Learning to say sorry when we hurt someone is one of the first social lessons many of us learn as children.
Apologies are made every single day, often without giving it any conscious thought.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women generally apologise more frequently than men. Some research suggests this is because men and women have different ‘thresholds’ for what warrants an apology. Women feel remorse over more minor slights, while men save their apologies for more serious offences.
Receiving an apology can bring about a range of emotions: relief, gratitude, or even resentment when the apology is half-hearted or not accompanied by a change in the behaviour that hurt you in the first place.
Hearing someone say “I’m sorry” doesn’t always completely heal the wound, but it does feel good to have your feelings validated and acknowledged.
But what do you do when someone hurts you and either refuses to apologise, or insists that there was no harm intended, so no harm done? Can you forgive someone who doesn’t ask for forgiveness, or who doesn’t seem to be sorry at all?
Forgiveness is something you do for yourself
Professor Robert Enright, a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness and the author of 8 Keys to Forgiveness, believes the concept needs to be reframed as something you do primarily for your own peace and wellbeing.
Enright describes forgiveness as a special kind of moral virtue, in which we are making a conscious decision to give grace and kindness to someone who has been unfair to us.
Enright does not suggest ignoring the pain the other person has caused us, as we need to honour emotions as a healthy part of the healing process. However, eventually we must make a decision to move on.
Clinging to resentment or anger indefinitely will not change the person who hurt us, but it may do damage to your own mental health.
Enright’s research indicates that forgiveness, with or without an apology, has far greater benefits for us than stubbornly waiting for an expression of remorse. Forgiveness can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, and even heal from substance addiction.
Finding the path to forgiveness
Knowing that forgiving others is good for us is one thing, but it’s quite another to put into practice.
Forgiveness begins with removing any expectation of remorse or reconciliation, and acknowledging that forgiveness does not rely on participation from the other person.
Below are Enright’s eight keys to forgiveness, with tips on how you can start including them in your own life.
1. Know what forgiveness is and why it matters
Forgiveness is an act of mercy that you extend to someone who has hurt you. Understand that forgiveness will ultimately help you to heal and move on with your life.
This might look like deciding to let go of the pain a loved one has caused you for the sake of your own inner peace, and being able to redirect your energy to things that make your life more fulfilling.
2. Strengthen your forgiveness muscles
The same way our physical body needs time and exercise to become stronger, we can work to improve our forgiving ‘muscles’.
Practise forgiveness by changing your inner dialogue, and refrain from talking negatively about people who have hurt us. You don’t have to say nice things about them, but resisting the urge to complain or berate people behind their back will strengthen your loving and forgiving emotions.
“Giving love when it’s unnecessary helps to build the love muscle,” said Enright.
“If you practise small acts of forgiveness and mercy — extending care when someone harms you — in everyday life, this too will help. Perhaps you can refrain from honking when someone cuts you off in traffic, or hold your tongue when your spouse snaps at you and extend a hug instead.”
3. Address your own inner pain
Reflecting on who has hurt you and how is not a comfortable exercise, but it can yield some helpful insight into your inner turmoil. Doing this with the help of a mental health professional can help you to delve deeper into the true cause of your pain.
Sometimes, the things people do to hurt us are not objectively cruel or unjust. Perhaps they hurt you through carelessness, or unknowingly activated a personal trigger for you, or neglected you in a time of need.
Understanding these nuances does not invalidate the real harm done to you, but it can help you to start tending to your own needs and support you through the forgiveness process.
4. Use empathy to develop a forgiving mind
Empathy and forgiveness are closely linked, and learning to practise empathy for those who hurt us helps us learn how to forgive more freely.
Extending compassion to someone who has wronged us does not need to involve any direct interaction with this person. Rather, you can imagine or reflect on what you know about them and consider how their actions may have been caused by their own personal traumas, insecurities, and emotional wounds.
Thinking about why they may behave the way they do, and recognising your shared desire for love and safety, can be a powerful first step in letting go of harmful anger and resentment.
5. Find meaning in your suffering
Suffering is a part of life, and pretending otherwise only sets us up for disappointment and a world view skewed by toxic positivity.
Finding meaning or value from your suffering does not mean invalidating or minimising your pain. For some, it might mean sharing your experience to help others through activism. For others, it’s reflecting on how your suffering has changed you for the better; perhaps through becoming more resilient and self-sufficient.
Using your suffering to become more compassionate and loving to others is a powerful way to strengthen your ability to forgive.
6. Call upon other strengths when forgiveness is hard
For some, forgiveness simply won’t feel like an option in the here and now – and don’t force it if it feels impossible.
Instead, acknowledge that forgiveness can take time and effort, and consider all of your other strengths that you can use to help you.
Use your courage and patience to allow yourself the time you need to move on, call on your wisdom to reflect on all the ways forgiveness will heal your pain, and practise humility to understand that all humans are prone to making mistakes.
7. Forgive yourself
If you find it hard to forgive others, reflect on how forgiving you are to yourself. People who hold onto grudges for dear life often have quite a critical inner dialogue, and may struggle to love themselves and embrace their own imperfections.
Moving away from punishing ourselves when we slip up and forgiving ourselves can go a long way in being more loving to ourselves and others.
8. Develop a forgiving heart
Extending love to people who have hurt you may sound impossible, but it is a powerful way to live in a world often characterised by cruelty.
Overcoming suffering and loving people who are flawed and sometimes hurtful develops emotional maturity and resilience.
Allowing feelings of bitterness or dislike to live in our hearts will only do us harm, while learning to give love and forgiveness freely can open our hearts and allow us to love more deeply, free of expectations or conditions.