5 Ways to Forgive People (Even Those Who Don’t Apologize)

Studies show people who forgive have less depression, use less medicine, have more energy, and are more satisfied with life. All that sounds appealing, but forgiveness can be hard, especially when a transgressor doesn’t apologize. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen weighs in on how to let go of old hurts.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #195

image of two people forgiving each other

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Forgiveness is one of the first lessons we learn: a kid takes our sand toys; the kid’s parent makes him give them back and say sorry. What are we supposed to say next? All together now: “It’s okay.”

But as life moves along, transgressions get bigger and more complicated. Eventually, forgiveness becomes analogous to working out every day: it’s ideal, it’s healthy, and it sounds great in concept, but it’s really hard to pull off in real life.

Before we get too far, let’s define what we’re talking about.

What exactly is forgiveness?

Essentially, it’s a deliberate decision to release feelings of anger, resentment, or vengeance toward someone who has hurt you.

The opposite, unforgiveness, is a roiling mix of resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear. It’s a mindset, but it also has physiological consequences such as immune suppression and cardiovascular stress. 

Unforgiveness isn’t pleasant, so we try to find ways to reduce it. We may dig deep into denial, get revenge through retaliation, pursue justice through legal means, create a convoluted story to explain what happened, or simply move on with life. Or, we can forgive.

Forgiveness is pretty great. A 2009 study found that people with higher forgiveness scores used less medicine, had better sleep quality, were less depressed, had more energy, and enjoyed better cardiovascular health and greater life satisfaction. Not bad.

But forgiveness can be a hard sell. It can feel as if forgiving means excusing the wrongdoing or forgetting it ever happened. Plus, Western culture promotes revenge much more than forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t play well on TV and beef makes for much better publicity than when we all get along.

But in your own life, beef isn’t so pleasant. It hardens your heart. It can keep you stuck and bitter. Plus, unforgiveness can inch you along the path of becoming a transgressor yourself. For example, a study out of the University of Malaga in Spain found that among secondary school students who were victims of cyberbullying, those who scored higher in forgiveness were much less likely to become cyberbullies themselves.

So what to do? Getting hurt by others is an inevitable part of life; we’ll call that pain. But holding a grudge, ruminating on past offenses, or otherwise not forgiving? We’ll call that suffering. And suffering is optional. 

Ultimately, forgiveness is a decision. There is choice involved. And don’t let anyone, including me, tell you when to make the choice. You can forgive whenever you’re ready, or never. 

But this week, by request from two separate listeners, J in Boston and Mark in Italy, we’ll tackle how to forgive, especially people who don’t apologize. Remember, only you can decide when and how to release those feelings, but these five things can help you along.

5 Ways to Forgive People

  1. Make Use of Time
  2. Practice Self-efficacy
  3. Follow a Role Model
  4. Try a Test Run
  5. Stand Up For Yourself

Let's explore each a little further.

Forgiveness Tip #1: Time

It’s been said that time heals all wounds, but a study in the journal Emotion found something much more specific. The researchers actually modeled the mathematical function between time and forgiveness. I’m willing to bet that you’re okay with a spoiler on this one, so here you go: by three months after a transgression, average forgiveness increases by two log-odds units. I’m not sure what that means either, but at least “time heals all wounds” now has an algorithm to back it up.

More importantly, the researchers found that forgiveness went along with valuing one’s relationship with the offender. In short, if the person who did you wrong has a place in your life, make it a goal to forgive, but give yourself time. Time won’t magically confer forgiveness, but it’s a solid foundation from which to do the work of forgiving.

Forgiveness Tip #2: Practice Self-efficacy

Over the course of his career, superstar psychologist Albert Bandura has shown that the most consistent predictor of good health over a lifetime is something called self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the technical term for believing in yourself. It’s the assumption that you can influence what happens in your life. 

Turns out self-efficacy is essential for forgiveness as well. Letting go may seem passive, but it turns out it’s a very active, deliberate decision. Turning a tragedy into an achievement is rooted in a belief that you play a role in your own life.

Forgiveness Tip #3: Follow a Role Model

Sometimes we need someone to show us how it’s done. We need to see a model of forgiveness to inspire humility or compassion. 

The world’s religions model forgiveness: the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—each model God forgiving humanity. Buddhists have the concepts of lovingkindness and letting go of attachment, in this case, attachment to a past they wish was different. In Hinduism, forgiveness is often listed among the cardinal virtues.

But you don’t have to be religious to find a role model for forgiveness. Extraordinary examples of forgiveness can be found in the news, from an Amish community’s forgiveness of a school shooter to Tutsi survivors of the Rwandan genocide forgiving Hutus who killed their loved ones.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.