What does it mean to forgive?

February 28th, 2022

This article a compilation of our learnings from 20 global dinners about forgiveness held in 2019 and in 2022. From Seattle to San Juan, Chicago to Caracas, Belize to Nairobi, women are having challenging conversations, asking “what is forgiveness, anyways?” and “is it always the right thing to do?”

And now, our key takeaways…

Our relationship with forgiveness starts young

Many of us grew up within religious traditions with a strict forgiveness narrative — good people must forgive. Whether through the Catholic Church or in the synagogue halls on Yom Kippur, we internalize this message as a belief that if we want to be good people, there is no option but to forgive.

Parallel to religious narratives, women around our tables grew up with two different types of forgiveness “role models.” On the one hand, some of our parents or caregivers were over-forgivers, perpetually forgiving others and were often taken advantage of or used. For these women, forgiveness was seen as a character flaw — a “weakness” that needed to be fixed. In response, these folks created impenetrable walls of protection to keep themselves “safe” and avoid being taken advantage of.

On the other hand, some grew up in never forgive households, with parents and caregivers who would rather hold a grudge for life than forgive and give away their power to anyone else. Growing up in these bitter homes yields to endless blame and avoidance.

Whether your role models were over-forgivers or never-forgivers, many of us are all left with a prevailing victim mentality that says -you will be hurt and disappointed by life.

Whatever we saw growing up, we all know what it feels like not to forgive

It’s visceral experience we can all relate to. We play the transgression over in our head on an endless loop, ruminating in a messy soup of bitterness, hatred and guilt. We can feel the hurt, anger, resentment festering inside. When we don’t forgive, we contract — there’s a tightness in our chests and stomach that makes it almost impossible to be present and comfortable in our own bodies.

Across our tables, we talked about three different types of forgiveness

1. Societal

Forgiving the systems and institutions that have failed us and have caused so much unnecessary suffering. This can be particularly hard for people living in countries with deeply corrupt systems, like our guests in Venezuela. Or those who have been marginalized in their cultures because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

For some people, the global pandemic has brought up a lot of resentment, and the idea of forgiving seems too far away. Some folks feel angry towards their government regarding vaccines and mandates. Others are angry towards the people spreading misinformation — while others are angry towards those censoring that information. Many people have lost connection with loved ones due to differences in perspective.

How can we forgive one another as a global society?

2. Interpersonal

Forgiving those who have hurt us. Yet do not need to forgive everything and everyone — and that’s okay.

When we choose to forgive (or try to), that choice often requires accountability. It is important to remember what happened and have that transgression seen and acknowledged (both by ourselves AND the other person) in order to eventually let go and move on. But take it a step too far, and it’s easy to get caught up in the “I’m right/you are wrong” loop, which causes more pain and stagnancy.

Forgiving others is the release of resentment or desire for vengeance. It doesn’t mean that we forget or condone. It doesn’t mean we let go of healthy anger. It means reclaiming our emotional narrative and standing in our own power.

3. Self

Forgiving ourselves for the hurt we have caused others. This is familiar territory — we have all been our own biggest critics, holding ourselves to impeccable standards and coming down hard when we don’t measure up. Sometimes we let ourselves down in the little things, like skipping going to the gym even though we told ourselves we would. Other times do more regretful acts, like lying to those we love or physically hurting ourselves.

Self-forgiveness is the practice of transforming our guilt and shame into self-compassion and courage –courage to create the change we want. Ultimately, we’re able to forgive others far more readily when we’re already in the practice of forgiving ourselves.

What’s in the way between us and forgiveness

There’s a lot that can get in the way of forgiveness. Sometimes is simply a lack of awareness of the hurt and resentment we are carrying.

Other times we are consciously choosing not to forgive. If so, how can we use our anger or hurt in ways that align with our deepest values? How can we feel empowered in this process instead of becoming victims of those who hurt us?

Ultimately, forgiveness is a process of transformation

Similar to grief, forgiveness is not a linear path. It doesn’t happen overnight and is often a long and painful process (depending on the level of transgression), which involves the following elements:

1. Embracing all of our emotions and letting them move through our bodies — We must fully feel our anger, shame, pain and resentment — releasing the constriction and letting the emotions flow through us as they come.

2. Expressing our feelings and frustrations — When we say what we need to say — rather than bury our hurt and anger inside — we can practice boundary and limit-setting with others in a way that aligns with our true needs. For example, imagine forgiving a friend for hurting you, while also putting new limits on that relationship and accepting that it will look different moving forward. How would that feel?

3. Accountability and justice— To forgive, we need to know that in some way, justice has been served. Whether that’s feeling truly heard and seen in our hurt, or for another to actively acknowledge what they did, justice keeps us safe. We wonder, how do we find justice and forgive in particularly challenging situations, for instance, struggles with addiction, abuse, or mental health issues (in ourselves or in our loved ones)? While we have more questions than answers, we wonder how you let go of anger while still staying true to your boundaries here?

4. Transformation — The process of forgiveness “culminates” when we see ourselves and our relationships transform. Ultimately, forgiveness is easier when it also comes with the creation of new boundaries, new commitments, more acceptance that mistakes are inevitable, but that change is possible too.

For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed? — Bell Hooks


  1. What are your forgiveness patterns? Do you tend to forgive easily (perhaps too easily?) or is it hard for you to forgive? Have an honest look at your patterns — what’s working for you and where can you grow?

  2. Think about someone or something you’d like to forgive in your life. What has truly stopped you from forgiving? What boundaries or changes need to take place in order to be able to forgive?

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