Forgiveness: How to let go of grudges and bitterness
What is forgiveness?
There's no one definition of forgiveness. But in general, forgiveness
is a decision to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge.
Forgiveness is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings
that bind you to the offense committed against you. This can reduce the
power these feelings otherwise have over you, so that you can a live
freer and happier life in the present. Forgiveness can even lead to
feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt
Doesn't forgiving someone mean you're forgetting or condoning what happened?
Absolutely not! Forgiving isn't the same as forgetting what happened to
you. The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your
life. But forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on
other, positive parts of your life. Forgiveness also doesn't mean that
you deny the other person's responsibility for hurting you, and it
doesn't minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person
without excusing the act. What are the benefits of forgiving someone?
Researchers have recently become interested in studying the effects of
being unforgiving and being forgiving. Evidence is mounting that
holding on to grudges and bitterness results in long-term health
problems. Forgiveness, on the other hand, offers numerous benefits,
- Lower blood pressure
- Stress reduction
- Less hostility
- Better anger management skills
- Lower heart rate
- Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
- Fewer depression symptoms
- Fewer anxiety symptoms
- Reduction in chronic pain
- More friendships
- Healthier relationships
- Greater religious or spiritual well-being
- Improved psychological well-being
Why do we hold grudges and become resentful and unforgiving?
The people most likely to hurt us are those closest to us — our
partners, friends, siblings and parents. When we're hurt by someone we
love and trust — whether it's a lie, betrayal, rejection, abuse or
insult — it can be extremely difficult to overcome. And even minor
offenses can turn into huge conflicts.
When you experience hurt or harm from someone's actions or words,
whether this is intended or not, you may begin experiencing negative
feelings such as anger, confusion or sadness, especially when it's
someone close to you. These feelings may start out small. But if you
don't deal with them quickly, they can grow bigger and more powerful.
They may even begin to crowd out positive feelings. Grudges filled with
resentment, vengeance and hostility take root when you dwell on hurtful
events or situations, replaying them in your mind many times.
Soon, you may find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or
sense of injustice. You may feel trapped and may not see a way out.
It's very hard to let go of grudges at this point and instead you may
remain resentful and unforgiving.
How do I know it's time to try to embrace forgiveness?
When we hold on to pain, old grudges, bitterness and even hatred, many
areas of our lives can suffer. When we're unforgiving, it's we who pay
the price over and over. We may bring our anger and bitterness into
every relationship and new experience. Our lives may be so wrapped up
in the wrong that we can't enjoy the present. Other signs that it may
be time to consider forgiveness include:
- Dwelling on the events surrounding the offense
- Hearing from others that you have a chip on your shoulder or that you're wallowing in self-pity
- Being avoided by family and friends because they don't enjoy being around you
- Having angry outbursts at the smallest perceived slights
- Often feeling misunderstood
- Drinking excessively, smoking or using drugs to try to cope with your pain
- Having symptoms of depression or anxiety
- Being consumed by a desire for revenge or punishment
- Automatically thinking the worst about people or situations
- Regretting the loss of a valued relationship
- Feeling like your life lacks meaning or purpose
- Feeling at odds with your religious or spiritual beliefs
The bottom line is that you may often feel miserable in your current life.
How do I reach a state of forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. It can be difficult
and it can take time. Everyone moves toward forgiveness a little
differently. One step is to recognize the value of forgiveness and its
importance in our lives at a given time. Another is to reflect on the
facts of the situation, how we've reacted, and how this combination has
affected our lives, our health and our well-being. Then, as we are
ready, we can actively choose to forgive the one who has offended us.
In this way, we move away from our role as a victim and release the
control and power the offending person and situation have had in our
Forgiveness also means that we change old patterns of beliefs and
actions that are driven by our bitterness. As we let go of grudges,
we'll no longer define our lives by how we've been hurt, and we may
even find compassion and understanding.
What happens if I can't forgive someone?
Forgiveness can be very challenging. It may be particularly hard to
forgive someone who doesn't admit wrong or doesn't speak of their
sorrow. Keep in mind that the key benefits of forgiveness are for you.
If you find yourself stuck, it may be helpful to take some time to talk
with a person you've found to be wise and compassionate, such as a
spiritual leader, a mental health provider or an unbiased family member
It may also be helpful to reflect on times you've hurt others and on
those who have forgiven you. As you recall how you felt, it may help
you to understand the position of the person who hurt you. It can also
be beneficial to pray, use guided meditation or journal. In any case,
if the intention to forgive is present, forgiveness will come in its
Does forgiveness guarantee reconciliation?
Not always. In some cases, reconciliation may be impossible because the
offender has died. In other cases, reconciliation may not be
appropriate, especially if you were attacked or assaulted. But even in
those cases, forgiveness is still possible, even if reconciliation
On the other hand, if the hurtful event involved a family member or
friend whose relationship you otherwise value, forgiveness may lead to
reconciliation. This may not happen quickly, as you both may need time
to re-establish trust. But in the end, your relationship may very well
be one that is rich and fulfilling.
What if I have to interact with the person who hurt me but I don't want to?
These situations are difficult. If the hurt involves a family member,
it may not always be possible to avoid him or her entirely. You may be
invited to the same family holiday gatherings, for instance. If you've
reached a state of forgiveness, you may be able to enjoy these
gatherings without bringing up the old hurts. If you haven't reached
forgiveness, these gatherings may be tense and stressful for everyone,
particularly if other family members have chosen sides in the conflict.
So how do you handle this? First, remember that you do have a choice
whether to attend or not attend family get-togethers. Respect yourself
and do what seems best. If you choose to go, don't be surprised by a
certain amount of awkwardness and perhaps even more intense feelings.
It's important to keep an eye on those feelings. You don't want them to
lead you to be unjust or unkind in return for what was done to you.
Also, avoid drinking too much alcohol as a way to try to numb your
feelings or feel better — it'll likely backfire. And keep an open heart
and mind. People do change, and perhaps the offender will want to
apologize or make amends. You also may find that the gathering helps
you to move forward with forgiveness.
How do I know when I've truly forgiven someone?
Forgiveness may result in sincerely spoken words such as "I forgive
you" or tender actions that fit the relationship. But more than this,
forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life. The
offense is no longer front and center in your thoughts or feelings.
Your hostility, resentment and misery have made way for compassion,
kindness and peace.
Also, remember that forgiveness often isn't a one-time thing. It begins
with a decision, but because memories or another set of words or
actions may trigger old feelings, you may need to recommit to
forgiveness over and over again.
What if the person I'm forgiving doesn't change?
Getting the other person to change their actions, behavior or words
isn't the point of forgiveness. In fact, the other person may never
change or apologize for the offense. Think of forgiveness more about
how it can change your life — by bringing you more peace, happiness,
and emotional and spiritual healing.
Forgiveness takes away the power the other person continues to wield in
your life. Through forgiveness, you choose to no longer define yourself
as a victim. Forgiveness is done primarily for yourself, and less so
for the person who wronged you.
What if I'm the one who needs forgiveness?
It may help to spend some time thinking about the offense you've
committed and trying to determine the effect it has had on others.
Unless it may cause more harm or distress, consider admitting the wrong
you've done to those you've harmed, speaking of your sincere sorrow or
regret, and specifically asking for forgiveness — without making
But if this seems unwise because it may further harm or distress, don't
do it — it's not about making yourself feel better by apologizing. You
don't want to add salt to a painful wound. Also, keep in mind that you
can't force someone to forgive you. They will need to move to
forgiveness in their own time.
In any case, we have to be willing to forgive ourselves. Holding on to
resentment against yourself can be just as toxic as holding on to
resentment against someone else. Recognize that poor behavior or
mistakes don't make you worthless or bad.
Accept the fact that you — like everyone else — aren't perfect. Accept
yourself despite your faults. Admit your mistakes. Commit to treating
others with compassion, empathy and respect. And again, talking with a
spiritual leader, mental health provider or trusted friend or relative
may be helpful.
Forgiveness of yourself or someone else, though not easy, can transform
your life. Instead of dwelling on the injustice and revenge, instead of
being angry and bitter, you can move toward a life of peace,
compassion, mercy, joy and kindness.
© 1998-2008 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and
Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials
may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo
Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "EmbodyHealth," "Reliable tools for
healthier lives," "Enhance your life," and the triple-shield Mayo
Clinic logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and