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We’ve all felt hurt or offended by another. Feeling saddened by the inconsiderate, insensitive, or immoral actions of others is normal and even inevitable. But what we do with those feelings in the long run may have a large impact on our well-being.

Scholars have repeatedly found that forgiveness has significant impacts on overall health. Individuals who let go of grudges and bitterness have been found to have healthier relationships, greater psychological and spiritual well-being, less anxiety, fewer symptoms of depression, and higher self-esteem.1 Further, forgiving others may have significant health rewards including increased longevity,2 lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, and improved heart health.3 Forgiving oneself also has significant benefits. A recent study found that being gentle and kind to oneself may lead individuals to increase motivation and reduce procrastination.4

But what if forgiveness feels hard -- really, really hard? Dr. Robert Enright, the author of Forgiveness is a Choice: A step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope,5 suggests that understanding what forgiveness is and isn’t may help in the process of forgiving others.

Forgiveness ISN’T:

  • Pretending nothing happened
  • Merely accepting what happened
  • Condoning what the other person did
  • Excusing: making allowances because of the other person’s imperfections
  • Reconciliation or making up
  • Forgetting
  • Letting time heal the wound
  • Taking the blame or responsibility when it is not yours
  • Conditional: “I can forgive someone who wrongs me only if I can punish him or her to a similar degree to my own pain”
  • Balancing scales: “If I get back what was taken away from me, then I can forgive”
  • Expectational: “ I can forgive if others put pressure on me to forgive”

Forgiveness IS:

  • A decision
  • Willfully abandoning resentment (to which you have a right)
  • An endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, due to the nature of the hurtful act/s, has no right)
  • Developmental: It takes time, and passes through stages or steps
  • A continuum: Not an all or none phenomenon
  • Work

Understanding what forgiveness is -- and isn’t -- can help give courage to those struggling to forgive. If you are seeking to forgive others, and have found it difficult to do so, there are many resources available to you including those listed below. Many have also found it useful to meet with religious leaders, mental health professionals, or trusted mentors.

*Note: It is important that individuals that have experienced trauma approach forgiveness in a way that is sensitive to their experiences.