Forgiving Someone Who Didn’t Do Anything Wrong

When someone does something to hurt you intentionally, it’s easy to connect the dots between your psychological pain and what they did or did not do. If someone physically attacks you or murders a friend, for example, the wrongdoing is obvious; there is a consensus that a transgression has occurred. In these circumstances, forgiveness is a self-evident solution to unraveling suffering.

But this isn’t always how grievances happen. Sometimes things take place that cause us to feel angry, humiliated, or sad, but we aren’t exactly sure why (or even what). Blame is elusive. Maybe a family member died, and you feel betrayed or abandoned. Or a co-worker got the promotion you really wanted. Maybe a friend said something unintentionally hurtful.

We don’t readily think of forgiveness as a technique we can use in situations like these, but it’s precisely what is needed. Forgiveness is a process we engage in to transform hurt feelings into self-love, compassion, and empathy. And, while forgiveness is not a panacea capable of alleviating all human suffering, it can often help in cases like these.

The evaluation of whether or not harm was caused is actually irrelevant. The only question we need to answer is, “Do I feel hurt by what happened?” When you answer this question honestly and without judgment, whether or not forgiveness can help should be clear.

A simple way to know if forgiveness can help is to identify if you are ruminating (obsessive, involuntary thought). Rumination is our mind trying to make sense out of what happened. In part, forgiveness works by deconstructing and reconstructing the meaning we have assigned to what happened and its perceived impact. Effective meaning-making (via forgiveness, often) brings resolution and freedom from compulsive thoughts and disrupted emotions.

Unfortunately, we cannot make meaning out of generalized suffering, nor can we forgive what we do not see. We have to narrow down what we are feeling and the events that seem to have impacted us. We do this via inquiry.


Step ONE: With as much uninhibited honesty as possible, begin to write about the process. The words you write are for your eyes only. It won’t be linear and might not make sense but just keep writing. Don’t be nice. Don’t try to empathize. Just be honest and write until you get it all out.

Here are some examples of how to start (based on the scenarios above):

  • I am pissed off because my dad died and left me here to manage everything. I hate him for leaving my kids and me and hurting Mom. …
  • I deserved that promotion, and I’m depressed because I give so much to the damn company. It’s like I’m invisible and don’t matter at all. …
  • My best friend might be right about my lousy decision-making, but she didn’t have to say it like that. I don’t even want to talk to her right now. Why are people so mean? …

Step TWO: After your first pass, reflect on your primary emotion. If it is anger, inquire more deeply. What feelings lives behind the anger? Anger is most often a learned response to protect us from feeling hurt and vulnerable. That’s a wise strategy, but right now you want to see if you can identify what lies behind it. Continue writing if this applies and you’re able.

Now, leave it for a day or so. Go about your business and try not to think about it.

Step THREE: When you’re ready, go back to what you wrote and circle any judgments you are making, particularly look for ways in which you are giving your power away. This might pop out at you or be very challenging to see, but there are always disempowering judgments in there.

For example, if your dad died of lung cancer and smoked, you might be angry because he chose his addiction over living longer with you. That’s an easy one.

But what about the co-worker example? What would you need to forgive in this scenario? What are you judging? It may be that forgiving your boss or the one who received the promotion is in order. It could be that you need to forgive yourself or all three. The key to identifying what will bring you peace is to look for assumptions hidden within the judgments. “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 judgments that are hard to see, immediately write down what you discover. If you don’t write it down, your mind will play tricks on you, and you will forget, I promise. Humans forget or complicate to protect ourselves from the insight that causes us to be unsure or feel vulnerable.

Now, you have all the information you need. You can see what judgments and assumptions led to feeling hurt, and hopefully, who you need to forgive, you can begin the process of forgiving.