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January 5, 2017       

Convincing Yourself to Forgive When It Seems Unfair
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

hands held out in forgiveness
“Why do I have to do the work to forgive? It's so unfair!”

People struggle with forgiveness. When they have been hurt and betrayed they want the transgressor to have to suffer or at least feel bad for the offense. Frequently, however, that sort of satisfaction does not occur. Instead, they are told they need to forgive. They feel burdened not only with the suffering but also with the effort involved in trying to forgive.

Even though you might know that holding a grudge, resentment, or anger only hurts your psychological and physical well-being it still may seem hard to convince yourself to take the steps to forgiveness. How can you begin to let go?

Four levels of forgiveness

Frequently, people focus on the outcome of forgiveness which feels impossible to attain. When you are still angry about the offense the last thing you want to do is feel compassion for the offender. However, you may be able to convince yourself to let go of the resentment in other ways. It is not necessary for you to work through all these levels of forgiveness but only to use what works for you.

1) Recognize they are being punished. Many times people want to punish the transgressor, yet trying to hurt the other person only consumes your energy, escalates the situation, and makes you feel worse. However, just by changing your thinking a bit you can relish the punishment without being the punisher. In particular, by recognizing that people who betray and hurt others are already miserable people who will never know true happiness you can understand they are already suffering their punishment.

2) Enjoy your life. As George Herbert, the poet, said “Living well is the best revenge.” The concept is that instead of punishing the other person you enjoy your life. To do this, though, you let go of the focus on punishment by recognizing that the best way to get revenge is to not let the other person's betrayal ruin your life. By doing so you are likely to let go of the need for revenge and truly enjoy your life.

3) Seek compassion. When someone has harmed you it is difficult to feel compassion for that person. However, it can feel good to think of yourself as a compassionate person. Therefore, the focus at this level is not so much on the other person but on your ability to feel compassion even when someone hurts you. This allows you to feel better about yourself and move on.

4) All people have value. The highest and hardest level of forgiveness is to recognize the value in all people. At this level you see beyond their transgressions and mistakes and feel compassion for the suffering they must be experiencing. But, as I said earlier, you don't need to achieve this level of forgiveness to move on in your life.

Some of these suggestions may seem to be intentionally misleading yourself about the situation. However, forgiveness is a process and how you get through it initially may be very different than your final resolution. But the point is to be able to convince yourself to move on by understanding that you don't have to fully forgive in order to improve your well-being.

For more information, see Struggling With Forgiveness: An Inability to Grieve and Forgiveness and the Process of Healing.

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