How to Forgive (But Not Forget)
On September 15, 2001, four days after the 9/11 attacks, Frank Roques sat in an Applebees in Mesa, Arizona and declared to his waiter, “I’m going to go out and shoot some towel heads.”
Frank then went home, loaded his guns into his truck, and drove around town looking for targets. He passed a Chevron station. Outside, a man with a long beard and turban named Balbir Singh Sodhi was planting flowers in front of the gas station he mstylanaged. Frank pulled into the station, got out of his truck, and shot Balbir five times in the back, killing him.
Balbir Singh Sodhi was not Arab or even Muslim. He was Sikh, a member of a religion that originated a few hundred years ago in Punjab, India. But due to cultural stereotypes, Frank didn’t know the difference. When he was caught and arrested, Frank asked the police why they were arresting him. “I’m a patriot!” he said. “I’m an American!”
At his trial, Frank was sentenced to death. But an unlikely person stood up and requested that he not be executed: Balbir’s brother, Rana. Rana, also a Sikh, argued that by killing the man who murdered his brother, you removed his opportunity to express remorse and grow as an individual. Frank’s sentence was downgraded to life in prison.
That remorse would quickly arrive. Frank felt terrible regret, tortured by what he had done. He was mistaken, he said. Wrong. Years later, Frank would tell Rana, “I want you to know from my heart, I’m sorry for what I did to your brother,” Frank said. “One day, when I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother, and I will hug him, and I will ask him for forgiveness.”1
But Rana’s response was perhaps even more shocking than Frank’s admission of regret. “We already forgave you,” he replied.
Rana became an activist, promoting awareness and understanding about different cultures living in the United States and promoting forgiveness towards the extremists who committed acts of terror. And through his forgiveness, Rana picked up an unexpected convert: Frank, his brother’s killer.
“I would join up with him and stand arm-in-arm with him, and preaching to whoever will listen that even though we’re different, we’re all brothers,” Frank said. “It takes a really good man to forgive for something terrible that has happened that has affected his life and his family’s. So that told me what kind of man he is.”2
Rana, in turn, has told Frank, “If I had the power to take you out from prison, I would do it right now. If one day you come out, we can both go to the world and tell the story.”
Okay, time out, what the actual fuck? Is this even real? I can barely forgive the mailman for screwing up the delivery of my health insurance card last month and this guy is wishing his brother’s murderer to be let out of prison?
I know, it sounds insane. But Rana’s forgiveness is real. And it’s not even unique. A number of people have publicly forgiven murderers of the people they love. You see the news stories pop up every couple years or so.3, 4 I don’t know if I could do it. But it does happen.
If forgiveness was a muscle then what Rana did was like deadlifting 800 pounds straight off the floor. It’s a feat of emotional strength that few people on this planet could ever muster. But like a muscle, the ability to forgive needs to be exercised and grown over a long period of time. And just as our physical muscles keep our physical body healthy and strong, forgiveness can keep our emotional bodies healthy and strong.
What Is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is choosing to not let negative events of the past define how you feel about someone or something in the present.
Forgiveness has all sorts of mental health benefits. It increases feelings of happiness and decreases feelings of anger and grief.5 It helps alleviate anxiety and depression.6 It improves your relationships.7 And it makes you less self-conscious or insecure around others.8
Important point: Forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting. If someone screws you out of a bunch of money, that doesn’t mean you have to go loan them your car the next day. You can forgive them while still maintaining that boundary of “over my dead body” when it comes to a loan or finances. Similarly, you can forgive someone and still remove them from your life. Hell, the person doesn’t even necessarily know you forgave them. You can just forgive them for your sake and move on with your life.
Forgiveness is choosing to not let negative events of the past define how you feel about someone or something in the present.
The point of this is to say that forgiveness is a purely psychological process. It doesn’t necessarily have any real-world repercussions (unless you want it to).
When you carry resentment with you—when you hold onto anger towards yourself or others—it weighs you down like a chain hanging across your shoulders. It drains energy, increases stress and makes you no fun at birthday parties. Developing the ability to let go of resentment and forgive is therefore a fundamental tool for your sanity toolbox. There’s a reason why pretty much every religion espouses it.
The problem with resentment is that it forces you to live in the past. Much in the same way regret causes you to become “stuck” in the moment in which the terrible thing happened, an inability to forgive yourself or others permanently fixes that person to that past moment. They are never a new or evolved or different person to you, they’re just the same old piece of shit in a different colored candy wrapping.
That said, forgiveness is far easier said than done. And it’s not necessarily a cure-all. I’ve forgiven some people in my past, but I can still get uncomfortable and peeved when dealing with them. I still sometimes want to avoid them. Sometimes my baggage pops back up and I have to go through the forgiveness process all over again. Shit happens.
But for smaller relationship matters, the ability to forgive and move on is critical for maintaining a healthy and happy relationship with the people you care about.9, 10 Even if you’re pissed and the anger is still lingering, what matters is that you do not let yourself or the relationship be defined by it. Because if you do, then it’s the express train to toxic relationship land with little to no return service.
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How to Forgive Someone
Forgiveness can be tricky as it’s emotional in nature. It’s easy to say to yourself something like, “I should forgive Dad for missing my graduation because he was too drunk to remember it was June,” but when the rubber hits the road—i.e., when it actually comes time to feel the relinquishing of that anger and judgment, it feels impossible.
Below I’ve put together a five-step process for fostering more forgiveness in your relationships. Since the cool thing to do these days is create an acronym out of the first letter for each step to help you remember them, I’ve created five steps that spell out “SUE ME” when put in order. That way the next time you tell someone, “Fuck you, so sue me,” you can be reminded that you should probably be forgiving someone (or yourself).
The five steps of SUE ME are:
- Separate the action from the person
- Understand their motivation
- Mark your boundaries
- Eliminate emotional attachment
Let’s take them one by one.
1. Separate the Action From the Person
There’s a saying called Hanlon’s Razor that I like which says, “Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity.”11
I love this because I believe there are few truly sadistic people in the world, but pretty much all of us can be totally hateful morons if you put us in the wrong context with the wrong information.12
We all succumb to behaviors that are not reflective of who we actually are. Hell, just last week, I ate an entire pint of ice cream by myself and proceeded to hate myself for the next six hours. Does that mean I am the person who eats an entire pint of ice cream out of pure gluttony? No, it’s just an action that I wasn’t particularly proud of. It didn’t align with my values or the person I aspire to be. But it happened. So I forgave myself and moved on.
This separation of the action from the person is crucial to reaching any sort of closure with anyone in your life. Everyone—and I mean absolutely everyone—does bad things in their life. But very few people in this world are bad people.
In Christianity, this is often described as, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Many other religions have their own versions of this concept. Most religions are built around some central tenet of unconditional forgiveness. And that forgiveness begins in separating the action from the person.
From a secular point of view, if you study enough psychology, you discover that there’s not really such a thing as a “self” anyway. It’s this imagined construct, a mental target that is always moving, changing, and evolving. In that sense, any “bad person” is constantly moving, changing and evolving—or at least has the potential to. Therefore, it’s this focus on the potential for change or evolution—the possibility for new beliefs and actions—that is at the core of forgiveness.
2. Understand Their Motivation
As a general rule, people who do hurtful things do so because they are hurt themselves. Few people in this world are sadists. Most people who appear to take some sort of pleasure in hurting you or others are most likely compensating for the pain that they feel. Often times, fucked up belief systems have cornered them into doing some heinous shit, and they are some combination of too dumb/scared/insecure to question those beliefs.
As a general rule, people who do hurtful things do so because they are hurt themselves.
But whatever this person has done, look for some explanation of their motivation beyond “they are a piece of shit.” Some examples:
- A woman who cheats on her husband does it because she feels lonely and ignored and the cheating was merely a cry for attention to know someone cared.
- The man who cheats on his taxes does so because he’s terrified he won’t be able to provide for his family.
- The dude who stole your phone feels justified as he’s grown up in poverty and been screwed over by a corrupt system repeatedly throughout his life.
Whether these reasons are true or not is beside the point. The point is that no one thinks they’re being evil. Everyone feels justified in what they are doing—otherwise they wouldn’t do it!
Also, you might say, “Okay, but feeling lonely and ignored doesn’t give you permission to break the trust of your marriage.” You’re right, it doesn’t. But we separated the action from the person, remember? These are not excuses. They are simply explanations. And before you can forgive someone, it helps to understand why they did what they did.
Because without understanding someone’s motivation, it’s impossible to empathize with them. And when it comes down to it, forgiveness is ultimately a form of empathy.
Now the hard part: you gotta empathize with the fucking person. Empathy is a whole skill unto itself. Empathy means you take whatever pain motivated that person and you imagine that you have that same pain yourself.
You imagine the confusion and horror of seeing your workplace shut down and lay everybody off. You visualize that pain and stress of struggling with an addiction. You challenge yourself to feel whatever adversity you can imagine they’ve gone through and then pretend you’ve gone through it yourself.
It’s hard to do. But it’s arguably one of the most important of all human skills. Our empathy is one of the only things that separates us from animals. It’s what gives us a foothold into morality. It’s what fills life with a sense of meaning.
If you really want to boil it down, empathy is forgiveness and vice-versa. If forgiveness is the ability to see the person as a multi-faceted and complex human being, empathizing with them is what gets you there. When you no longer see the wrong action as the totality of their character and merely one small resultant part of their character, you’ve reached a state of forgiveness.
4. Mark Your Boundaries
Once you’ve empathized with the person and decided that, no, maybe they’re not a moldy shit tumor after all, it’s time to ask yourself what role you want them to have in your life, if any at all.
The difficulty of this largely depends on your relationship with the person. If it’s a stranger, it’s usually quite easy, just tell them to fuck off. If it’s a friend, it can be a bit harder. If it’s family, it’s really hard. And if it’s you who’s the moldy shit cancer, then it’s literally impossible.
I’ve written a lot about boundaries over the years, but here’s the quick and dirty version:
- Set rules. Define which behaviors you will and will not accept.
- Decide on consequences. If someone breaks one of your rules, what are the consequences?
- Communicate the above calmly and compassionately.
So this might look something like: “Look mom, I forgive you for abandoning me to marry a trucker. It has taken me years of therapy to understand that you were addicted to milk thistle and had intense insecurities around handlebar moustaches. But I also want you to know that while I forgive you, that doesn’t give you a right to be a part of my life. I’m happy to talk to you, but for now I don’t want to include you in any family activities. I ask that you please respect that, otherwise I will have to cut off contact.”
Boom. Nailed it.
What’s important about boundaries is not necessarily the result. Some people will respect your boundaries, some will not. What is important is that boundaries give you a clear sense how to manage each situation with this individual, no matter what happens.
5. Eliminate Emotional Attachment
The final step of forgiveness is to let go of the emotional attachment that you’ve developed around hating this person’s guts for so long. Let the hatred and anger wash away, let the visions of revenge and misfortune die. It’s not helping anyone, least of all yourself.
Yes, the emotions will still rise in you around this person, but simply let them go. There’s an old Native American fable that says that inside us all we have two wolves battling for our attention. One wolf is our love. The other is our fear. And whichever wolf we feed will grow stronger and begin to dominate the other one. Feed the loving wolf. Yes, that one there, with the fluffy pink fur. She enjoys steak… and the limbs of small children. There you go, good girl.
How to Forgive Yourself
But what if the awful person you can’t seem to forgive is yourself? We all do things in our lives that we come to regret, that we wish we could take back, and that we harbor shame and guilt for ever doing.
The process is actually totally the same. Sue me, motherfuckers. Separate the action from the person—I did an awful thing but I’m not an awful person. Understand my motivation—what was the insecurity or ignorance that drove me to do this thing?
Empathize. Okay, this is honestly probably the hardest part of forgiving yourself—not only getting at your true motivations, but really, how much stuff do you blame yourself for that was not your fault?
When we’re children, we have a propensity to internalize and blame ourselves for all of the fucked up and awful things that happen to us. We then grow up and carry around that shame and guilt, often without realizing it. It can take years of therapy and inner work to finally undo it.
But once you do, the process is no different. Because next you must empathize. Many of us struggle to empathize with ourselves—or rather, have compassion for ourselves. Here’s one cute trick: that thing you’re mad at yourself for, pretend your best friend did it. What would you say to them if they were upset about it? Would you judge them? Criticize them? Berate them? Probably not. You’d probably have compassion and sympathy. What would you say to them? Now, try saying that to yourself.13
Make boundaries – in this case, make rules for yourself, i.e., “The next time I’m drinking, I will not call my ex,” or, “When I become a parent, I will never do what was done to me.” Regrets are only regrets if you haven’t learned something from them. Take your pain and create rules from it.
And finally, eliminate the emotional attachment. Hating on yourself is tiresome and overrated. There are so many better things to do with your energy. Let it go and instead of obsessing on the vision of who you were, focus on the vision of who you could be.
Then take a step towards that. Then another. Then another. Then don’t ever look back.
- Kaur, V. (2016, September 23). His brother was murdered for wearing a turban after 9/11. 15 years later, they spoke.↵
- Spodak, C. (2018, June 4). Bridging the Divide: Hate took his brother’s life, but he says forgiveness is the only option.↵
- For example, this one: Brandt Jean’s Act Of Grace Toward His Brother’s Killer Sparks A Debate Over Forgiving↵
- Or this one from the genocide in Rwanda.↵
- Coyle, C. T., & Enright, R. D. (1997). Forgiveness intervention with postabortion men. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 1042–1046.↵
- Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983–992.↵
- See my point about the “scorecard” here: 6 Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal↵
- Tangney, J.P, et al. (1999). The Self-Conscious Emotions: Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment and Pride. The Handbook of Cognition and Emotion, 541-568.↵
- McCullough, M. E., Worthington Jr, E. L., & Rachal, K. C. (1997). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2), 321.↵
- Thompson, L. Y., Snyder, C. R., Hoffman, L., Michael, S. T., Rasmussen, H. N., Billings, L. S., Heinze, L., Neufeld, J. E., Shorey, H. S., Roberts, J. C., & Roberts, D. E. (2005). Dispositional Forgiveness of Self, Others, and Situations. Journal of Personality, 73(2), 313–360.↵
- See: Hanlon’s Razor on Wikipedia↵
- This is called the fundamental attribution error, first discovered by researchers Jones & Harris in 1967. In many situations, we believe other people are assholes, but give ourselves a pass in the same situation.
Jones, EE & Harris, VA 1967, ‘The attribution of attitudes’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 1–24.↵
- For more on this, check out the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff.↵