How to Forgive Even When It Feels Impossible

Date Published: Jul 15, 2022

Forgiveness saved my life.

That's a big statement, I know. But it's true. Despite going to therapy, reading self-help books, and talking to friends, nothing could help me like learning how to forgive.

When I was 14, I went through the kind of trauma not many people experience. I was the only witness to my father pulling out a gun, murdering my mother, and then turning the gun on himself. This has defined the rest of my life

At first, it destroyed me. But when I grew to forgive my parents (and, eventually, myself), I found I was finally able to heal.

Letting go of resentment, vengeance, and shame helped me reclaim my life. Forgiveness transformed my wounds into lessons. It freed me to live the life my soul intended.™ 

Learning how to forgive is part of the foundation of life coaching and one of the flagship lessons of the Fearless Living Training Program.

It has transformed my life, and I know it can do the same for you.

Here’s What Forgiveness Really Is (And What It Certainly Isn’t)

People who cause us hurt come in many shapes and sizes. Maybe it was your best friend who betrayed your trust. Maybe a family member disappeared just when you needed them most. Or a lover who cheated on you while you thought you were in the perfect relationship.

No matter who you're trying to forgive, the process always has similar elements. In the language of Fearless Living, forgiveness means:

"A conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance towards anyone who has betrayed or harmed you, regardless of whether they have changed or acknowledged your pain."

I'm going to unpack this definition in a moment. But first, let's focus on the most important thing here:

Forgiveness is for you—not for the person who hurt you.

Of course, it can heal your relationship as well. But that's more of a positive “side effect” than the main goal. The first reason to be willing to forgive is because it supports your healing process.

After my parents' death, I was the one in pain. I had a hard time forgiving my father, (and yes, my mother too), and I was the one blaming myself. It lasted 20 years, and it seriously messed up my confidence, ability to dream, mental health, physical health—well, it pretty much messed up everything. Regardless of what I did, my bottom line was always defined by the feelings connected to that traumatic event.

The most important thing to remember is that you need to forgive for your own sake—not because others say so or want you to.

The word forgiveness comes with a whole lot of other misconceptions, too. It's important to become aware of them. Otherwise, they might impact your ability to forgive.

  • Forgiveness doesn't mean you need to forget or pretend it didn't happen. On the contrary, fully accepting what happened may help with letting go of those heavy emotions.
  • Forgiveness doesn't mean you have to communicate it to the offender. Many people think that forgiveness is only valid when you let the other person know about it. The truth is, they often don't care. You certainly don't need to tell them you forgave them—this is about your journey, not theirs.
  • Forgiveness doesn't mean you ignore the consequences. If someone violated your boundaries, consequences should follow, whether that’s a conversation or just taking a step back from the relationship. But you can maintain boundaries and still forgive.
  • Forgiveness doesn't mean you excuse the offender's behavior. You don't have to see the other person's behavior as acceptable in order to forgive. If they wronged you, that was a bad thing, period. But you can forgive them anyway.
  • Forgiveness isn't a one-off event. It's something you work on over a period of time, sometimes even your entire life. Going through the forgiveness process is like peeling away layers of an onion, leading you into deeper and deeper layers that may have nothing to do with the originating event. In fact, when you start to forgive, it’s like a release valve helping you let go of any pain and suffering from the past that may be holding you hostage. There might be a deeper layer under the one you’re experiencing now, and you’ll get to it when it’s time. The good news is with each new layer, there comes more peace of mind and freedom. 

Now that you know better what forgiveness is and isn't, let's talk about why you should forgive. 

The Benefits of Forgiveness (And Why It’s Hard to Forgive)

Before I continue my story, let's look at the proven health benefits forgiveness researchers are raving about. Forgiveness has a lot to do with emotional well-being, and it impacts both your mental and physical health.

Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet and colleagues conducted research in which they compared the consequences of "granting forgiveness" versus "harboring grudges." Here's how they described their findings:

"[Forgiveness] may free the wounded person from a prison of hurt and vengeful emotion, yielding both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, less negative emotion, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance. . . Unforgiving memories and mental imagery might produce negative facial expressions and increased cardiovascular and sympathetic reactivity, much as other negative and arousing emotions (e.g., fear, anger) do."

Another study also linked forgiveness to reduced stress. And as it's widely known in the medical community, less stress generally means lower blood pressure, better sleep, lower risk of heart disease, and improved self-esteem.

In my own journey, I've also witnessed how forgiveness helped me grow spiritually. As long as I was ruminating on the events of that day when my parents died, I was stuck in this story. My father was the “bad guy,” my mother was the “powerless victim,” and I was “the one who failed to prevent tragedy.” I couldn't free myself from what happened because I built my whole identity around it.

That’s why I only became my whole authentic self as I discovered how to forgive my parents, as well as myself. It brought me new energy, optimism, and self-belief. Sure, I’ll never be able to remove what happened from my personal history, but I no longer need to.

What used to be a source of pain and suffering became a source of inner strength.

To tap into that source of strength, I had to overcome obstacles. Forgiveness isn't easy. There's a lot of reasons forgiveness can feel scary—here’s a bunch of them:

  • You may feel like forgiving someone is going to make you super vulnerable. And it's true that forgiveness requires opening your heart, which means those feelings of hurt could temporarily resurface in order for you to release them. 
  • You may hold back from forgiving because you enjoy feeling superior. If the other person wronged you, clinging to your grudge can make you feel morally "higher" than them.
  • A part of you may also enjoy feeling inferior, i.e., seeing yourself as a victim in the story. Being a victim means you keep making excuses about why you can't do something. I know, I’ve been there—it’s a comfortable place to be!

The thing is, as long as you hold on to these reasons, you can’t move forward. Full forgiveness requires you to drop the blame and be willing to see yourself and others as innocent.

How to Forgive: Layers and Stages of the Process

To learn how to forgive, you must first see that forgiveness unfolds over time as you go through consecutive stages of forgiveness. And it also has layers of depth you’ll discover along the way.

I often say that I forgave my parents many times. Each time, that forgiveness reached a little deeper and my heart got a little bigger. 

For example, I first had to forgive my mother for staying in an abusive relationship with my father, which kept us all unsafe. Then, on my wedding day, which was supposed to be a happy day, it felt bittersweet because she wasn’t there. I chose to forgive her again to release us both from the past. When I got divorced, all I wanted was my mother to comfort me. Once again, I had to forgive her for the choices she made, which allowed me to forgive myself for the choices I made.

Throughout my forgiveness journey, first came the awareness that I missed her horribly. Then, I felt the anger and frustration of losing her, which led me to a deeper letting go, a willingness once again to forgive.

Each time, I forgave her from a new point of view and new level of awareness and depth.

This is what I mean by peeling away "layers of forgiveness" like you would peel an onion. This can also mean that you're going deeper and deeper into who you really need to forgive.

At first, it may seem like you just need to forgive that family member or friend for their hurtful behavior. But as you do that, you often discover a deeper layer. That layer is often self-forgiveness: the crucial element needed to find peace and move forward.

When I forgave my parents, I realized that the harder quest was to forgive myself. All these years, I blamed myself for not being able to prevent my parents' death. Deep down, a part of me believed I could have done something to avoid tragedy.

A major act of forgiveness was coming to peace with the fact that I didn't prevent it. Only when I touched that layer could I recognize my own innocence.

We often think we blame someone else but, deep down, we’re usually blaming ourselves even more. We tell ourselves we “should have” known better, been more vigilant, or realized what was going on sooner. The more you learn the art of forgiveness, the more you discover that, at the core, it’s about having compassion for yourself in those situations. Remember: You did the best you could with what you had and knew!

If you don’t find an opening to forgive, you may forever be stuck in thinking about what could have gone better or what may go wrong in the future. You’ll be living on what I call “The Wheel of Fear” instead of in the present moment.

That only increases the chance you will keep blaming yourself and others for the decisions you’re making in the present, never really moving forward. Our ability to feel hurt and learn how to overcome that hurt is required for increased resilience, confidence, and peace of mind.

The Four Stages of Forgiveness

Now that you're aware of the layers, let's talk about the four stages of forgiveness. These are the steps I see my coaching clients going through when they learn how to forgive. This is also the path I've been on.

Notice that these are somewhat similar to the five stages of grief. That's because, in essence, forgiving is about grieving the life you're leaving behind and allowing yourself to experience something new.

Stage 1: Denial 

At first, people typically insist that either they've already forgiven or there's nothing to forgive. They simply dismiss what happened as “not important.”

I know I was in the first group. The day my parents died, I told myself I already forgave them. At 14, I was planning to be a minister, so I had a very strong Christian affiliation. Forgiveness was a part of my faith and identity. I wanted to believe I forgave them, so I could move on.

Little did I know, it would take me another 20 years to actually forgive all three: my father, my mother, and myself.

Stage 2: Anger 

Eventually, as you move through the forgiveness process, you understand that what happened was wrong. You start feeling angry at the offender, at the world that allowed it, or at your past self for being "stupid" to be around this person and "wasting your own time."

This is healthy anger that you need to go through. Don’t try to stop it. The sooner you process your rage and sense of injustice, the sooner you'll be ready for the next step.

That's when the fog really starts clearing and your heart starts opening.

Stage 3: Acceptance

To move to this stage, you need to realize that each act of forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate choice. That's right: Despite what some people wish for, forgiveness doesn't just happen “naturally.”

You need to find the willingness and intention to forgive others and to forgive yourself.

Acceptance is the key step. But make no mistake—this isn't about excusing the other person's behavior! Rather, it's about understanding why they acted the way they did.

To me, that meant I saw my parents for who they were: two scared people who didn’t know how to get past their own insecurities and fears. My father murdered my mother and committed suicide because he craved love and didn't know how to find it. He didn’t know how to communicate his needs. He didn’t know how to face, and process, his emotions. He was filled with so much pain and was suffering so much that ‘getting rid’ of the problem felt like the solution. 

Realizing this doesn't mean I see his behavior as less harmful or that I accept his choices. But I can understand where he was at. This makes it easier to accept that what happened was a consequence of the burden of fear he carried, rather than continuing to see him as evil. Because of this perspective, I was more able to forgive him and myself.

Stage 4: Compassion

The final step of the forgiveness process is finding compassion for everyone involved. This means acknowledging your point of view as valid and important and, at the same time, discovering how to empathize with those who hurt you. 

Having compassion for my parents was an extension of acceptance. After I understood and accepted why my father may have acted the way he did, I could also acknowledge his suffering. That's what compassion literally means: to "suffer together" and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Of course, I can't ease my parents' suffering, and I can’t reverse what happened either. So, the best I can do is to stop my own suffering because of what happened and give myself a chance to move on. 

That’s where we come back to the most important lesson about forgiveness:

Although you forgive those who harmed you, forgiveness relieves your suffering.

How to Practice Forgiveness on a Daily Basis

Each day, you may need to choose to forgive again. Just like in my story, forgiveness is rarely done "once and for all."

Instead, it's an ongoing journey of self-discovery and compassion. When you learn how to forgive, a lot of other things start changing:

  • You let go of the past and are able to enjoy the present.
  • You're finally able to release shame, rage, and resentment.
  • You become empowered to make new, better choices.
  • You know where your boundaries are and how to communicate them.
  • You trust yourself more.
  • You can start living the life your soul intended.™ 

The participants of the Fearless Living Training Program can experience these benefits and more. As part of the program, we teach the art of forgiveness and compassion, so you can overcome your hidden fears and release your personal blockages.

Want to learn more about how to forgive and how to be fearless? You can contact me here with any questions, doubts, or issues you're currently experiencing. Let’s embark on your journey of forgiveness together.

The Foundation of It all

In her groundbreaking seminal work, Rhonda Britten shows you how to master the emotional fears that keep you stuck in old cycles. Fearless Living is the foundation for all of Rhonda’s work, and it gives you an overview of her philosophies on how fear can take your life captive.

Enter your name and email address below to receive Rhonda’s Fear of the Unknown course.

By Rhonda Britten

Rhonda, voted America’s Favorite Life Coach is here to help you get unstuck. “Everyone needs Fearless Living”- Oprah Winfrey With her acclaimed method called Fearless Living, Rhonda Britten has helped thousands of people let go of indecision, gain clarity of purpose, and take life-changing risks. Her work exposes the roots of fear and gives you the tools to move beyond that insidious universal feeling of “not being good enough.” The result is unstoppable confidence and a world of unlimited possibilities.

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