Master the Art of Forgiveness in Just 5 Steps

You're human, and that means at some point in your life, you've been wronged. Whatever the situation, you were faced with two choices: To hold a grudge, or to choose to forgive.

It's easier said than done, of course. If the offense was unintentional, like your sister borrowing and then losing your favorite necklace, you probably let her off the hook fairly quickly. Offenses that take a little longer to overcome might include overhearing some friends spreading hurtful gossip about you or a co-worker sabotaging your efforts on an important project. And if you endured a devastating transgression—like unfaithfulness in a marriage or a serious family betrayal—forgiveness may seem a long, long way off, if not an impossibility…especially if the offender isn't seeking it.

Or maybe the person you haven't forgiven yet is yourself. If you've fallen off the exercise bandwagon or relapsed into bad eating habits, the first step to getting back on track is giving yourself grace for your missteps.

Why Forgive?
Have you ever noticed that when you're very angry or hurt, your heart beats faster and you just feel crummy overall? These are physical manifestations of negative emotions. "There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed," says Karen Swartz, M.D., in an article on the Johns Hopkins Hospital website.

Letting go of a long-standing grudge doesn't just lift your spirits—it also improves your physical and mental wellness. According to the Mayo Clinic, forgiveness has the power to reduce stress and anxiety, strengthen your immune system, alleviate symptoms of depression, lower your blood pressure and even improve your heart health. You may find that you sleep better, have more energy and are more motivated to pursue life-enriching goals, like eating better and exercising. Once the burden is lifted from your shoulders, that spinning class, trip to the farmer's market or morning walk around the block may suddenly seem more attainable.

Science backs up these claims: A study published in Social Psychological & Personality Science showed that people who chose to forgive transgressions perceived hills as less steep, and were able to jump higher in a fitness test. This reinforces the idea that our minds are inextricably linked to our bodies.
Read on for all kinds of other unexpected perks that come with burying the hatchet.

Mastering the Art of Forgiveness: 5 Steps

Simply saying the words "I forgive you" won't necessarily release you from deep-seated resentment and hostility. Lisa Bahar, a family therapist who practices Dialectical Behavior Therapy, maintains that forgiveness is a process. "There are steps to forgiveness, which you have to move through before actually experiencing the mental health benefits," she says.
These steps may look a bit different for each of us, but here's a rough road map:
  1. Recognize your resentment. According to Bahar, the first step is to be aware that you're not in forgiveness mode. "It's all about willingness versus willfulness," she says. "You have to be willing to admit the reality that you're attached to a resentment that's making you angry and/or sad, and that you're choosing to hold onto the transgression instead of letting it go."
  2. Share your pain. Suffering in silence only magnifies your feelings of hurt and anger. Find a trusted friend or family member with whom you can share your experiences and emotions. You can also find relief through journaling: One idea is to write a letter to the person who wronged you, explaining why you felt hurt and then expressing your desire to forgive. Whether or not you actually deliver the letter isn't as important as taking that ceremonial step.
  1. Accept the situation. Once you've recognized that the transgression is creating a sense of anger, sadness or both, you'll be in a position to turn your mind toward acceptance, which is a form of forgiveness. Maybe that means coming to terms with the fact that your spouse isn't coming back, you're not getting that well-deserved promotion or you can't trust a friend as much as you thought. Bahar calls this radical acceptance: "This doesn't mean you're approving of the situation, just that you're willing to turn the mind toward accepting what has occurred and letting it go in order to decrease the intensity of the emotions." You may feel a twinge of sadness after accepting a harsh reality, but it can also be a cleansing release that brings a sense of peace and calmness.
  2. Give up control. At its core, harboring a grudge is a form of control. Some psychiatrists call this the "hook" that is holding you back from forgiveness. You may not be able to control how someone treats you, [talks] about you or fails to do for you, but you can control your reaction to it. When you refuse to forgive, it may seem like you hold some sort of power over the person who has wronged you, but that power comes at a high cost: Your health and happiness.
  3. Practice empathy. This may be easier in some situations and downright laughable in others, but it's worth a try. Even if you can't understand why someone behaved a certain way, you can make an effort to recognize the feelings or experiences that triggered that hurtful behavior. Let go of any revenge fantasies, as these won't get you any closer to forgiveness.
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Member Comments

It is essential to forgive. Report
Hard part to accept is I think I have and months can pass without thinking about him and he does something else to my daughter and I have to go through it all over again Report
This can be hard, sometimes impossible. Yet people need to find ways to deal with these feelings. I know my BP, heart rate, and breathing increases. The stress of negative feelings can be a killer. Report
Thank you for valuable suggestions. Report
I'm still learning...this advice is very helpful! Thank you! Report
Thank you for this one. It came at just the right time in my life. Report
great advice Report
Thanks- great article. Report
thanks... Report
OMGoodness. thanks this was needed. Report
As I have become older and matured and have learned to forgive and let God handle the rest.
Years ago in 1993, my cousin was murdered by her boyfriend at the age of 35. Initially I had nothing but hatred towards the man that killed her, but now I have forgiven him, but will never forget. Report
I think it is a fight or flight mechanism not being able to let go when hurt or destroyed by someone you trusted. Yes you have to let got as hard as it is but I feel you are left scarred from the aftermath. Report
For it was not into my ear you whispered,
but into my heart.
It was not my lips you kissed,
but my soul.
- Judy Garland Report
forgiving someone is not just for the offended person, it's for us as well. Don't give unforgiveness that kind of power over you Report
Good for our Health & Sprit. We should remember that God Forgave us of our Sins.


About The Author

Melissa Rudy
Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.