Healthy Mind

The Most Important Part of Forgiveness Actually Happens Way Before Anyone Says “I’m Sorry”

Kells McPhillips

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Photo: Unsplash/Hian Oliveira
Let’s take a time machine back to 2003, when the Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan remake of Freaky Friday premiered in theaters. The gist of the epochal flick is this: When you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes—or, y’know, switch bodies with them—finding forgiveness becomes so much easier. (Plus, you might just land a new fling, go on a shopping spree, and have an epic guitar solo in the process.)

Unfortunately though, the real world doesn’t afford us such literally transformative opportunities for striking amnesty with a relative, best friend, or someone else who’s recently been excommunicated from the “Favorites” tab of our contact list. But according to clinical psychologist Jennifer MacLeamy, PsyD, we can practice forgiveness in three steps—two of which come before either party even utters the words, “I’m sorry.”

Dr. MacLeamy says the single hardest (and most important) part of making amends with anyone is step one, which is to unhook yourself from the narrative. “I think, in some ways, [latching onto the story is] a way of staying hooked; it’s a way of staying connected to the hurt and to the pain, which is ultimately not particularly healing for people. It’s not that we have to forget completely if someone does something wrong to us. But oftentimes, whether we want to or not, we’re engaging in behaviors that are subtly trying to control other people.”

If you’ve ever given someone the “silent treatment,” then you know exactly what she’s alluding to: You’re testing the other person without letting them know the rules of the game, which ultimately traps you both in a limbo of bitterness. A better route to take, she says, is to externalize your experience to your friend by spelling it out. If, however, your experience with someone is traumatic, you might consider talking things through with a therapist to find a solution that feels emotionally safe for you.

“It’s not that we have to forget completely if someone does something wrong to us. But oftentimes, whether we want to or not, we’re engaging in behaviors that are subtly trying to control other people.” — Jennifer MacLeamy, PsyD

“The initial phase is just sitting down with someone and saying: ‘I’m really hurt. I’m feeling really angry.’ I think that’s the first stage of moving toward forgiveness—just accurately and honestly expressing your feelings.” Once you’ve made your grievances known, it’s time for step two: hearing the other person’s account of what happened. (This is the metaphorical body-swapping part.) Dr. MacLeamy clarifies that hearing someone out doesn’t mean you need to agree with them. It’s really about saying: “I understand where you were coming from when you did X.” Once proverbial olive branches have been extended, that “I’m sorry”—the third step—should come about naturally. If all goes well, you’ll hug it out. Then, she says, the self-forgiveness begins.

“Moving forward becomes less about the other person and more about the internal world of the person trying to forgive,” says Dr. MacLeamy. “A full, integrated forgiveness is, ‘I understand this other person. I understand where they came from, and I’ve done the work myself to take care of this hurt’.”

But if you’ve been carrying around a backpack full of grudges, unpacking what’s weighing you down might take longer than getting back on happy, social footing with the person in question. In this case, circle back to step one, and remember: It’s just as important to keep an open dialogue with yourself as it is with anybody else.

Use this checklist to see if your ex is worthy of your friendship and this one if you’re not quite sure if it’s time to part ways with your BFF

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