As Mistakes Month approached, then arrived, I found myself thinking a lot about the repercussions and aftermath of our collective errors. Namely, the process of forgiveness, and the ways in which we come to forgive ourselves and others for mistakes—or not. For something so often simplified into catchphrase-like advice (Forgive and forget! Get over it! Just move on!), forgiveness is a complex and complicated process. It’s something with incomprehensible power that’s also incredibly easy to fail at.
So in the name of mistakes and moving beyond them, I spoke to two experts—psychologist and writer Ryan Howes Ph.D, and Talkspace Manager of Clinical Quality Dr. Amy Cirbus—to put together a guide to the delicate art of forgiveness. Here’s everything they encourage you to remember once you decide you’re ready.
1. Before you even begin to try forgiving a mistake, find out exactly why it was made in the first place.
Whether the mistake you’re looking to forgive was a giant holy-shit-my-world-has-been-shaken one or simply a little fuck-up, the path to forgiveness will always be smoother if you can understand what the hell actually happened. “It may be that the person was drunk, had selfish motives, was misguided, or that you were at the wrong place at the wrong time—but taking the time to find a reasonable explanation can help letting go come much easier,” says Howes.
2. The decision to forgive is an intentional one, so expect that it will take both effort and time to achieve.
There’s no such thing as a forgiveness timeline, says Cirbus. So remove any expectation that your forgiveness process will take a certain amount of time. To think that forgiveness is something that can be passive or achieved quickly is to underestimate your own emotions and the power of resentment. As anyone who’s tried to forgive a serious mistake will understand, it’s just not as easy as flicking a proverbial switch.
3. Know that forgiveness can be a solitary expedition, without any involvement from the other person.
“Pure forgiveness doesn’t require the involvement of the other person. You can forgive someone who died, or whom you’ll never see again. It’s simply the process of working through the hurt, so you can make the choice not to hold on to the grudge and move on with your life,” says Howes. The same advice applies when trying to forgive a person who, say, doesn’t understand why you might be feeling hurt/angry/resentful. Accepting and acknowledging that forgiveness is about you and your feelings, not them and theirs, allows you to see your feelings as something that can exist separate from a situation or real-world circumstance.
4. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’re condoning the mistake that was made or justifying the hurt that was caused.
For mistakes that fall closer to the Extremely Horrible end of the spectrum, the act of forgiveness can feel akin to letting someone off the hook. Switching your mindset and letting go of the idea that to forgive means to condone is difficult but necessary if you want to move on.
“Another challenge is when we believe that the person doesn’t quite understand the hurt or pain that they’ve caused. We can also then question our own self-respect. We can feel as if our vulnerability, the core of intimacy, has been exploited,” says Cirbus. If it’s possible, honest and open communication with the person can be really helpful in these situations. Having the person who made the mistake acknowledge your feelings, as well as the part they played in those feelings, during the early stages of forgiveness can help you find reassurance that you’re not condoning their mistakes—just trying to move beyond them.
5. And it doesn’t mean that you’re giving someone permission to hurt you again.
Fear is a common obstacle to forgiveness, which makes a lot of sense. It’s logical to worry that the same mistake will be made again and raw scars will be opened, but allowing this fear to hold you back is to let another negative emotion have power over you.
6. When you’re struggling with forgiveness, remember something positive about the person you’re trying to forgive (even if it’s yourself.)
Using visualization as a tool for bettering your life is hardly a new concept, but it’s one that has its place in the process of forgiveness. Whether you want to fully embrace the tool and picture yourself sending love to the person you’re looking to forgive, or want to take a more pragmatic approach to the whole thing and just remind yourself of a positive quality of the person every time anger starts to rise in your chest, using positivity to balance the negative will always be useful.
7. Forgiveness doesn’t need to mean forgetting. In fact, it actually shouldn’t.
The pressure to forgive and forget can feel overwhelming, because in forgetting you lose the protective emotional barrier of awareness. It’s not a bad thing to remember that someone is capable of hurting you or making mistakes (we all are, after all) and having that memory shouldn’t prevent you from forgiving someone. “Forgiveness does not include amnesia, and in fact, if someone harmed you it’s important to be wary of their future actions. You’re just choosing not to cling to the grudge, but your memory still works,” says Howes. While mistakes can be forgiven, the damage they can cause is still real, so never feel like you need to commit to ignoring that pain in order to move forward.
Graphics by Kayla Kern.