Forgiving Someone Who Didn’t Do Anything Wrong

Most often, the discussion of forgiveness and healing is framed around learning to forgive someone who has done something wrong. Something happens that is unfair. If someone physically attacks us or murders a friend, the wrongdoing is evident, and there is a consensus in the world that a transgression has taken place.

But this isn’t always how injury happens. Sometimes things happen in life that causes us to experience spiritual or psychological suffering, but blame is elusive. Perhaps a family member died, and you feel betrayed or abandoned. Or a co-worker got the promotion you so desperately wanted. Maybe a friend said something that unintentionally hurt you.

These situations are unique because we often experience guilt for how we feel. This guilt can leave many of us in a tricky place. We may feel compelled to let bygones be bygones or to justify past experiences with such statements as, “Oh yeah, but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t realize what he was doing.”

Empathy and understanding are integral to forgiveness, but when we gloss over the reality of our suffering, we deny true healing and an opportunity to learn and grow from our circumstances. When we don’t allow for our healing, we often feel like victims. This can lead to a sense of impotence in our capacity to feel our feelings and respond predictably to events. This matters, because if we don’t feel the yucky stuff, we also can’t feel the things that give meaning to life—such as connection, passion, and love. And when we deny the negative, it will show up in unexpected ways that can be highly disruptive. (Angry outbursts, passive-aggressive behavior, and being unkind or impatient are all common examples.)

The evaluation of whether or not intentional harm was caused is actually irrelevant to forgiveness. The only question we need to answer is, “Do I feel hurt by these circumstances?” When we ask this question in the absence of judgment, we know if we have work to do.

With clarity about the need to forgive, the next step is to acknowledge how you feel. Write it down.

  • “I am pissed off because my dad died and left me here to manage life without his support.”
  • “I deserved that promotion, and I’m really sad because I give so much to this company.”
  • “My best friend might be right about my bad decision-making, but she didn’t have to say it like that. I don’t even want to talk to her right now. I’m really mad.”

Don’t try to rationalize. Don’t be nice. Don’t try to empathize. Just be honest. Write down how you feel. If your primary feeling is anger, allow yourself to feel that, but also inquire more deeply. What feeling lives behind the anger? Anger is most often a learned response to protect us from feeling hurt and vulnerable. Just allowing yourself to feel what you feel is the beginning of the healing process.

Now, go back to the statement you wrote and look for ways in which you are giving your power away with a subtle judgment about what happened. This might be easy, and it might be very challenging, but the judgment is always there. For example, if your dad died of lung cancer and smoked, you might be pissed off because he chose his addiction over living longer with you.

That’s an easy one.

But what about the co-worker example? What do you need to forgive in this? What are you judging? It may be that you need to forgive your boss or the one who received the promotion. It may be that you need to forgive yourself. The key to identifying what will bring you peace is to look for any assumptions you are making. “My boss doesn’t get it.” “That guy was an ass-kisser.” “I should have completed that project earlier.” It’s probably the thought that keeps running circles in your mind. Once you recognize it, write it down. If you don’t, your mind will play tricks on you and help you forget. We tend to forget or complicate because, at this point in the process, we usually start feeling like a jerk for being hurt. That’s a judgment, too. You feel what you feel. You can heal, or you can judge. Not both. Let it go. We are all jerks sometimes. That’s just part of being human. Have compassion and allow space for forgiveness.

At this point, self-forgiveness becomes a part of the process. Respond to your self-recrimination with tenderness and acceptance. Forgive yourself as you forgive them.

Now, you have all the information you need. You can see what judgments led to feeling hurt and who you need to forgive. Now is an appropriate time for empathy. Empathy at the beginning of the process can disrupt our ability to see the perceived impact. But, with some accountability, and a deeper awareness of how you feel, rather than because it’s the right thing to do.

The point of this exercise isn’t to justify your judgments, or to pile blame on yourself or anyone else—but to make space for your pain. We may have told ourselves that we don’t need to forgive anyone, but the truth is, we do. And we do this by recognizing how we feel and allowing ourselves to feel it, as well as by identifying hidden judgments and questioning them. The inevitable outcome will be empathy and compassion.

The need for forgiveness always arises from our personal sense of injury. It is not about right or wrong. It is not about maintaining some facade of compassion or dignity. No one even needs to know the work you do to heal. Forgiveness and the need for it are not about public opinion. Forgiveness is about radical honesty and self-honoring. When we acknowledge the truth of our feelings, we learn to forgive purposefully.