, it’s important to understand:

It’s not impossible to do both. In fact, it’s absolutely essential.

(Read: “5 Lessons From Growing Up In The Ghetto”)

Why Justice And Forgiveness Are Both Necessary

Many people erroneously believe that forgiving someone means that the perpetrator won’t have to answer for their crimes. Not only is this incorrect, but it’s also likely to get you seriously hurt.

Justice maintains order in the world. Forgiveness maintains order in your soul.

The function of justice is to deter those who would cause harm. Think of it as a way to balance the books.

When you cause harm to another without provocation, you are taking from the world. You are causing someone to experience a lack of resources, relationships, or safety.

In fact, the meaning of the word “sin” is “missing” or “without”. When you commit a sin that needs to be forgiven, you are causing someone to be without something that they rightfully earned.

7 deadly sins to be forgiven

It’s not a coincidence that the 7 deadly sins cause you to harm others risk losing health, wealth, or relationships

When you take from another against their will, justice is an attempt to give them something for the trouble you caused. Consider it rebalancing of the books.

In doing so, a message is sent to all would-be perpetrators: if you take this same action, it will cost you.

But what about the emotional damage caused? Insurance and restitution can compensate some for their money and time, but what about the trauma a victim will endure?

A child molester gets 60 years in jail and prison justice will take its due course, but what about the victims ruined childhood, stolen innocence, and shattered faith in humanity? There is no justice that can turn back time.

A murderer gets sentenced to death, but what about the anger and sadness experienced by the victim’s friends and family? No justice can resurrect the dead.

We need something other than justice for the internal wounds we carry. These are the wounds that do not automatically heal with time. These are the offenses that require true forgiveness to begin the healing process.

How Forgiveness And Justice Work Together

Justice won't help you forgive

Justice is for the world. Forgiveness is for yourself

Forgiveness does not reverse causality nor does it not make what happened acceptable. It is neither an invitation or a deterrent to harm.

Forgiveness is a tool to heal, move on, and see the world without the filter of emotional scar tissue.

The process of forgiveness is for your personal well-being.

You can’t change what happened. You can’t even change your reaction to what happened. However, you can change how you perceive what happened and in doing so, you have the power to change how you relate to it.

Forgiveness ONLY makes sense when you realize that it’s got nothing to do with the other person. It’s for yourself. It’s not for the external world to make sense of.

In other words, for society to function, you need to simultaneously forgive the sin and punish the sinner. Too much of the former invites wickedness. Too much of the latter is the foundation for tyranny.

I started with this first so you didn’t think this article was a call to substitute justice with forgiveness. Justice is needed as much as forgiveness because humans are excellent at rationalization.

People will know something is wrong, but still do it if they believe it will be forgiven. This is not the recipe for a healthy society. 

Forgiveness is not for the other person. It’s for yourself and dealing with the burden, side effects, and collateral damage of the emotional trauma you suffered.

In this article, I teach you how to practice forgiveness. It doesn’t matter whether you need to:

  • Forgive the world
  • Forgive another person
  • Forgive yourself

This article will show you how to release the burden on your heart and soul. This article will teach you how to let it go.

What Is Forgiveness?

In the purest definition, “Forgive” means “to give completely without reservation”.

When we forgive, what exactly are we “giving”?

We’re giving up our need for vindication, our desire for retribution, and our thirst for revenge. We are, literally and figuratively, wiping our emotional ledgers clean and abandoning the idea that we’re owed anything from anyone for the pain we’ve experienced.

We feel like the world needs to be balanced and everything should have an equal and opposite reaction. 

Newton's 3rd Law Applied to Forgiveness

Newton’s 3rd Law applies to our emotions as well. Credit: David Salaguinto

It doesn’t make sense that a person can wrong us and not receive a response of equal intensity. We feel like they must suffer, whether at the hands of government or street justice.

This is also why you experience guilt.

Why We Experience Guilt And Need To Forgive Ourselves

You feel guilty when you’ve done something that makes you feel like you deserve retribution. Guilt is the recognition that you caused harm somewhere and you have not received the appropriate response to balance out what you’ve done.

These negative emotions damage your mental health and will eventually have an effect on your physical health as well.

This feeling is so powerful that it inspires people to confess to crimes they would have otherwise gotten away with.

(Read: 8 Signs You Need To Stop Drinking)

Guilt and vengeance are the desire for retribution and balance, pointed in different directions; guilt internally, vengeance externally.

The only thing you can do to alleviate these feelings is to forgive.

An action may temporarily grant you relief, but you’ll be haunted by the memories of what you’ve done and what’s been done to you.

That’s because the ultimate goal of guilt and vengeance is to undo the past. The actions you take based on these emotions are nothing more than an attempt to reverse causality.

Time helps with forgiveness

Deep down, we think that our actions and emotions might reverse time and make us feel better.

Of course, that’s impossible.

The only thing you can do is give up your desire to reverse the past and forgive the debt. Not only do you have to eat your losses on the emotional balance sheet, but you cannot dwell on them.

Less esoterically, you have to let shit go and the only way to do that is through forgiveness.

How to Forgive Someone

1) Take Nothing Personally

When you think about it, the world is a fucked up place. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s also a mess.

By virtue of you existing in it, things will happen to you. Some of them will be awful.

If you can accept that last statement, then you can accept what happens if you follow it to its natural conclusion:

None of the bad things that happen to you are personal attacks. It is simply the cost that we all pay to exist in the world.

Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. We want the universe to behave rationally, but it does not care for balance.

We don’t know how the universe works, but we do know how it doesn’t work. We know that it does not care:

  • Where you’re from
  • What you’ve done
  • Why you want something

There are things you can do to make the desired outcome more likely–or decrease the likelihood of an adverse outcome–but there are no guarantees. There is simply life and probability. 

Sometimes the coin lands on the wrong side.

This doesn’t make it right, but realizing that you were never a specific target is the first step to forgiveness.

(Read: “No One Gives A Shit About You”)

2) Remember That We All Want The Same Thing

We all want the same thing.

Unfortunately, the offender went after what they were missing–approval, acceptance, love, relief, etc–in a way that caused harm to you and their surroundings.

Remember. Forgiveness isn’t a replacement for justice.

The perpetrator still must answer for their crimes, but you need a way to cope with the emotional damage you suffered from their actions. No amount of justice or revenge will undo the trauma their actions caused.

However, the next step in forgiving them is realizing that their ugliness is no different than your ugliness. You and the person you must forgive are operating on the exact same interests, drives, and desires.

I know that it’s a stretch to imagine that you have the same desires as a rapist or murderer, but humans are–despite the technology, law, and order–just one blown power grid away from returning to our true nature.

For most of human history, we have been savages towards one another.

It’s only modern convenience that allows us to transcend our base nature. Anyone who’s ever been to a dense, inner-city, low-income area can attest to the fact that people are only as evolved as their options.

This makes me think of a lot of the violence I witnessed and suffered growing up.

Forgiveness in the hood

These guys probably will have a lot of forgiveness and justice coming their way!

A lot of those kids only knew one way to relieve their frustration, feel empowered, or earn approval. For whatever reason, I got those feelings from video games and achievement.

They got it from raising hell and trying to impress other hoodlums. However, we had the exact same motivation.

This doesn’t mean I didn’t kick their ass right back, but it does make it impossible for me to take it personally and hold a grudge.

(Read: “Lessons From The Ghetto: Willingness To Fight”)

It doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t exonerate them. It just gets me to see through the illusion.

The second step for forgiveness is seeing that you and the offender are the same, but they chose a different way to express themselves. The way you interpret their actions goes back to the first step:

None of this is personal. It’s just a consequence of living in the world.

3) The Past Is Done

No matter how many times you relive the past, or how bad you feel about it, you can’t change it.

This is why obsessing over it will destroy you. The past is a thing that is no more real than your imagination, but you let it control you as if it were in the same room.

You hold a grudge because deep down, you believe that you can somehow balance the scales if you can only satisfy it.

Holding a grudge is like masturbation for your emotions:

It feels good at first, but it’s only in your imagination that someone is getting fucked. The more you do it, the more raw & numb you become. Your emotional impotence leaves you bitter, weak, and completely ineffective.

Eventually, you will act in a way towards someone that will force them to forgive you so they can move on.

The hardest thing for you to accept is the most obvious: you can’t do anything about what happened. Your anger will not change what happened. Your tears will not wash away the past. 

The desire for revenge binds you to the event. Grudges are shackles to the past. Because you refuse to let go, your present emotional state is held hostage by memories. 

The third step for forgiveness is realizing that while the past happened, it no longer exists. Any obsession over it only keeps you from being effective in the present to keep from repeating it in the future.

4) There Is No Such Thing As “Closure”

Forgiveness asks you to cancel an emotional debt that you are owed.

Whether through vengeance or the passage of time, people only feel like they can let a grievance go after the emotional debt is paid.

What forgiveness asks you to do is to wipe the books clean, even when you feel like you deserve closure.

When people talk about receiving closure, what they’re really expressing is a desire to settle the debt for pennies on the dollar. They no longer require an eye for an eye.

Instead, they’ll settle for toe or a finger. However, this will never be enough. It will never be enough because no matter what they give you, it can’t undo the past and this is what you really want when you seek revenge.

This is why revenge and closure never work. An article in PsychologicalScience.org explains this well:

Behavioral scientists have observed that instead of quenching hostility, revenge can prolong the unpleasantness of the original offense and that merely bringing harm upon an offender is not enough to satisfy a person’s vengeful spirit. They have also found that instead of delivering justice, revenge often creates only a cycle of retaliation, in part because one person’s moral equilibrium rarely aligns with another’s.

Closure is always the last resort for a reason: you can never actually get back what is owed to you. You can never pay back an emotional debt. Furthermore, research has shown that the other person may not even believe they have wronged you.

The fourth step to forgiveness is to release that you can never actually be fulfilled by closure or revenge. It is a falsely satisfying dish.

Revenge is like junk food for the soul. It feels tastes great when you eat, but it only deteriorates your mind, body, and emotions.

(Read: “How to Get Over Someone”)

5) Balance Is An Illusion

You can’t balance the scales. Even mortal justice–our best attempt–does a poor job at this.

For example, consider Patrick Crusius, the shooter who murdered 22 people in an El Paso mass shooting.

They’d have to not only execute him 22 times (once for each person killed). Then they’d have to hurt him to the exact degree he did for countless others who were only harmed.

We can only execute him once, and it will likely be in a far more humane manner than the way he killed his victims. Even the “prison justice” he will likely receive won’t equal the pain he’s caused the families and the fear that he’s pumped into the United States.

Balance is impossible. You have to move past the entire concept of justice, revenge, and balance for forgiveness to work.

We have justice to minimize the need for forgiveness. We have forgiveness to minimize the need for justice. Both are equally important, but justice doesn’t heal trauma. 

I always tell people: I don’t believe in revenge, only discouraging future trespasses. The actions taken to accomplish this may seem like vengeance, but this is another illusion.

Forgiveness is for the self. Justice is for the world. Execute both, or you’ll either become a weakling or a tyrant.

The fifth step for forgiveness is to focus on healing the self with forgiveness. Let justice do what justice does, but do not expect it to fix you. Only you and forgiveness and can do that.

A Summary Of How To Forgive

  • Take nothing personally
  • Remember that we’re all the same
  • Leave the past in the past
  • Abandon the need for closure
  • Accept that the universe can never be balanced

Forgiveness doesn’t change others and it doesn’t alter the physical world.

It changes you and your relationship with it. It’s the only way to move beyond the desire for retribution and crushing guilt.

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that anything in the world or the person has changed. It doesn’t even mean that your perspective on them has changed.

It just means they no longer command real estate in your mind and heart. Only a sucker would forget why a person required forgiveness in the first place.

In this way, it’s the only way we can learn from our mistakes.

And next, read this: How To Forgive Yourself: 6 Steps To Let Go Of The Past