5 Steps for Real Forgiveness

There is a lot of confusion about forgiveness, so let me start by defining the term. “Forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group that has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” – Original source unknown

Unfortunately, many people are walking around with all of their resentments stowed away in a figurative backpack that they carry around everywhere they go. It weighs so much that they’re like a turtle with a shell that’s ten times too big. Eventually, they end up stuck on their back with arms and legs helplessly flailing around. Once completely incapacitated and suffering to a point that is no longer manageable, they are forced to do something about it. Others are more like pressure cookers. They continuously stew in old hurts and resentments from the past until an explosion occurs. After the eruption, they may feel better for a while, but it never lasts. The cycle starts over and before long the pressure has built up again, just waiting for another opportunity to explode. But here’s the thing… in time, these “unforgivens” take on a life of their own. These resentments lead to blame, criticism, defensiveness and full blown communication breakdowns. Simply put, the end result is disconnection. And of course, the solution is genuine forgiveness.

Learning to forgive is not an easy task, but if you decide you are ready to forgive, these 5 steps will help you:

Step 1: Find Your “Why?”

At some point in your life, you’ve likely told someone that you forgave them and meant it, but then your resentment returned and the feeling of forgiveness went away. This is normal. But, if you want to achieve lasting forgiveness, you must make a solid decision to forgive, and when that decision starts to fluctuate, you need to go back to go back to your “Why?”

  • Why did you decided to forgive them in the first place?

If you haven’t already figured out your "Why?", start by making a list of all of the reasons you want to forgive them and all of the benefits you might experience if you do release this. You might want to wait until you’re in a forgiving mood to do this!

Once you’ve made a complete list, write the top three reasons on a post-it note and put it in a place that you, and only you, will see often throughout your daily life.

I want you to remember that forgiveness does not mean you need to stay in a relationship that is not working for you. The truth is, you’re not forgiving the other person because they deserve forgiveness, you are doing it because you deserve peace. So if you want to forgive, then make the decision to forgive, commit to it, and when that decision starts to fluctuate, go back to your “Why?”

Step 2: Assess Your Damages

It may be easy enough to say, “I forgive you,” but from there to actually forgiving someone who has hurt you is a whole other matter. Once you’ve made a solid decision to forgive, get crystal clear about what you want to forgive them for.

At the top of a sheet of paper, write the name of the person you’ve decided to forgive. Next write exactly what you are forgiving them for – be specific and thorough.  Here’s a question that will help you get clarity:

If you had a magic wand, what experiences would you erase from your history with the person you are trying to forgive?

Be specific about how their wrongdoings have harmed you. Don’t hold back and make it only about YOU. For example, if your father abused your mother, the damage to you is not the bruises on her, it’s the fear, the alienation, the helplessness, the broken trust you felt, and so on. So, make sure to list YOUR damages and not someone else's.

Step 3: Determine Appropriate consequences

While in a wise state of mind, take the time to think about what an appropriate consequence to their wrongdoings might be, as well as what corrective or protective measures may need to be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Now, you may be forgiving something that happened long ago or even forgiving someone that is no longer in your life. Depending on the circumstances, this step may not be required. But, give some thought to what YOU need to have happen in order to be able to truly forgive. 

The truth is sometimes there is no “appropriate” consequence. The harm is too great. All the torture and punishment in the world cannot return what’s been taken or lost. That said, we must also consider that hatred is a form of intimacy that binds you emotionally and energetically to the hated person and to the act that harmed you. So, forgiveness – at least internally – is critical to break this unhealthy connection.

Step 4: Get Perspective

As much as this person has hurt you, this is not likely all of who they are or what they’ve done in life. Most people have at least some good in them. Trying to focus on the person as a whole versus only on the thing they did to harm you, can help soften your heart and open you to higher understandings. They say “everything happens for a reason” or there “are lessons and blessings in everything” but sometimes it can be pretty hard to see the bigger picture and find the benefits.

So, start small. Divide a page in two… in one column write about the dark sides of this person and in the other, write about any good you can think of. Then on the other side of the page, write about any benefits that may have come from your experience with them as a whole. For example, because of some of my traumatic early life experiences, I’ve become very strong, very compassionate, and it has helped me tremendously as a therapist in terms of being able to relate to people who’ve experienced trauma.

Step 5: Forgive yourself

If you’re feeling guilty, ashamed or angry at yourself for things that have happened to you, you’re not alone. So, start focusing on forgiving yourself. Here’s how you can do it: Thinking about what you need to forgive yourself, ask yourself these three key questions:

  • Why am I withholding forgiveness from myself?

  • If my child (or someone I love dearly) did the things I regret, would I be able to forgive them? Would I encourage them to forgive themselves?

  • What do I need in order to let this go and truly forgive myself?


Once you've completed these steps, listen to the meditation below. For maximum benefit, listen with headphones in a quiet space (you'll need about 20 minutes).