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

Whether you find your model in the world’s religions or an inspiring story from the other side of the world or your own neighborhood, a real-life model of forgiveness gives you something to aspire to.

Forgiveness Tip #4: Try a Test Run

Forgiveness doesn’t suddenly turn on like a light switch. Instead it’s a process. And just like a good workout, forgiveness is enhanced by a warmup routine. Therefore, sometimes a test run can limber us up and get us ready. 

Here are three ideas: one is to bring to mind a previous instance in which you forgave someone. Remember not only what happened, but also how the process of forgiveness felt emotionally and physiologically in your body. Remember how it felt to let go.

Another is to close your eyes and visualize a scene in which you forgive the person who has wronged you—again, the more vivid you can make this scene, both in terms of sensory detail and how it feels in your body, the more effective it can be. 

And a third way is to write a letter granting forgiveness. This letter doesn’t get sent; it’s just for your benefit. But there’s something about processing an emotion to the point where it can be turned into language that helps move the forgiveness process along. 

Forgiveness Tip #5: Stand Up For Yourself

The past is in the past. But there are things you can do going forward to make forgiving future transgressions easier.

A study out of the University of Calgary found that what the researchers called “confrontation coping” in the moment, which can be as simple as telling the person not to treat you that way, hangs together with future signifiers of forgiveness, like agreeing with the statements, “I wish good things to happen to the perpetrator,” “When I see the perpetrator, I feel at peace,” or simply, “I forgave the perpetrator.” In short, standing up for yourself in the moment makes forgiveness easier and more likely later.

What’s the alternative to standing up for yourself? Something I talk a lot about on the podcast: our old frenemy avoidance. Avoidance is exactly what it sounds like—avoiding the issue, staying away, or not engaging, and it maintains pretty much every kind of mental health problem there is.

Let go of pain and bitterness, especially when holding on to those emotions costs you more than it buys you.

Unforgiveness is no exception. Never talking about the past, pretending a transgression didn’t happen, or cutting the person out of your life—all these forms of avoidance are a double-edged sword. Sometimes, it’s smart. Sometimes it is best to cut poisonous, abusive people out of your life. 

But it also comes with a price. The same University of Calgary study found that, when it comes to forgiveness, avoidance can lead to emotional exhaustion and is more likely to make you retaliate and hold that grudge even longer.

All in all, forgiveness is work. It takes time. And it’s a choice. The sense of strength and defiance you get from unforgiveness can be motivating and energizing. So if you’re not yet ready to give that up, that’s totally fine. But if you’re holding a grudge and can’t even remember what you’re angry about, or you’re just tired of holding on to pain and bitterness, think about letting go.

How to Forgive People Who Don’t Apologize

Our listeners J and Mark asked specifically about how to forgive individuals who don’t apologize. This is a tough one. 

One way to look at it is this: failing to apologize means everything about them and nothing about you. As Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the  attribute of the strong.” Same thing goes for apologizing. 

Most often, people who don’t apologize think apology is a sign of weakness that makes them vulnerable and puts them at risk. They cover this with bravado and stubborness, but you can trust that it’s a show, and a sad one, at that. With some work and perspective, you can cultivate a sense of compassion for someone who is too weak or fearful to admit they were wrong.

Why else should you forgive someone who isn’t sorry or isn’t strong enough to express it? Consider this: forgiveness isn’t for them. It’s for you. You can choose to forgive not because they deserve forgiveness, or because they expressed remorse, but because you deserve the peace of mind forgiveness brings.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and a survivor of multiple concentration camps during the Holocaust. In his classic 1959 book, Man’s Search for Meaning,he wrote that even in the most dehumanized and brutal of settings, life has meaning. Even suffering has meaning. He wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” 

So let go of pain and bitterness, especially when holding on to those emotions costs you more than it buys you. Don’t wait for an apology that may never come—that gives your transgressor the power to end your pain. Remember, if you’ve endured a burning, you get to choose when to give the light.

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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.