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How to Forgive When You Don’t Think You Can

Angry Couple

“The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward.” ~Steve Maraboli

Have you ever had a relationship, friendship, or marriage that ended so badly it took years, a decade, or even longer to heal? Have you ever wished you could forgive someone but just didn’t think it was possible?

Fifteen years ago I was twenty-six and in a relationship with a man that was destructive. After an intense romance in his home country, I made the poor decision that he should come to live with me in San Francisco—a decision that, in hindsight, was immature.

Three months and one visa sponsorship later, we were living together and immediately fell into the challenges of modern day multicultural relationships.

Aside from the fact that my boyfriend was jealous, obsessive, and immature—a trait I hadn’t seen clearly in the beginning—he couldn’t work legally, we didn’t have a common fluent language between us, and he was far away from his family for the first time in his life.

The worst and most difficult part, however, were our cultural differences. My boyfriend was jealous, obsessive, and controlling, whereas I was a young, driven, independent woman.

He would become despondent, accusatory, suspicious, and sometimes even fly into a jealous rage whenever I left the house.

Our relationship became emotionally abusive, yet I was scared to leave. He was financially dependent on me, he couldn’t work and didn’t have anywhere else to go, and he didn’t have any family in the United States.

I was riddled with guilt and felt horrible, because I had brought him to the US and felt responsible for him.

After a year of struggle, he moved out and I settled into numbness, not wanting to begin to unearth the emotions that needed to be processed in order to recover. I was emotionally scarred and suffered years of nightmares.

Time passed and I pushed the hatred in my heart deeply out of awareness. We never spoke, until a few years ago.

I had just been through a traumatic family experience, and had begun a Metta, or loving-kindness, practice as a means of understanding the circumstances taking place in my life. Surprisingly, the practice enabled me to find forgiveness in my heart for my ex-boyfriend.

Metta is a traditional Buddhist tool for cultivating loving-kindness. In the practice, we sit as if in meditation and let the energy of love into our hearts.

We repeat a mantra in which we hold in mind a life without danger, with mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being.

We start by imagining happiness and compassion for ourselves, and then, progressively, we extend love out into the world, to a benefactor, a friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, groups of people, and finally to all beings.

I sat in the Metta practice for ten minutes daily, and I picked my ex-boyfriend as my “difficult person.”

At first I had difficulty when I held him in mind and wished him a life of happiness and well-being, as I didn’t really feel he deserved that. However, over time it became easier and my resistance subsided.

One day, after about a month of the practice, I was sitting at my computer and on a whim decided to look him up on Facebook. I looked at some pictures of him rock climbing, and a smile came to my lips.

I saw some images he had posted, of cliffs, mountains, and people bouldering, and by and by I came across a girl, a baby a few months old, words of congratulations, a graduation, and more congratulations.

Lots of memories came flooding back, and this time I didn’t block them out. I remembered our tears, his pain at losing me, the very different places we had been at in our lives during the time we were together, how naive and young we both had been.

I came to the realization that I had as much to forgive myself for during that time as I did him. The tears brought about relief and then happiness, as I found myself truly happy for all of the good things that had come to him after we parted, evidenced by what I saw on Facebook.

Then some good memories came to me; I had blocked them out over years of resentment and the inability to see anything good in him.

I remembered what he had given me, how he had opened my eyes to a new culture, helped me explore a new country, revived my love of the outdoors, and supported me during my foibles with Spanish.

An image flashed through my mind of a day we finished a pitch on a long climb in Yosemite, and I remembered that day with true and genuine fondness.

This experience moved me and was the final step in my full healing from the wounds of many years before.

Letting go of my negativity and resentment toward him brought about a lightness. He no longer appears in my dreams; I am able to look at everything that happened as a learning experience.

The Metta practice served as a tool for me to discover the compassion in my heart, for him but mostly for myself, enabling the pain to surface, be processed, and dissolve.

How can we use the healing power of loving-kindness in our daily lives? Especially when we don’t feel ready to forgive, when the effects of abuse go too deep, or when we simply don’t feel the other person deserves to be forgiven?

Like the Metta Practice, there are tools we can use to overcome our own blocks to forgiveness, even when our minds and hearts aren’t ready.

Here are some tips to remember:

We are the primary beneficiaries of the practice.

Despite the fact that during the Metta practice we focus on others, we are always the primary beneficiaries of our efforts.

We can forgive someone and it doesn’t require getting in touch with that person or making them aware of what we are doing in any way. Just as when we hold hatred in our hearts we are the ones who suffer from it, when we find love in our hearts we benefit.

It is best to start by cultivating love and compassion for someone we already love.

Often the easiest place to start is not with ourselves but with someone for whom we already feel great love—a child, a dear friend, someone we admire or who has helped us in our lives.

Even if we never extend our practice beyond this point, we already reap the rewards of the process itself. We are the ones who feel the great energy in the heart when we focus on our true desire for another to be happy and free from physical and mental pain.

We must forgive ourselves for not being willing to forgive.

Some human experiences are simply so destructive, some abuse so acute that we may not have the energy to process it. In this case, we can still benefit from forgiving ourselves for whatever negativity we hold toward ourselves for not being able to forgive or fully let go of the pain of our experience.

Choosing to keep debilitating resentment and pain out of our awareness so that we can function in the world can also be a positive choice, if we stop feeling guilty about it.

We can always choose to go at our own pace.

We are always in charge of our own pace of change. We might not feel like forgiving now, and this doesn’t mean that we can’t choose it in the future. In the same vein, we can let go of our fear of forgiving by remembering we can always go back and harbor some resentment if we want to.

We do not deserve to suffer.

One of the illusions that we must let go of is that if we stop suffering, our aggressor will somehow benefit or be better off for it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We hurt ourselves, when we deserve our own compassion. Even when a person doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, we certainly do not deserve to continue to suffer emotionally over them.

Before beginning a forgiveness practice, we can ask ourselves, “What do I have to gain from this?” and “How is holding this resentment harming or benefitting me?”

There is always love and openness to be gained from forgiving, from processing our pain and grief, but when and how much we do is always of our own choosing.

In choosing to forgive we choose ourselves and take back our power. It doesn’t mean that we need to befriend our difficult person or that we should begin spending time again with someone who has deeply harmed us in the past.

In the case of my ex-boyfriend, we did not end up becoming friends again. However, I did end up sending him a Facebook message in which I shared that I had been engaged in a loving-kindness practice and that despite all our troubles, I had forgiven him and truly hoped he was happy.

Almost immediately, there was a response. He was indeed a new father, living in his home country with his wife. He had forgiven me long ago, he said, and he had always felt grateful to me, for bringing him to the United States.

After we parted, he went on to achieve some of his life’s dreams; he had climbed El Capitan, he had gotten his master’s degree, found a good job, and eventually moved back to Colombia with his wife to have a family.

He was happy to know that I, too, was happy and successful in life, he’d always known and hoped that I would be. And truly I am.

Profile photo of Emily Felt

About Emily Felt

In addition to working in public health research and management, Emily is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. She enjoys writing about travel, food, parenting, and health and wellbeing. Her current favorite topic is joy and how it inspires us in daily life. Emily currently splits her time between California and Barcelona with her husband and children. Visit her at quotidianwisdom.com.

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  • Cate

    A lovely and meaningful post; thank you for sharing your experience. I am learning, repeatedly and ever more deeply, that forgiveness of self and other are inseparable, that the mercy and freedom we grant in forgiving are given, in that act, to ourselves. Happy holidays to you!

  • De

    I’m having a hard time for forgiving my father having a sexual relationship abusing me when I was a little girl for years. He claims to not remember doing anything to me.
    I am a kind loving wife, mother and friend. I’m not a bitter person. I do have a lot of depression (runs in the family). I can’t tell if I have forgiven him or just don’t want to say the word. I don’t care to ever see him again or say that I love him. I don’t need him in my life again.
    I don’t wish him any ill will in this life. Trusting that Heavenly Father will take care of any punishment or repentance.

  • Adam

    Congratulations to you Emily for recovering from all of that toxicity. I myself have overcome a similar situation and have learned to forgive with no contact. For me personally it’s easier to stay no contact and keep your promise to always be there for the people we allowed to hurt us emotionally with prayer and mediation especially during the holidays (Christmas, Easter, Birthdays,etc.) and focus on our own well being. Life is too short. Seasons Greetings!

  • Emily Felt

    Dear Adam, I think it’s wonderful that you have been able to forgive and heal. No contact can always be a good option, sometimes the best one. Life is most definitely too short to spend hurting. Seasons greetings to you!

  • Emily Felt

    Happy Holidays Cate.

    Similar to you, my life constantly shows me that forgiveness of others is forgiveness of myself. It’s really all about finding self love. Best wishes.

  • Emily Felt

    Hi De,
    Thanks for sharing your comments and experience. I agree with you. Depression runs in my family too and it offers a constant challenge and opportunity for learning and surrender. My warmest wishes! Emily

  • Forgiveness can happen without forgetting…

  • dc

    there are seven steps to an apology.
    the passage of time is not one of them

  • Justina Gustafson

    I understand your situation! People from other countries outside the USA are raised the old fashioned way, like the pioneer days. Women are to be housewives/mothers and men are the breadwinners. I didn’t know that when I met my husband. He is an immigrant from Mexico. I fell in love w/him, agreed to do the residency sponsor thing, I went to Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico and met the rest of my in laws .. old fashioned pilgrims! Well he is as you described: jealous, controlling, emotionally abusive, and I am w/him 24/7. I love him, but he needs help. I’m glad you figured everything out though. Don’t get involved again w/someone unless you really know how they are. I got married too soon.

  • Emily Felt

    Hi Justina, I can sympathize with your situation. My intercultural relationships have taught me a lot. After breaking up with my ex-boyfriend I went on to meet and marry a man from Spain. It’s a good healthy relationship and we have two children. Relationships though, are always changing. We constantly have opportunities to grow. Thank goodness for that.

  • ShaunTheCHB

    I look at forgiveness as a sign of surrender, like waving the white flag and saying “ok, you got me, I lose, you win”. Especially if the person who did the crime has not apologized. If you do the crime, face up and do the time, owe up for what you did. I could forgive someone who does that. But most people today are happy to stick their heads in the sand and hope the passage of time makes one forget about the deed. I can’t forgive people who did me wrong and got off free from it, I would feel like a loser and that I was defeated if I did. That I lost the battle and the bad guys won. If I hold on to that resentment, than maybe, justice will come to my wrong doers and I can then move on with a clear conscience.

  • sian e lewis

    Hard as it is to forgive ( don’t I know it,) if you can’t, you’ll hurt yourself, even more long after these people, who probably aren’t worth your thoughts will have long forgotten what they did.

  • DrAwesome

    I feel this whole ‘forgive and forget’ thing is not applicable to all cases.
    In my case I got dumped completely on my partner’s whim after 3 years of what I thought was a good relationship. She even stated bluntly she’d ‘figured it out’ on her own. Without any discussion she left, and hasn’t spoken to me since.
    That is her running away from taking responsibility for her own choices, and nothing else. This affected my life as much as it did hers, maybe even more. Forgiveness is impossible.. The only thing keeping me from doing something stupid is knowing that I am no longer with a person as toxic as her. I cannot ‘move on’ knowing how easy it is for someone to burn their partner who was doing their level best to make them happy.

  • ShaunTheCHB

    If what you are saying is true and they have indeed forgotten what they did, then I have already lost. That was my only hope and the only thing that kept me going in life, that I would get justice and right the wrongs that were done. If that truly is the case, then there is nothing left for me…. I hope you are wrong Sian, I really do.

  • Kaeley Nicole Hux

    I had been with a man for almost 4 years. I was a mother to his son from a previous relationship, I also moved from Michigan to Texas to be with this person. Almost two years into the relationship he started cheating on me with his boss who was married with three kids. I helped him get the job in the first place. He ended up kicking me out numerous times and each time he would inisist things would be different but they never were. This woman has been in both of the homes we shared, and is well aware I exist and I was pregnant with his child. She doesn’t care. She’s very mean to me. The last time we had broken up, we stayed apart for a year and both had different relationships. Now he has come back and says that over the time we spent apart he really has realized the bullshit he put me through, and he wants to be a better man. I can’t let go of him sleeping with this woman because she resurfaces when she feels like it. Like mosquito larvae. I need help with my life because I’m going crazy. I feel like I’m never going to find happiness and peace again, and I know this is not fair to myself as I never asked for this woman to be a part of my life. Someone just talk to me please. I don’t know what else to do.

  • Juan

    Karley, that’s a horrible feeling I’m all too familiar with. Just remember you deserve to be happy and if the situation doesn’t lend itself to that, then maybe it’s not the right situation for you. Best of luck to you. Keep your head up and know you’ll get through it ok.

  • Sliceo’pie

    My husband/partner of 18 years left, without any warning Sept/2016. I feel so very sad and hurt. I cry on and off all day and my depression has gotten worse-I had hoped it would improve by now. I understanding I’m grieving and it will take time. I’m ashamed that I’m having difficulty taking care of myself and my son. My husband’s leaving reminds me of my mother abandoning me over and over as a child. I am 53 but I suddenly feel like a small child inside. Admittedly, I feel very sorry for myself.
    I’m trying to teach myself to meditate-I know as painful as this situation is, I feel instinctively I can use it as an opportunity to grow and possibly finally heal my childhood wounds and reach a higher place of being than I was before. (I don’t know if that makes sense). I don’t feel as angry at my husband as I feel incredibly hurt-I’ve always believed that under the anger is usually a hurt and wounded person.
    I’ve just begun the practice, while meditating. of trying to send my husband good will, kindness and to wish him well. I believe that forgiving him will help me-he no longer cares what I think about him-he rarely will speak to me.
    I’m having more trouble forgiving myself. I constantly beat myself up.
    I’d appreciate Any suggestions you have for forgiving myself so that I can move on. It would be greatly appreciated. I apologize for the length. Thank you.