Forgiveness Doesn’t Require An Apology


Are you good at forgiveness?

The answer probably depends a lot on the next question: What’s the worst thing someone has done to you?

  • Was it a friend who smiled to your face and stabbed you in the back?
  • Was it a family member who made promises then didn’t follow through, leaving your life plans in limbo?
  • Was it the boyfriend who stole your heart then ghosted?
  • Was it the boss who wouldn’t honor your contract and cheated you out of tens of thousands of dollars?
  • Was it a stranger who caused a car accident that left you with years of pain?

For me, it was all of the above and more. However, composing this list was really difficult–not because these events were so painful I didn’t want to bring them back up, rather that they were hard to remember. They’re in the archived section of my brain where I rarely venture. They’ve been decluttered and are settled accounts, old news, no longer on my daily radar.

All-consuming Anger

When each of these events was fresh, oh yes, I was angry. And hurt, sad, frustrated, incredulous, worried, and scared. But mostly angry.

How could people treat me so badly? What gave them the right to act like that? Who even does that? Were they raised by jackals?

These were supposed to be grown-ups, people I looked up to and respected. The fact that they too were flawed human beings rocked my world.

Each of these events consumed my days and kept me up at night. They were all I wanted to talk about. I wanted people to be on my side so my anger and pain were validated, and a supportive audience made me feel so good! I thought that if I could convince enough others that I was right, then maybe the people involved would apologize and the inciting events would miraculously be reversed.

You can guess how successful that plan was.

A Look In The Mirror

Over time and with more life experience, though, I realized that if I stayed angry with these people forever, I’d also have to stay angry with myself forever because I, too, have been the bad friend and the flip-flopping family member.

But it was different! I had good reasons and I was stressed out and insecure. Life happened and plans changed. It wasn’t all my fault!

But I was still the bad friend and flip-flopping family member. I guess no one’s perfect.

I had a choice: to stay angry at everyone, including myself, or to consciously try to move forward.

When I apologized to those I’d hurt (though sometimes many years too late), they were amazingly gracious. In fact, most of them acted like it was no big deal.

Maybe they really had forgotten, or maybe they were too nice to tell me if they hadn’t, but what was the point in continuing to beat myself up over things no one else hated me for anymore?

Since they moved on, shouldn’t I move on too?

And A Look Back Out To The World

These gracious friends and family taught me how to find peace.

I let things go. Large and small, I decided to stop keeping score. To stop (for the most part) trying to drag everyone into my drama. I sometimes fail, but I keep trying.

I try to remember that just as I had good reasons (or so they seemed at the time) for the harm I caused, others probably felt the same way. Now I try to give others the benefit of the doubt even when I don’t know the whole story.

Maybe my friend who no-showed for the fourteenth time is depressed or hurting and doesn’t want to drag me into her drama. Maybe she’s too busy with her kids. So what if I see photos of her on Facebook smiling with other people, even sans kids? Maybe she’s a flake or doesn’t care about me, and maybe I won’t keep making plans with her, but continuing to choose anger won’t help.

As for the friend who dropped off the face of the earth on the day of the half-marathon she convinced me to run with her, well, maybe she pulled a muscle or overslept (again, Facebook posts indicate otherwise). I trust and respect her a little less now, but I don’t regret training for and running my first (and last) race.

Maybe the boyfriend who disappeared without a phone call or even a text was scared or thought it would be kinder to not actually have the conversation (wrong!). Or maybe he was a narcissistic jerk who liked breaking hearts, but choosing to remain angry just made me feel unhappy, not him.

As for the bad driver, he probably didn’t have such a great day either, and it was his insurance company rather than the driver himself who took a year and a half to pay my medical bills. Channeling anger toward a faceless behemoth isn’t very effective, and my accident certainly pales in comparison to this man’s story. I dare you to read that article and still complain about anything in your own life.

I Don’t Want To Know

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention a time when I intentionally cheated someone and tried to intimidate him into silence by making vague threats. That’s because I haven’t done those things, I don’t plan to, and I can’t think of any circumstances in which I ever would.

It’s hard for me to empathize with people like this because I simply don’t understand them, and that’s a good thing.

I fear that if I could understand what leads them to behave in such an abhorrent manner, then maybe I could justify doing the same thing. Thus, me being completely flummoxed protects my potential victims and the world remains a better place.

That said, holding on to my anger does no good.

I learned to be a little more vigilant and a little less trusting, and these are valuable life lessons. I learned that in any large group, there’s likely to be a bad apple, and it’s good to stay somewhat independent and have plenty of options.

Oh, That?

You might have also noticed that nowhere on my list was an action by an unidentifiable perpetrator.

Could I be angry that someone dinged the door of my new car? Sure. Could I be angry that it rained during our vacation? Of course.

Somehow, though, it’s much tougher to build up a good head of steam without a specific face toward which to direct my wrath. It just isn’t satisfying, and I’m grateful for that. It’s freeing to let the anger/frustration/sadness pass and just deal with the situation.

Lessons Learned

First and foremost, the world doesn’t stop because something bad or sad happens to me. The longer I stay mired in my own drama, the more I suffer and the more of life’s wonder and adventures I’ll miss out on. Giving forgiveness lifts a huge weight and people don’t have to apologize or even believe they did anything wrong for me to move on.

Second, I’m just as guilty as almost everyone else. I probably hurt a lot of people without realizing it, and I’m sorry for that. When I become aware of these situations, I do my best to make them right.

Third, just because I’ve forgiven people doesn’t mean that we start over from scratch. They don’t necessarily deserve my trust anymore, but letting go of the anger and hurt and trying to see things from their point of view offers a welcome sense of peace. Boundaries, Henry Cloud’s book on this process, is priceless.

Fourth, trying to depersonalize an affront helps make it easier to just deal with the problem and move on.

Fifth, painful experiences are never fun but can lead to better life choices and outcomes. I’m so grateful that all my previous relationships ended in breakups so I could meet my husband. I’m grateful my boss showed his true colors and I escaped from the company before becoming legally tied to the whole mess. I’m even grateful that I’ve had some bad friends so I can truly appreciate the ones who stand by me.

Life is full of ups and downs, but without the low points we can’t recognize and savor the highs.

How do you achieve forgiveness? Please share your tips in the comments below.

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Comments 14

  1. I used to have friends who, after someone dumped them, would ruminate forever about how they just wanted to get “closure.” I tried to reminder that like Dorothy the Wizard of Oz, they had the power to give themselves closure. Now it’s easy for me to give that advice, but I admit to hanging on to things too long too, like that friend who just sort of dumped me for reasons I still don’t know. Or other random reasons. I have to be the one to provide closure for myself.

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  2. Wow! This is great stuff. When I was younger, forgiveness was much harder. I would hang on to it and stew about it. But after having kids and getting older, forgiveness comes much easier. My husband has been a wonderful influence in this regard – he’s quick to forgive and rarely gets angry. Any more, I forgive quickly and move on with my own life. That said, I find it much harder to forgive myself.

    “The longer I stay mired in my own drama, the more I suffer and the more of life’s wonder and adventures I’ll miss out on.” I LOVE this point. It’s not worth it to let the anger or drama rule your days, when there is so much good to experience! Constantly dwelling on the past can steal the present.

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      Amanda, I wonder why age brings these changes. Is it an organic change in our brains, comparison with prior experiences, or just lessons learned? For a two-year-old who loses her blanket, it’s devastating. For the 30-something who loses a favorite object it’s sad, but there’s the opportunity to get a new (and better) one.
      Maybe it’s the same with forgiving others and ourselves too. After beating ourselves up for years, we realize that it isn’t productive. If we forgive ourselves a few times we learn that the world keeps turning, so we can make amends and move forward.

  3. I tend to be quick to forgive, mostly because I don’t want to hang on to those negative emotions. Sometimes I set new boundaries or adjust my expectations. Sometimes I realize my life would be better if that person wasn’t in it. But at the end of the day, it’s a realization that I am not the judge and jury. I don’t have to punish them or hold them accountable. So I try to learn a bit from the situation and move on.

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  4. I definitely believe that this has come more with age for me. The older I get, the less I want to feel angry or upset with folks. What I find is that I distance myself from them, rather than come out and actually forgive them though. Even if I have forgiven, if the other person doesn’t know it – it doesn’t help I guess. Makes me think that I have to work on that for sure.

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      I’d bet that you’re better at this than most, and distance can help you heal enough to eventually forgive. Plus, sometimes I wonder if the person being forgiven even knows there was something to forgive. If it’s a pattern that’s negatively impacting her life, then letting her know is the kinder (though more uncomfortable) option. If it’s a one-off event, though, maybe it’s best to let it go.

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  5. I’ve found that’s is much easier for me to forgive and forget with every passing year. I don’t know if that’s a sign a maturity or wisdom (probably both 😛 ). There also seems to be some self-perpetuation going on here as well because the more I don’t let that stuff weigh me down, the better I feel and the easier it is for me to let things go.

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