Have you ever struggled to forgive someone?

You’re not alone.

Most of us don’t really know what forgiveness even IS, much less how to do it.

In the thought work model, forgiveness is actually quite simple: It means changing a thought we have about something someone has done. 

When we have something to forgive, it means we believe our current negative emotions are caused by someone or something in the past.

So the first step is to identify what emotion you are currently having that you think would be different if the past were different, or if you could “forgive” the person in question. 

It’s helpful to get specific here – a vague “they hurt me” will not serve you.

Your feelings are the window into what you are thinking, so get to know them. Are you sad? Angry? Hurt? 

Once you’ve identified your feeling, explore what thought(s) might be causing you pain.

What thought have you unconsciously or consciously accepted about someone’s behavior in the past that you are continuing to believe now?

Maybe someone slept with your sister, or ran off to Hawaii with your retirement fund, or told you that you were too ugly to love.

Whatever the circumstance, ask yourself “so what?” This will tell you what you’re making it mean – aka, your thought about what happened.

To borrow the examples, above:

  • It’s not ok that my wife slept with my sister because … she betrayed me and caused the pain of my divorce.
  • It’s not ok that my business partner ran off to Hawaii with my retirement fund because … now I’m stressed about money and can’t afford to retire, and that’s his fault.
  • It’s not ok that my ex told me I was too ugly to love because … now I’m not confident and can’t date.

If you can’t locate a specific action as the source of your negative feelings, asking “so what?” can still be helpful.

For example:

  • My parents never supported me. So what? Now I don’t believe in myself.
  • My best friend was jealous of me and never celebrated my successes. So what? Now I feel guilty about succeeding.

Whatever the circumstance, whatever the thought, your relationship to forgiveness is always about the story you have about what happened. It’s about what meaning you’re ascribing to their behavior.

Because as painful as your thoughts are, you are wrong about the source of your suffering.

Your current suffering isn’t because of what they did or who they were.

Your suffering comes from your CURRENT THOUGHT about them and what happened.

The past does not exist, except in our minds.

Think about it: if you woke up with amnesia tomorrow, your past would effectively cease to exist for you. Even the people you believe have caused you pain wouldn’t exist for you.

Even without amnesia, your past likely only comes into focus for you when you think about it. It’s not present when you’re deeply engaged in a project … or you’re watching a funny cat video. (No shame in my online game).

Since the past doesn’t exist except in the moment we’re thinking about it, then we can forgive anything we want to simply by changing how we think about the past.

Even your most consuming, painful stories about yourself based on your past can be changed this way.

Don’t get me wrong – this process isn’t easy.

But it is simple, and it can be life-changing work.

Are you resisting this idea?

Let’s explore why.

First, people often resist forgiveness because they think that forgiving someone means accepting that their behavior or their actions were “ok.”

But here’s the thing: what they did isn’t objectively anything. It just happened. Whatever actions were taken, only our interpretation assigns morality to them.

If you trip and break your leg, you don’t struggle to forgive the tree branch you tripped on because that would mean what the tree branch “did” was “ok.” 

The difference is your thought assigning moral value to a person’s actions when you didn’t like them. 

Believing it is not ok is not changing the past. It’s not making the other person involved feel anything. It’s not entering into some universal ledger of what is ok or not ok.

It’s only causing you suffering.

Second, many of us think that we have to blame someone when things don’t happen as we wish they had. This puts us in a bind because it means forgiving the other person means we’ll have to blame ourselves.

Does this sound like you?

If you’re unable to forgive someone for cheating on you, is it because you secretly fear you did something to make it happen?

If you’re unable to forgive someone for firing you, do you secretly fear you were fired because you were bad at your job?

If you’re unable to forgive a parent for abandoning you, do you secretly fear they left because you aren’t lovable?

However your resistance manifests, it is rooted in the idea that the past did not unfold as it should have. That something went wrong.

But I want you to consider that this idea is totally optional.

There’s no universal ruling on what is bad or good. These are moral concepts made up by human minds and they differ across time and societies.

And if that thought is causing you pain, you may want to reevaluate its place in your life.

Ultimately, this connects to the most challenging aspect of forgiveness, which is often self-forgiveness. Part of the reason we struggle to forgive others is that we are unable to forgive ourselves.

When we get in the habit of judging ourselves, we tend to judge others harshly as well.

What the thought-feeling-action cycle teaches us is that whatever anyone else did or didn’t do in the past was caused by their thoughts, which led to their feelings, which caused them to take certain actions.

Whatever you did or didn’t do in the past was caused by the same thought-feeling-action cycle.

Just as your current experience of forgiveness or non-forgiveness is caused by your current thought-feeling-action cycle.

That’s it.

That’s all there is.

Humans with thoughts that cause feelings that cause actions.

Left unmanaged, our brains develop lots of stories around these cycles. We decide who is good and bad and who is nice and mean and who loved us and who hurt us and who is worthy and who isn’t.

But there’s no need to ascribe blame or morality to how things unfolded for you.

Especially not when ascribing blame and morality are causing you pain.

Those thoughts cause so much suffering, and they are fully optional.

If you want to liberate yourself, consider forgiving the people who you think have wronged you. Consider forgiving yourself.

All it takes to change your life now is changing your thoughts about the past, today.