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4 Traps That Keep You From Forgiving — and How to Overcome Them

Learn to let go of old wounds and everyday slights, so you can move forward with joy and peace.


As early as our preschool days, we’re taught the importance of forgiving. Whether another child snatched our toy or our sibling pulled our hair, letting go of grudges seemed fairly straightforward. But as we grew older and our relationships became more complex, so did the process of forgiveness. Does it require reconciliation? What if they don’t deserve it? Such doubts keep us holding on to toxic emotions, from anger to resentment, compounding the pain of the initial disappointment or affront.

One misconception that often foils our ability to forgive is our belief that it benefits the person who wronged us. But in truth, it’s a gift we give ourselves. “Forgiveness is the active resolution of our grief,” says Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. “When we’ve been let down, our brain needs time to adapt to this destabilizing information. That’s what grieving is, and forgiveness helps us let go of the past so we can heal.”

Proven to hike self-esteem and boost resilience, forgiveness also opens our heart literally and figuratively, says Robert Enright, Ph.D., of the International Forgiveness Institute. “In one study, when cardiac patients forgave a past wrong, and later retold the story of the incident, they experienced significantly more blood flow to their heart.” Appropriately, Enright’s poetic shorthand for forgiveness is a “softened heart,” or having compassion for others and ourselves.

While its benefits are clear, forgiveness can be difficult to extend, especially when our feelings are still raw. That’s why we asked experts for easy ways to free ourselves of these four common “grudge traps” and embrace this truly restorative emotion.

The Grudge Trap: “They need to apologize first.”

You’ve never gotten along with your sister-in-law, but when simmering tensions boil over and she says a few hurtful things, you tell yourself you won’t be able to move on without an apology. “But this gives her two wins,” says Enright. “The first is the insult and the second is your inability to heal from it. In fact, we see the biggest benefits from forgiveness when it’s unconditional — or not dependent on the other person.”

Forgiveness Fix: Tap ‘concentric circles’ of compassion.

Look at a person who’s wronged you with three lenses: personal, global and spiritual, advises Enright. Ask yourself what was affecting her personally, like stress. This isn’t an excuse; it creates context. For a global lens, ask if there’s something broader making her behave this way, like a hard family history? For a spiritual filter, focus on what connects you two, like common values. “Seeing her with a wider angle stirs compassion — the start of forgiveness.”

Grudge Trap: “I still feel angry and hurt.”

It’s been years since your divorce, yet there are still times when a swell of hurt and anger washes over you, causing your blame to turn inward. Why can’t I let this go? you berate yourself. “It doesn’t matter if you were wronged two weeks ago or 20 years ago,” says Enright. “The effect of being treated unfairly is a burden we carry that often manifests in long-lasting pain and resentment.”

Forgiveness Fix: Share your stories of resilience.

“We often think forgiveness has to be all or nothing,” says therapist Gayle Reed, Ph.D. “But you can set boundaries with someone and create partial forgiveness.” To tame anger when it rears its head, share your story with a friend. “It will signal to your brain, This is my new way of functioningI’m moving forward, a stronger person. I even tell patients my stories of forgiveness all the time; it helps us both heal.”

Grudge Trap: “I’ll have to reconcile.”

While a co-worker expresses regret for her harsh words in a recent meeting, you have a hard time accepting her apology because you’re not ready to reconcile. “Yet you can forgive without mending fences,” promises Reed. “Reconciliation is a negotiation between two people to come together in mutual trust — but forgiveness is something we can do by ourselves to help us move forward.”

Forgiveness Fix: Create a vision statement.

The more you can visualize letting go of hurt feelings, the greater the relief, says Emily J. Hooks, author of The Power of Forgiveness, who suggests creating a vision statement to help you picture the benefits of releasing a grudge, such as, I want to be fully present in the moment rather than resentful or reactive. When you’re ready, consider telling the person, I forgive you, but I’m not ready to reconcile. “Reconciliation can only be done on your timetable, not theirs.”

Grudge Trap: “I can’t forgive myself.”

When your best friend shares a secret, you hold it close to the chest…until you accidentally let it slip to a mutual pal. Though your friend quickly forgives you, you can’t forgive yourself, and you cringe every time you think about it. Beating ourselves up, even for seemingly small lapses or regrets, is a marathon event for most of us. Indeed, Enright reveals that the average length of time we hold on to something we can’t forgive ourselves for is almost 10 years. “People often tell me that while the person they offended forgave them, they can’t do the same for themselves.”

Forgiveness Fix: Let someone else off the hook.

Forgiveness is like a muscle — the more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes, notes Enright, who says the best way to release self-blame is to practice letting others off the hook. “Pick someone who has let you down, and acknowledge that their actions did hurt you,” he advises. “Then make an intention to forgive. Look within and observe the relief you feel, emotionally and physically, as tension leaves your body.” Knowing what forgiving feels like gives you a road map to apply to yourself: “Just as they are much more than one misstep, so are you. Just as they have inherent worth, so do you. This realization will help you accept yourself back lovingly.”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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