Forgiveness is difficult for most of us, but it is harder for some than others. When we are harmed in any way—physically, emotionally, or both—we tend to carry the pain with us. Anger and resentment are natural responses to hurt, of course, and the longer or more severe the hurt, the more likely we are to feel those feelings in the long run.
What we usually want — or think we want — is for the person who hurt us to recognize our pain. We want them to fully understand how we feel, and to know the impact of their words or actions. And we want an apology as proof that the person not only receives but also regrets what they said or did to us.
Some of us will hold on to our anger and resentment indefinitely, waiting for that all-important apology to arrive before we even consider the idea of forgiveness. But if we value our well-being, we might want to rethink that order.
You don’t have to wait for an apology – or even an acknowledgement – to forgive. And indeed, we shouldn’t.
To fully understand why this happens, we need to understand what forgiveness is. And to understand what forgiveness is, it is helpful to clarify what it is not. Forgiving someone is not the same as making up with them. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness does not require justice or apologies.
Forgiveness is not an external action, but an internal state of releasing anger and resentment. It is saying, “I will no longer allow you and the hurt you have caused me to keep me in a state of unhappiness.” It’s something you do for yourself, not for the person who hurt you.
Think about it. Who are this anger and resentment hurting the most? Who is having their life cut short by this? Who is having to deal with this day after day? You’re right? Not the person who hurt you. You.
And there are real physical effects of holding on to these emotions. “There’s an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Julia Moore, MD, director of the Mood Disorders Center. Chronic anger affects your heart rate, blood pressure, and immune system, which increases your risk of chronic disease. Forgiveness has the opposite effect.
And it doesn’t just mean that you forgive the person. Again, forgiveness is an internal act of releasing anger, frustration, disappointment and resentment. “It’s an active process where you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings, whether the person deserves it or not,” says Moore.
This is why an apology is not necessary to practice forgiveness. We have to let go of the idea that forgiveness means telling someone that what they did is okay or that somehow they are being released. Not. It means telling yourself that whatever the person has done to you is not going to keep you in a bitter state. It’s choosing to stop allowing your anger to continue to hurt you.
Sometimes forgiveness can lead to empathy and compassion for the person who hurt you, but it doesn’t have to. Some types of harm are impossible to empathize with, but that doesn’t mean they make forgiveness impossible. There are some incredible stories of people forgiving perpetrators of terrible atrocities, like the Rwandan genocide, not because those things were forgotten or justified, but because holding resentment and anger only punishes the victim of the harm, not the perpetrator.
So if you’re expecting an apology, try to forgive first. While this is easier said than done, letting go can be incredibly freeing and good for your mental and physical health.