Is It Time to Forgive?

children playingNote: Companion audio on forgiveness is available.

“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power of love.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forgiveness holds the possibility for expanding our capacity to love. There is only one reason to forgive. If we want to be free, if we want to live as the full and unlimited expression of ourselves, if we want our hearts to open, then we are being invited to put an end to all stories that keep us closed and contracted.

Consider also these benefits of forgiveness: less stress, lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, improved sleep, greater psychological well being.

What exactly is forgiveness? When we are in the state of unforgiving, we are holding on to a grudge. A grudge is a story of hurt and resentment that we believe to be true and repeat over and over in our thoughts. It lodges in our body and mind like a freeloading visitor who won’t leave. It keeps our hearts clamped shut, depletes our energy, and hijacks our creativity. The story of the grudge involves blaming someone else for what happened, which turns us into a victim. And as a victim, we are powerless, bitter, and stuck. If you are clinging to an old painful story, check in right now to see if this is true in your own experience.

When we make the choice to forgive, we let go of the power the grudge has over us. We are released, liberated, and free to return to our natural state of open-heartedness and clarity.

Did you notice that I didn’t mention the other person who wronged you? Forgiveness is not about the other – it is an inner letting go that finally allows us to be at peace. It is an acceptance of what happened along with a choice to stop dragging the unhappy past into the present. It is the experience of moving through blockages that keep us from being alive right now. It is for you way more than anyone else.

Byron Katie says, “Things don’t happen to you; they happen for you.” When limiting stories are put to rest, we are able to see the lesson, the offering from them, that deeply enriches our life experience.

Let’s clear up two misconceptions about forgiveness.

  1. When you release your attention from your grievance story, you are not condoning the other’s behavior. No question – people do nasty things, and what happens in life is not always fair. Forgiving is for you, for your inner peace. You cannot control what someone did in the past, but you can examine what you are doing right now. If you persist in focusing on the terrible things someone did to you, even though the actual behavior stopped long ago, you are still hurting yourself in your mind. If you accept that what happened happened, no matter what your opinion about it, you are well on your way to freeing your heart.
  2. You can be completely released without receiving an apology. An apology indicates that the other acknowledges and takes responsibility for his or her behavior. This may support your process, but it is not essential. The key to forgiveness is an inner letting go, which occurs only when your mind stops perpetuating a hurtful story. It is work you can do on your own. This is very good news, as it means you can forgive even if the other has died or is unable to converse with you about what happened.

Forgiveness is a process

Forgiveness happens in its own time. It is never too early, or too late, to let go. When the time is right for you, adopt an attitude of tough love: be tender and compassionate, but don’t let yourself off the hook. Stay committed and on track, even if it’s challenging, until you feel at peace.

  1. First, identify your experience of the grudge. What are your thoughts…feelings…physical sensations? What is the texture of your experience? Close your eyes and see. Grudges often make you feel flat, dense, dark, and heavy. You are likely to have been thinking about the situation in exactly the same way for a very long time. You know the story by heart. Crack open to the possibility of discovering something new about it that has the potential to release you from suffering.
  2. Experience the feelings directly. Without justifying them by repeating the story of what happened, simply welcome the sensations in love and acceptance. Let things be as they are, even if they are intense or fiery. Meeting the feelings directly will eventually help to soften them.
  3. You might notice a part of you that shouts a resounding, “No!” to this process. Maybe you continue to blame someone, legitimize your right to feel the way you do, or avoid the whole thing altogether. These are all ways of keeping your grudge intact. Offer a loving, “Yes” to even these experiences by accepting the underlying pain that energizes them. Be so kind to these tender places in you.
  4. Now consider the impact that holding on to this story has on you. How is it serving you? What aspects of your life have been affected? Imagine, just for a moment, that you were not putting your energy and attention into this story. How would you and your life be different? Realize that the past is over, but that you are keeping it alive in your mind and body. Who is most impacted by perpetuating this story?
  5. Acknowledge the core belief that keeps the story running – it shouldn’t have happened, it should have been different. Sustaining this belief abdicates your power to something you cannot control, which is what others think, say, or do. Give up blaming, and don’t wait for history to change or for the offender to apologize. Cease living in, “If only that hadn’t happened.” You are putting off your own life. Things happen as they happen – let go of expectations of others, for your own sake.
  6. Bring your attention inside, and ask yourself what you need, then be creative so that your need is fulfilled. If you need to express yourself to someone, do so in a letter you will never mail. Or ask a trusted friend to sit with you, imagining he or she is the person you desire to speak to. You can even use an empty chair. Say what needs to be said, then put it to rest. If you feel you need love, treat yourself like royalty, then pass it on to someone who needs it more than you. Do whatever it takes so that you can let go of the ball and chain you are dragging around.

In the course of writing this article, I discussed it with two friends who spontaneously applied the suggestions to their own grievance stories. Once they saw how much they were resisting letting go of the story and how it kept them trapped in victimhood and powerlessness, they made the choice to give it up…right before my eyes! They did it, I’ve done it, and so can you. Release yourself, and experience freedom beyond measure!

What are you holding on to? What has your experience been with letting go? What challenges are you aware of?

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  1. says

    Dear Gail, I’ve missed being here and thought of you yesterday. I’ve been buried with book related work. I can’t remember if I told you that I signed a book contract in October.

    All that aside, I cherish this post and just relate so strongly to it. It is like poetry. Your insight into the connection between forgiveness and freedom is HUGE. The ramifications of this are not just individual to individual, but global. The importance of forgiveness (and HOW to forgive) is something we should be taught in school. It’s THAT crucial to global peace. Individual peace, healthy, happiness, creativity, laughter and more.

    I can’t remember if I told you about a post I did titled: Who Will Take the First Step? It’s here:

    You don’t need to comment; it’s an older post but this made me think of it.

    However, I have to say that you have really gone into this in such a wonderful way. Again, you could write a whole book just on this topic alone. :) This post could be your map for the book.

    I just feel that you’ve hit on the KEY to helping people realize forgiveness, and that is personal freedom. Unless we can forgive WE, the individual, are never free. It’s almost like freedom and forgiveness are synonymous.

    Thank you for this Gail. It truly is beautiful and MORE important than most can even imagine. And you wrote it so eloquently. Like you. Love, Robin.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Congratulations on your book contract, Robin! And I love your suggesting this post as a map for mine!

      In writing this post, I tried to break down forgiveness to really understand what it is. The more I did that, the less meaning the word had for me. If you take any spiritual or self-help concept down to its root, the endpoint is always the same – recognizing our own reactions, taking responsibility for them, and, if we are motivated, doing whatever work is necessary to move through them. What distinguishes forgiveness is the rigidity of the story and our ability to justify it. But what are we justifying? Our own suffering? When the truth is seen with precision, all boundaries break down, especially those perceived boundaries between people. It boils down to what you want. If we want to be free, we meet our experience as is, no matter how painful.

      And I appreciate your point about forgiveness being taught in schools. Global change could certainly be affected by how we educate our children. Maybe we should develop a curriculum??

      You are light in the world, Robin…

  2. says

    I have had to learn that forgiveness is for the person doing the forgiving in order that they can move on with their lives. I like the way you presented this. It was very poignant.
    We also need to be able to forgive ourselves for making decisions that weren’t always the best for us. By accepting and taking responsibility for the choices we make then the process of forgiveness becomes easier.

  3. says

    Hi Gail, great article and comments. When I taught leadership and management in the service, we used to teach that behavior is a function of motivation and situation. When I look back at my own life, even the darkest , ugliest parts, I can see that I and the other people involved really were doing the best they could. Wounded people do wounded things. Hurtful, twisted things. This helps to move from victim to survivor and is also very humbling. Freedom.
    Thanks, You rock, Monte

  4. Gail Brenner says

    I’ve missed you, Monte! So great to hear from you. In this post I spoke about letting go of stories we hold on to about what others did to us. Same goes for what we did or didn’t do – i.e, forgiving ourselves. And as you said, same idea about moving away from being a victim. I love how this works – all stories are a doorway to freedom. Much love to you…..

  5. says

    Powerful article, thanks!

    The point you make about forgiveness not being about the other is a great understanding to acquire. We do not have to like what we forgive, but instead need to release it entirely. We forgive to make our life better, it is not for anyone else.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Welcome to A Flourishing Life, Mike, and thanks so much for visiting. You are exactly right – we do not have to like what we forgive – it is for our own peace and well being. It’s so easy to get stuck on thinking about the other person and what we need from them. This leaves us in a place of unhappiness, wanting what we don’t have, lack, and no control. When we shift to focus on ourselves and our own happiness, we unstick ourselves, and true letting go is possible.

  6. Kat says

    I’m new, so please forgive my lack of understanding. I’ve forgiven my stepfather many times & allowed him back into my life each time, only to be lied to, stolen from and lied about in the process. We now live in the same town and I don’t talk about him or think of him often, but I do hold a grudge as a shield, so I have the strength to keep him out of my life. However, I don’t want to hold a grudge for protection. I want my emotional freedom and good boundaries in case I run into him. You thoughts please. Thank you.

    • Gail Brenner says

      You are most welcome here! Thanks so much for visiting and for your beautiful comment.

      Forgiveness, as an inner letting go, is about you and not about your stepfather. When we hold a grudge, it feels stuck, we keep repeating the story of what happened in our minds, and our hearts are closed. When this inner letting to happens, it is for us, in the sense that we stop feeling bad, mad, sad, and anything else. The situation doesn’t trigger us anymore in the same way.

      What you are describing as holding a grudge as a shield sounds like intelligence to me. You don’t talk about him or think about him often, which says to me that you have an inner freedom with regard to him. But it is intelligence to protect ourselves from people who treat us badly. Just because you have forgiven him inside yourself doesn’t mean at all that he should be in your life. And it sounds like when you do open to him, he treats you in a way that makes you want to not be around him again.

      Forgiveness isn’t mushy. It doesn’t mean that we all necessarily get along. It means we are no longer triggered inside. From that space of freedom, move toward what makes you happy. If you are happier without him in your life, then that is to be trusted. Bring your attention inside yourself to listen to your own answers. You will know what is right for you.

      You can have emotional freedom and intelligent boundaries as well.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts about this reply, if you feel like sharing them.

      Love to you,

  7. JMS says

    I’m a new subscriber to the blog and I appreciate the post. Just one question:

    While your insights are certainly unique and valuable the recommendation to write a letter and not mail it is oft-repeated. I guess I’m just wondering why the advice is always not to mail it and if forgiving someone wouldn’t be easier after feelings are truly expressed – to the other person rather than to the ether?

    Very briefly, I was dating a woman who, although I’m hesitant to label people, was thought by professionals to have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I was advised by my therapist that the best chance of making the relationship work was, in short, not reacting to her selfish or thoughtless acts in the way that I normally might (essentially calling her on them), but instead letting things go to some extent. Ok,, I’ve just horribly simplified the advice which was more extensive than that but I don’t want to bog the readers down in my own details.

    The bottom line is that I was treated fairly poorly and didn’t speak up about the majority of the poor treatment per “doctor’s orders” in the hope that, in the long run, that would be best (again, I’m simplifying my therapist’s advice; there was more to it than this). However, eventually, the woman ended the relationship (again). I elected to “let her go with love” and not express the ways I felt truly wronged.

    It’s seven months later and I’m not nearly as haunted by what happened in the way posting semi-anonymously on a blog would make it seem. And I don’t want the relationship back anymore – it obviously would never work. But I do still replay what happened from time-to-time and I still have a good deal of anger about the way I was treated. However, I would, ideally, like to forgive her, for the reasons cited in your post (and also given that her NPD was likely the result of significant loss in her life and, at least to some extent, perhaps out of her control)

    I guess what I’m asking at the end of the day is what is so wrong with writing an email to express “this is how I felt” and actually mailing it? And then working on forgiveness? Why is the “right thing” to do to keep it bottled up inside forever? (I understand that the idea is that writing the letter itself, even if it’s not mailed, should release the bottled-up emotions, but that’s just always seemed like a fiction to me that I could never buy into).


    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi JMS, and welcome to you!

      I appreciate your question. There is no rule that you should, or shouldn’t, mail a letter that expresses your feelings about what happened. The issue is what you want from whatever action you decide to take. If you want to express yourself, and the response of the other doesn’t matter to you at all, then it very well could be appropriate to send a letter. It might be relieving to you.

      However, if you have an overt or secret desire for a certain response – contrition, apologizing, reconnecting – and you don’t get it, then you may feel worse if you share your thoughts and feelings. And there may be other implications as well.

      My recommendation would be to think through all the possibilities with a great deal of self-honesty, then choose what appears to be the best course of action.

      I have another suggestion that can potentially help. Find someone who can role-play your ex, and have the conversation with that person that you might not be able to have for real. Sometimes hearing the words we long for – whoever they come from – can be healing.

      You sound like you are intelligently working your way through a difficult situation. Oceans of support to you…

  8. Suzie says

    I have a similar problem to the last two posters.

    I have tried so much to forgive people in my life and I still don’t believe that I truly understand how. Similar to Kat, the only people I hold negativity towards are the ones who’ve repeatedly mistreated me. And in the past, the more I tried to forgive them the worse I was treated. The two main examples would be my father and a boyfriend I was with for four years (we’re no longer together but I live in a small town and he’s in my group of friends).

    I need to keep a guard up against them and people like them, but sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by pain and anger and I wish so much that I could let it go. I don’t want them to hurt or to know how I feel or to apologise to me, I’m mostly if not always polite and pleasant towards them. I just want to escape the misery of this, I’m hurting so much.

    How possible is it to forgive inwardly but not show them that forgiveness? I already feel that I’m already a lot nicer than I should be; that they’re taking that as permission to behave terribly, or a sign that I condone their previous behaviour. What practical steps can I take?

    Thank you so much.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Suzie,

      Thank you for this heartfelt comment. I feel you and your anguish. Forgiveness is not mushy. There can be a fire to it, which might be just what you need.

      Forgiving is your conviction to stand in your truth to not let yourself miss out on being peaceful any longer. It’s about opening your heart to yourself, so you are not closed off, suffering and contracted. It is not about being nice to others or thinking that you need to take their behavior toward you.

      If you are already “a lot nicer than you should be,” I so encourage you to set boundaries with your father and ex. Because letting go and choosing love and truth includes you. You (nor does anyone) deserve to be treated poorly. You can ask yourself, what is the loving response? It is loving to say what we are not willing to tolerate, and it is loving to let others know when they have gone over the line.

      How do you do this? It depends. Walk away…say that you don’t want to be treated like that…let them know the consequences if they continue, then follow through on them. A long time ago, a family member said something to me, and I said, “If you ever say that again, I am leaving.” And I said it in such a way that this person knew I was completely serious. The comment was never said again. So find your inner power, and take care of yourself.

      You live in a small town, and I realize there may be implications. You have to look within yourself to see what you are willing to accept and do.

      I wish you well with this journey. I love how you want inner peace with this situation and support you entirely in realizing it.

      Sending love…

  9. says

    Hi, Gail,

    I am tremendously grateful to you for this thoughtful, practical guide to approaching forgiveness. I have been dealing with a seemingly intractable situation with a family member and your post helped me see a possible way out for the first time. Quite a gift this holiday season. Cheers to you!
    .-= Kristen @ Motherese´s last blog ..Girls Just Want to Have Fun =-.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Welcome to you, Kristen. Happy to see you here.

      I am thrilled that you have found an opening to find your way out for the first time. As you read in the comments, others are still struggling. I was wondering…if you feel so moved, could you be more specific about the insight you had? It might be helpful to others.

      Whether or not you say more, please know that I am celebrating with you that you are bringing a little more peace to the universe.

      Love to you…

  10. Stef says

    This was absolutely delightful to come across…

    I’m just recently beginning my journey of forgiveness and at times have more strength and optimism than others. I really identified with what you expressed about how the grudge or unforgiveness is affecting my current life and the story that perpetuates the feelings. Although I am much happier, stable and open to my life now than several months ago, there are times where my hurt, resentment and bitterness can bog me down. I accept however, that this is normal and try to allow myself to acknowledge these feelings but to move forward.

    Despite having countless opportunities in the preceding months to express myself to the person who hurt me, there are times where I feel no avail. I still to some extent allow what happened to affect my current living; I dread certain places, interacting with certain people, or even engaging in certain activities that I now associate with negative feelings.

    Over the past couple months, however, I have felt much more open to forgiveness – for my own sake. There are some days I embrace forgiveness and feel filled with so much light and peace. Other days, I am in a ‘fit’ of agitation and feel conflicted; while at the same time I am open to moving forward, feeling at peace and living my life without restrictions, I also want to ensure that the person who hurt me knows that it was NOT okay. I do have the fear that if I feel at peace, I am indirectly condoning what happened. Your post has helped me see that this is not the case… The forgiveness is for my well-being and freedom. It is so that I can live with love in my heart as opposed to hurt and resentment.

    Thank you.. I’m so happy to have come across this… I feel that my eyes have been opened and my heart has been lifted.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Your comment brings tears to my eyes, Stef, and I so appreciate that you shared your story and journey here.

      You are amazing in being so open in the face of obviously so much pain, continuing to find your way to peace. I honor how insistent you are about getting what you want and need.

      It’s fine that you still feel agitated and conflicted. These are remnants, experiences still left to receive your loving embrace.

      I absolutely love that you got the insight that your peace does not condone what happened, although I can understand how these two get entangled. You can be at peace, and you can stand firmly in your truth that what happened is not OK.

  11. Don says

    Hi Gail,

    This article (including the audio) gave me a lot of things to think about. Thank you.
    A lot of people were telling me that I don’t love myself but I know deep inside that I do. But I must admit that a lot of “what ifs” are circling inside my head. (We had the same childhood experience.)
    I hope someday, I’ll be free.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Don, and welcome to you. Thanks so much for stopping by.

      “What if’s” are thoughts that usually don’t serve. It’s the mind’s job to analyze things from every direction and come up with possibilities that have no basis in actual facts. A “what if” is not a useful thought. What if (pun intended!) you didn’t pay attention to these what if’s? Fill yourself instead with the love you feel for yourself and others – then see what happens.

      And it starts with me sending love to you…

  12. TL says

    Hi Gail,

    I wanted if possible to ask for a little advice. I am desperately searching (if currently a little fruitlessly) to find some sort of inner peace in my life. I am in what feels like the lowest and darkest pits of my mind at the moment, and although I have suffered this way before (I have Seasonal Affective Disorder) I have never been as low, or heartbroken as I am right now.

    I, for a long time was recovered, finally feeling happy and at peace with my life. I was single, which meant I could care for my family and friends, and the people who meant the most to me. I was happy this way. I moved away from my family home, and all my friends, and met someone at University, I told him I didn’t want to be in a relationship, but somehow I ended up giving in, and falling desperately in love with him. He was the comfort in my darkest days, when I was hurting and lonely, he was the light that brought me back to the surface. I wont bore you with the details, but in the midst of my depression, he broke my heart, so severely it feels as though I can never recover. We live in the same halls of residence, less then a minutes walk away. His new girlfriend also lives here. Next year, our houses are opposite each other. I’m terrified to leave my flat incase I bump into them, or one of our mutual friends. I feel like I can’t escape from him and these feelings, and the only way I can be happy again, is to forgive him. But although your advice makes sense, I read it and don’t feel I have the ability to be strong enough to put it into practice.

    I apologise for boring you with the story, because I know the story is the part I have to let go, I just don’t know how.

    I understand if there isn’t anything more you can say than your article already says, I just thought I’d try. Thank you.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi TL,
      Welcome to you and thank you for your comment.

      I don’t have the magic words to take away your pain. The one thing I can say is that it sounds like there is a feeling of lack inside of you – that something is missing, that you need something you don’t have. That is the place to bring your loving attention to. Repeating more stories in your mind about this man is not going to be helpful and will perpetuate your distress. Rather, bring your attention into this hurting part of yourself and love it, as the Buddha says. like a mother loves her only child. Take good care of yourself and surround yourself with loving support.

      I wish you well…

  13. says

    I like the statement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Forgiveness is the key to our freedom that we so desperately need to move forward in life and not stay in bondage. Forgiveness sets us free to do the things we want to do.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Welcome to you, Olga. What you say about forgiveness is so beautifully stated. We have the choice to stay in bondage or move forward in freedom.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.


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