Four myths about forgiveness

Forgiveness can be challenging. When we’re hurt deeply by someone else, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything other than our pain. When we’ve been betrayed, abused, insulted, bullied, or treated poorly, it can disrupt our inner world so badly we don’t think we’ll ever be able to move on, let alone forgive — and we don’t think the person who wronged us deserves it.

Forgiveness is an action we can take to help ourselves overcome the hurt and resentment we feel. Forgiveness is often seen as something you are extending to the offender when in actuality, forgiveness is an offering we can give to ourselves.

The act of forgiveness has several health benefits. Here are a few:

  • Forgiveness is linked to longevity and a stronger immune system. Holding on to anger and pain keeps the body in a constant fight-flight-freeze mode — and those stress levels can wreak havoc on the body (high blood pressure, insomnia, tension, digestive troubles, etc.…). Experiencing burnout can also cause difficulty in our regulation of negative emotions.
  • It lowers your risk of heart attack. Both giving and receiving forgiveness lowers blood pressure, a 2011 study found. It also helps lower cholesterol levels.
  • Forgiveness helps with mental health and decreases anxiety, depression, and stress.
  • Findings suggest that forgiveness correlates with higher self-esteem, better overall moods, and happier relationships.

I’m aware that simply seeing a list of the benefits of forgiveness doesn’t make it easier to do. I’ve found that these four myths involving forgiveness have helped me overcome the barriers I’ve held internally against forgiving those who have wronged me in ways that have affected my life long term.

Myth #1: Forgiveness means condoning or excusing what was done.

Forgiveness is not excusing or glossing over what happened. It doesn’t make what was done okay. It’s very much about leaning into the pain and acknowledging and owning the suffering.

Forgiveness involves releasing bitterness and not letting it harden you while still knowing that what happened to you was wrong. You can still be hurt without letting it close off your heart.

Myth #2: Forgiveness means you have to return to the prior relationship.

One myth about forgiveness is that forgiving someone means you need to resume a relationship with the person who wronged you. The truth is, forgiveness does not need to involve reconciling with someone.

Reconciliation is different from forgiveness; it requires agreement between both parties. Forgiveness only needs one person to occur. The other person doesn’t even need to know it’s happening.

Myth #3: I can only forgive if the other person “deserves it.”

Forgiveness is an inside job. It can happen even if the other person never owns their actions. They may not even feel remorse. Releasing the energy of “unforgiveness” is good for the self. Grudges are like poison. Forgiveness can help the pain from corroding our being.

Myth #4: Forgiveness means the pain is going to go away.

Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean the pain we feel will go away. This pain may be with us forever. Choosing to release the energy you hold inside about the situation might not heal the original hurt, but it can heal reactions and defenses we have to the hurt.

Now what?

If you read these myths and are interested in moving into the act of forgiveness, you might wonder how to take the first step.

Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center has a practice, the Eight Essentials When Forgiving, which I’ll share below:

How to do it

Make a list of people who have hurt you deeply enough to warrant the effort to forgive. You can do this by asking yourself on a 1-to-10 scale, How much pain do I have regarding the way this person treated me?, with 1 involving the least pain (but still significant enough to justify the time to forgive) and 10 involving the most pain. Then, order the people on this list from least painful to most painful. Start with the person lowest on this hierarchy (least painful).

  1. Consider one offense by the first person on your list. Ask yourself: How has this person’s offense negatively impacted my life? Reflect on the psychological and physical harm it may have caused. Consider how your views of humanity and trust of others may have changed as a result of this offense. Recognize that what happened was not okay, and allow yourself to feel any negative emotions that come up.
  2.  When you’re ready, make a decision to forgive. Deciding to forgive involves coming to terms with what you will be doing as you forgive—extending an act of mercy toward the person who has hurt you. When we offer this mercy, we deliberately try to reduce resentment (persistent ill will) toward this person and, instead, offer them kindness, respect, generosity, or even love.
  3.  It is important to emphasize that forgiveness does not involve excusing the person’s actions, forgetting what happened, or tossing justice aside. Justice and forgiveness can be practiced together. Another important caveat: To forgive is not the same as to reconcile. Reconciliation is a negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust. You may not choose to reconcile with the person you are forgiving.
  4. Start with cognitive exercises. Ask yourself these questions about the person who has hurt you: What was life like for this person while growing up? What wounds did they suffer from others that could have made them more likely to hurt you? What kinds of extra pressures or stresses were in this person’s life at the time they offended you? These questions are not meant to excuse or condone, but rather to better understand the other person’s areas of pain, those areas that make them vulnerable and human. Understanding why people commit destructive acts can also help us find more effective ways of preventing further destructive acts from occurring in the future.
  5. Be aware of any little movement of your heart through which you begin to feel even slight compassion for the person who offended you. This person may have been confused, mistaken, and misguided. They may deeply regret their actions. As you think about this person, notice if you start to feel softer emotions toward them.
  6.  Try to consciously bear the pain that they caused you so that you do not end up throwing that pain back onto the one who offended you, or even toward unsuspecting others, such as loved ones who were not the ones who wounded you in the first place. When we are emotionally wounded, we tend to displace our pain onto others. Please be aware of this so that you are not perpetuating a legacy of anger and injuries.
  7. Think of a gift of some kind that you can offer to the person you are trying to forgive. Forgiveness is an act of mercy—you are extending mercy toward someone who may not have been merciful toward you. This could be through a smile, a returned phone call, or a good word about them to others. Always consider your own safety first when extending kindness and goodwill towards this person. If interacting with this person could put you in danger, find another way to express your feelings, such as by writing in a journal or engaging in a practice such as compassion meditation.
  8. Finally, try to find meaning and purpose in what you have experienced. For example, as people suffer from the injustices of others, they often realize that they themselves become more sensitive to others’ pain. This, in turn, can give them a sense of purpose toward helping those who are hurting. It may also motivate them to work toward preventing future injustices of a similar kind.

Once you complete the forgiveness process with one person on your list, select the next person in line and move up that list until you are forgiving the person who hurt you the most.

As we challenge these myths and embrace a deeper understanding of forgiveness, remember that forgiveness is a profound act of self-compassion. By unraveling these misconceptions, we empower ourselves to heal and create space for greater peace within our hearts.


Stanford University CCARE Applied Compassion Training
The New Science of Forgiveness by Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center
Eight Essentials When Forgiving by Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center
Eight Keys to Forgiveness by Robert Enright
8 Ways Forgiveness is Good for Your Health by Huffpost
The soothing effects of forgiveness on victims’ and perpetrators’ blood pressure by Northwestern University
Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It by Hopkins Medicine

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