How to Forgive When You Don’t Get an ‘I’m Sorry’

I can see it on your faces. The moment I say “I’m writing about how to forgive someone when you never get an apology,” what emerges on every face is that very specific wound from that very specific person, and you do not want to talk about it; I found it hard to solicit input on this article because of how triggering the title alone was.

Maybe your “best friend” disappeared in your darkest hour. Maybe that bully disappeared from your life and will never know what severe damage he did to your ability to function in the world. Maybe your abusive mother died before she took responsibility for what she did to you. Or maybe we’re talking about a person who promised to love you forever with his words, but who lived out a very different story before he completely disappeared.

Forgiveness is an ancient principle, taught by many of the world’s religions and thought leaders. In childhood, our teachers and parents force an offender into our space and arrange an exchange of “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you,” but as we experience adulthood, we often find such arrangements are scarce.

And like I’ve already said, many of these offenses are deeply personal.

Three things I am not talking about:

Let’s square some terms first. Do not confuse “forgiveness” with “reconciliation.”

Reconciliation is a beautiful, magical, redeeming experience when it happens — we don’t want to give up hope for that. But forgiveness is for you and your heart. Without the other person’s participation, the relationship cannot be healed and you shouldn’t even try to pretend like it is. Often times, unhealthy/dangerous people are hoping for the kind of forgiveness that doesn’t involve their participation. This is actually un-loving to them because it reinforces their harmfulness.

On a related note, you don’t have to give away free trust with forgiveness.

Next, I am not talking about a quick fix to years of pain. We are all looking to simply “arrive” at our best possible selves, but even with best efforts, forgiveness is not a steady upward trajectory. It’s more like a rhythm of highs and lows. But I assure you, every cycle can move you steadily towards freedom and health with some level of commitment.

Also, everyone’s story and situation is different, so take advice with a great deal of salt. There aren’t “5 easy steps to healing” when someone hurts you, because there are too many nuances. What is universal is that we should all try to be experts in the practice of forgiveness.

In childhood, our teachers and parents force an offender into our space and arrange an exchange of ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I forgive you,’ but as we experience adulthood, we often find such arrangements are scarce.

What I am talking about:

In recent times, psychologists have take up interest in “turning the other cheek.” There are studies that indicate forgiveness may not just be good for your emotional health, but your physical health as well.

A psychological definition says that forgiveness is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you.” Why is it so hard to let go of these feelings?

For one, it’s not fair. Our human bent towards a desire for justice is violated, and so our heart begins a trial of its own — judge, jury, and all — but the perpetrator is a no-show. Secondly, it affects how we think of ourselves. When deeply wronged, we often truly believe it’s because we are flawed and unlovable. You think if you were better in some way, then this person wouldn’t have done what they did. It can take a long time to get out of that pit and when you do, you’re angry.

Which leads me to my next point. You think, if you forgive this person, then you’re letting them off the hook for their transgression. It seems like releasing the feelings associated with the hurt means pardoning the guilty. It doesn’t. One of the most important steps in moving towards true forgiveness is really identifying and naming how you were wronged.

It seems like releasing the feelings associated with the hurt means pardoning the guilty. It doesn’t.

Call it what it was: It sucked. It hurt. It broke your trust. It wasn’t just. It was an abuse of power. You didn’t deserve it. It haunts you. You’ll never get it back. It was evil. Grieve it. Cry about it. Lament it. No matter what happened, there was some kind of loss. So throw the longest, darkest, or weirdest funeral you need to throw. And don’t do it alone! Get some good friends and/or a therapist at this funeral with you.

Then it’s time to move forward.

Our memory often helps wounds fade over time; in that sense, time does help heal wounds. But I’ve found that what really helps expedite the process is gratitude. Oodles have already been written about the benefits of gratitude, but I want to zoom in on the connective tissue between gratitude and forgiveness.

First, remember that you should not expect that thankfulness will just naturally increase; this is a practice that must be intentionally cultivated. Once you intentionally grow in this area, the good things in your life become magnified, and the things you’ve lost because dwarfed.

Next, preach this to yourself: Letting go of anger, pain, bitterness or vengeful thoughts towards someone does not mean you’ve condoned what they’ve done. You are not teaching them a lesson by holding on to these negative sentiments, you are only prolonging your own suffering. That said, like matter, pain cannot be destroyed, it must be transformed. I guarantee you that all of the most amazing people you know have been through extraordinarily painful experiences, but they’ve stewarded that pain in such a way that it has transformed into something that allows them to love better, be more genuine, define their goals, advocate for others, increase their empathy, etc.

We may be pleasantly surprised at what we gain by forgiving what was stolen from us.

Lastly, for me, it was important to learn that the hurtful choices others make against me are not really all about me. I was just a stop on a long journey of their life, which was also fraught with pain and victimization. Reflecting on this idea does not excuse their actions, but it does help to put them in perspective.

Life is a crazy sequence of events in which we all take turns being hurt and hurting one another. We must find a way to choose not to proliferate the cycles of pain and unforgiveness but offer hope to one another, no matter where we’re at in that journey.

Have you experienced the benefit of offering this kind of forgiveness?

Images via Nick Glover

Sarey lives in Los Angeles, and sometimes finds herself writing and producing films, composing poetry, taking on digital media projects, and studying intersections of faith and popular culture. She holds an MA in Theology and the Arts from Fuller Theological Seminary, and has a Chihuahua named Eight.