Published on December 21, 2021 Updated on January 25, 2022
From a young age, we’re taught that to forgive someone is the ‘right thing to do.’ Yet, to do so is considerably easier said than done if the person has caused us significant pain or hurt. If you’ve had a similar experience recently and feel stuck at wondering how to let go of the past, then this article may help.
Our aim with this blog post is to encourage you to let go of the past and learn how to forgive by following our 6 science-based tips. By doing so you may find yourself free from the emotional baggage that the inability to forgive has burdened you with.
After all, as Oscar Wilde so succinctly put it:
‘Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.’
To begin, it might be necessary to accept the fact that you might really need to learn how to let go of the past. If you feel that you’re prone to holding grudges or have struggled with being forgiving in the past, how can you expect yourself to immediately absolve someone of their wrongdoings in the present? Forgiveness might not be easy; but sometimes, the most difficult things in life can be the most rewarding.
Forgiveness can be challenging because the process involves multiple components. To start, in order to truly forgive, we have to face the genesis of the conflict, and with this, endure all of the related uncomfortable feelings.2 Deciding to look at the problem straight in the eyes might require some time and patience – but the same can be said for processing all emotions.
In addition, if we want to resolve conflicts and work things out, we have to welcome being vulnerable.4 This might seem scary for some people; but it can also be very beneficial to a relationship. Vulnerability facilitates greater honesty in the relationship as a whole, which, in turn, could further facilitate mutual trust, respectful communication, and compassion.
Remember – there are no deadlines or concrete guidelines on how to let go of the past. Don’t get discouraged if you find it challenging and, more importantly, be patient with yourself while going through the process.
Our attachment styles play a role in the way we build, act in, and perceive our relationships. Therefore, it makes sense that they might also affect the way we react when we’ve been hurt by others.
In general, secure attachers are more likely to have an organized and more rational response to emotional conflicts. They are usually capable of regulating their emotions well, which could make it easier for them to get past the initial hurt. Such individuals might thus have a good sense of how to let go of the past and forgive others. This could mean that their relationships may potentially last longer and even grow stronger over time.
Insecure attachers, on the other hand, are less likely to handle emotional conflicts adaptively, so they may struggle both with forgiveness and with healing within a relationship.
In contrast to secure attachers, people with insecure attachment might not be willing to face conflicts head on. As a result, when faced with betrayal or conflict, insecure attachers are more likely to jump straight to ending the relationship in an attempt to avoid dealing with their emotions and fears.2
Individuals with high attachment avoidance might be less likely to forgive others; instead, they tend to back out of a relationship whenever problematic issues occur. This response may be because of the fact that avoidant people tend to view themselves positively and minimize their flaws and shortcomings. On the flip side, they clearly see the faults of others and don’t hesitate to acknowledge those. For these reasons, avoidant attachers might find it difficult to accept transgressions against them, overcome their pride, and truly forgive their wrongdoers. For such individuals, overcoming personal fears, and perhaps pride, is integral for learning how to let go of the past.5
People high on attachment anxiety tend to have a hard time dealing with uncertainty3 and might thus jump to forgiveness too quickly. When faced with a relationship threat or conflict, they might try to restore the “balance” by quickly forgiving their partners – even for serious transgressions, such as cheating. They might also feel that their dependence on the partner is more important than what happened. However, this type of forgiveness is generally merely external: even though the person vocalizes their forgiveness, they don’t experience a sense of relief from the negative emotions, such as anger and hurt.
Overall, attachment tendencies can have a strong impact on how we deal with relationship threats and conflicts. For this reason, it may be wise to acknowledge your attachment style when you feel stuck in a rut and don’t know how to let go of the past.
Sometimes, problems in a relationship – be it with a partner, a friend, a parent, etc. – can seem like seven-headed monsters; there are just too many emotions and “What If’s” in our minds for us to be able to move on from a transgression with ease. For this reason, when we finally feel ready to forgive, it’s essential to take time to discuss the issue with the person who hurt us in order to break down the problem. Yet, for many of us, having “the talk” might feel entirely overwhelming.
If this form of discursive is a challenge for you, you may need to reflect on why you find it difficult. Is it because you’re afraid of confrontation? Are you afraid of upsetting the other person? Sometimes, finding the root of your fears can help you understand why it is so important for you to take the leap and open the avenues of communication.
Even when you struggle with communicating the issue with your wrongdoer, don’t skip that step. Although it’s a big step, communicating the reason why you’re hurt with your wrongdoer might only take a deep breath of courage. And one thing is for sure: all of this gets easier with time.
Research supports the idea that forgiveness is actually an empowering experience.6 This is because the victim is essentially taking control of their situation: while they acknowledge that someone hurt them and must be held accountable, they at the same time hold space for letting go and improving the relationship.
Unfortunately, the things that happen in one relationship will most likely affect the ones that come after. Although it may be tempting to just walk away from previous hurt, not confronting the problem means that we end up carrying our past with us as emotional baggage. Furthermore, this emotional baggage is likely to affect how we act and respond to situations in our current relationships, meaning that we likely accumulate even more baggage to carry forward with us in life.
More importantly, giving in to a pattern of inadequate relationships, or poor behaviors in relationships, can also influence our attachment styles.7 Even people who were brought up to be securely attached can develop attachment insecurity due to traumatic relationships, or an unhealthy pattern of dealing with conflicts.
On the bright side, this also implies that we can grow up with an insecure attachment and – with consistent effort and inner work – develop a secure attachment style.
Remember that forgiveness is not always directed towards others. To truly learn how to let go of the past, we need to put some work into cultivating self-compassion and forgiveness towards ourselves too.
More often than not, both parties are often guilty of contributing to social conflicts. Do your best to forgive your wrongdoer, but don’t forget that you need to let yourself off the hook as well – for whatever element of the conflict you feel was your fault.
Alternatively, you might believe that you didn’t do anything wrong, but you may experience a strong sense of shame, guilt, and anxiety because of the way you felt towards your wrongdoer.8 In that case, it’s essential that you forgive yourself and accept that, regardless of how much you love(d) the other person, you are allowed to, and may even need to, experience the hurt in your own way. There is no right or wrong way to heal!
If you feel like the negative emotions are too much to handle, and you simply can’t deal with the situation on your own, it’s never wrong to seek help. Mental health professionals might be able to help you regulate your emotions and discover your own way to learn how to let go of the past.
Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) is commonly used for resolution of emotional conflict in relationships, and in more specific cases, for repair of attachment injuries.2 Attachment injuries occur when an attachment-related issue is the transgression in the relationship. For example, an avoidant attacher might push their partner away when they believe that their boundaries are being pushed; or an anxious attacher might engage in obsessive or stalking behaviors in the face of perceived betrayal.
Research from EFT treatment has shown that, in general, secure attachers are better equipped to deal with emotionally difficult events, as they have had a better chance at developing coping mechanisms and strategies to more rationally and effectively deal with emotional issues.9
However, bear in mind that attachment styles represent a nuanced spectrum, where anyone can have characteristics belonging to any style. Thus, when we are in a vulnerable situation, it is more likely that our insecure traits come forward. So, it is also important to understand that even secure attachers might have difficulties when dealing with transgressions in a relationship.
Even though we’ve all faced the challenge of forgiving, there are two important things many of us often forget.
Yes, it can be tempting to hold grudges in an attempt to hold the wrongdoer accountable for what they did. And yet, as you might already know, none of that is worth your mental health and inner peace.
Besides, forgiveness can be a powerful way to make a relationship stronger. Going through hardship with someone, welcoming vulnerability, and effectively working through the issue together can bring honesty, openness, and better communication into the relationship.
After all, the saying, “broken bones grow back stronger” exists for a reason.
1. McCullough, M., Worthington, E., Rachal, K. (1997). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2), 321–336.
2. Lawler-Row, K.A., Younger, J.W., Piferi, R.L., Jones, W.H.(2006). The Role of Adult Attachment Style in Forgiveness Following an Interpersonal Offense. Journal of Counseling and Development, 84(4), 493–502.
3. Maio, G.R., Thomas, G.,Fincham, F.D., Carnelley, K.B.(2008). Unraveling the role of forgiveness in family relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 307–319.
4. Makinen, J. A., & Johnson, S. M. (2006). Resolving attachment injuries in couples using emotionally focused therapy: Steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1055–1064.
5. Raj, P., Elizabeth, C.S., Padmakumari, P. (2016). Mental health through forgiveness: Exploring the roots and benefits. Cogent Psychology, 3(1), 1153817.
6. Yao, D.J., Chao, M.M. (2019). When Forgiveness Signals Power: Effects of Forgiveness Expression and Forgiver Gender. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(2), 310-324.
7. Cozzarelli, C., Karafa, J.A., Collins, N.L., Tagler, M.J. (2003). Stability and change in adult attachment styles: associations with personal vulnerabilities, life events. and global construals of self and others. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 22(3), 315–346.
8. Hall, J.H.,Fincham, F.D. (2005). Self-Forgiveness: The Stepchild of Forgiveness Research. Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(5), 621-637.