Like every other human in existence, you have hurt somebody. This could be relatively small: you made a joke about someone’s appearance that really didn’t land well. Or it could be really, really big: you sexually assaulted somebody. This raises the question: what can and can’t be forgiven?
Regardless of the scope or scale of harm, we all hurt people. But we can also all learn to practice accountability. Accountability doesn’t mean apologizing to save our reputations, or making excuses for our behavior. Accountability means taking a deep, long look at ourselves, what we did, who we hurt, and the consequences of our actions.
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Here’s what experts have to say on forgiveness — and how you can learn from your mistakes even if you don’t receive forgiveness from the person you hurt.
Apologize. No, Actually Apologize
It’s possible that even though you thought you’ve made a good apology, your sentiment didn’t actually cut it. If you’ve apologized for hurting someone but haven’t received forgiveness, it’s a good idea to really think over whether your apology was genuine.
One trap we often fall into is making an apology about ourselves, our feelings of guilt, and our desire for forgiveness, rather than about the harm we caused to the other person. In contrast, social science research finds that the most effective apologies center around the person who was harmed. They include several components:
- an acknowledgement of the offense
- an explanation for why the apologizer caused harm
- an expression of remorse
- a meaningful offer to make amends
To communicate all these elements in the real world, therapists advise being very specific about what you did wrong and how you hurt the other person, and explicitly using the phrases “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.”
Research also shows that people are more likely to forgive if given a chance to express their side of a situation, so make sure you really listen to the other person and understand how your behavior affected them before you apologize.
A genuine apology isn’t just the act of saying “sorry”: it’s understanding the humanity of the person you harmed and the damage you inflicted.
Nobody Owes You Forgiveness
You made a deep, genuine apology, but you still haven’t been forgiven. What now?
Forgiveness is a long process. It’s possible that the person to whom you apologized doesn’t feel they can forgive you now, but may forgive you later. However, that has to happen at the person’s own pace and meet their own needs.
Unfortunately, it’s also possible that the person you hurt will never forgive you — and even if they do forgive you, they may never want you back in their lives. This can be terribly painful, but it’s something you have to accept. After all, the process of accountability isn’t about your guilt: it’s about addressing the needs of the person you hurt, and figuring out how to do better in the future.
While this is understandably difficult to experience, the truth is nobody owes you forgiveness, and you don’t get to decide how other people feel about you. After all, pushing someone whose boundaries you may have already violated defeats the purpose of making an apology.
While not being forgiven can make you feel like there’s no way forward, remember that ultimately the other person’s decision to forgive you is less important than your own decision to take accountability and grow.
As therapist Kai Cheng Thom writes at Everyday Feminism, “One shouldn’t try [to] aim for forgiveness when holding oneself accountable. Rather, self-accountability is about learning how we have harmed others, why we have harmed others, and how we can stop.”
You Can Commit to Growth
You cannot control whether someone else forgives you. You can, however, control whether or not you take this experience as an opportunity to grow. In fact, it’s your responsibility to take steps to right the wrong you’ve caused and to become a healthier, happier person.
Programs that help treat people with addictions call this process “making amends.” Making amends focuses not just on apologizing, but on taking ownership of the harm you caused, and then taking action to fix it or make it better.
While the person you harmed has the right to not be involved with this process or interact with you in any way, you can still take actions to grow as a person and avoid causing future harm. This action may look different depending on what you did in the first place. If the harm is more mild, it could look like committing to greater empathy. If it’s more serious — for example, if you abused someone — it could likely look like entering therapy or a batterer intervention program.
And even if the person you hurt doesn’t forgive you, you do deserve to experience self-forgiveness. We often harm other people because we ourselves have been harmed, and inflict pain because we are in pain. To change our harmful behaviors, we need to get to the root cause of why we did what we did, and that often means understanding and seeking help for pain, trauma, or an unmet human needs.
Understanding the root cause of our behavior doesn’t excuse it, but it does lead to greater compassion and self-awareness, and empowers us to move forward. Forgiving ourselves in this way can literally be life-saving, and can also help us become more empathetic toward others.
You can’t make anyone forgive you, but you can choose, every single day, to be the kindest, most empathetic, and most caring version of yourself. The person you hurt deserves it — and so do you.