If you're like myself and many of my clients, you find forgiveness a difficult prospect. Big questions such as "When is it too late to ask for an apology?", "Is forgiveness necessary for personal and spiritual growth?", and "Should someone apologize for being truthful?" complicate the process.

Of course, most of us do not hold grudges and ask for apologies on such a grand scale. Yet, we certainly can tell stories about the rifts in our families. For example, brothers don't speak to brothers because business ventures went belly up. Or, siblings squabble over inheritances. Even worse, families break up when they take sides over the guilt or innocence of an abusing parent.

The offended and the offenders present compelling explanations, but the offended are often the ones who feel that they are left holding the hot potato question: Should I forgive-or forgive, forget or forsake the relationship forever. My clients suffer long-term anguish over this dilemma. 

Most religions promote forgiveness. The message is that forgiveness heals wounds, brings people together, allows for human error and advances each party's emotional and spiritual growth. 

As you read this, you might be pondering whether to forgive your mother, sibling or colleague.  And, like most people, you might also be feeling a mix of guilt and outrage at the same time.  I wish I could give you a definitive answer about what to do.  Even in my profession of mental health, there is division about the better approach. In my many years of counseling people, I've seen leaps in personal and family growth occur from both positions. The best I can offer is this guide. Ultimately, you must decide, based on your circumstances and religious beliefs, whether to forgive or not.

                              Grudge Guide:  To Forgive or Not to Forgive

1.  There can actually be benefits of holding a grudge and withholding forgiveness.  If you are the kind of person who rarely speaks up or who always thinks that he or she is usually wrong or undeserving, then holding a grudge can forge a new way of thinking about others and their responsibility for a given situation. For example, you might find some untapped strength in yourself. Use your "grudge time" to review the situation. Talk about it with others, including counseling or religious professionals. Test your viewpoint.

Ask yourself: What lesson have I learned about not speaking my mind?  Why do I let others disrespect me?

2.  Get a perspective.  The feeling that someone has done you wrong may be justified, but just because you feel something doesn't mean your behavior has to match your feelings. We make similar assessments all the time. For example, wise parents know to pick their battles with their teenager. If the hurt is deeper, then think about how you want to handle it. Here are some steps to take after you've got a more level head.

Ask yourself: Did I contribute to this problem? Why did this person do what they did? If you aren't sure about what happened, tell the story to a trusted friend, partner, counselor or religious leader. Write out the incident and see what emerges. Sometimes, the act of writing can yield surprises.

3.  Consider your position temporary. People grow and change.  Hindsight, time and a fresh view, for instance, might soften your previous stance.  You don't have to maintain your old view. There's no point or benefit of holding a grudge for the sake of being angry. Don't hold onto to past hurts in order to protect and justify your actions or feelings.

4.    Develop a strategy. Forgiveness is a very personal decision, and few situations are identical. Here a few of the approaches that worked for my clients.

  • Identify your religious beliefs. For example, some people believe that forgiveness, rather than diminishing your sense of self-worth, actually enhances it. Forgiveness, in their eyes, is a higher order of human relating. There is a famous story about a family in Italy who encountered bandits who robbed them and murdered family members. The parents forgave the robbers--and even donated an organ to save one of their lives. 
  • Decide whether this person or issue is important enough for you to "open that can of worms."
  • Weigh the pros and cons of discussing the issue. Decide whether you still want a relationship with this person. Confronting the person can end in several outcomes: It might end the relationship, solidify your negative assessment of the offender, leave you without a resolution or foster a better relationship and help the person to grow.
  • Think about how you might change your interactions. For example, some people limit or shorten their visits. Other people decide to "step back" in their hearts and choose to continue the relationship but not be as close.
  • Discuss the issue with the offender and offer this person the opportunity to change or apologize. Ask the offender: How would you feel if I did the same thing to you? What would you do about it? Often, the person's response will guide you.

5.  Don't be afraid to open old but serious wounds that you haven't acted on. Sometimes we look back and can't figure out why we never dealt with an issue; however, delayed action is not necessarily unwise behavior. Sometimes, people are not even aware that someone has actually hurt them! 

Battered women, for example, may come to the realization that they are not the cause of the battering until later. Battered women are often too willing to offer forgiveness to their abusers and not expect or ask for change in the abuser's behavior.  Years later--and perhaps many counseling hours later, the woman sees the light and is finally able to be angry.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and lic.clinical social worker, specializing in relationships.  For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com.