The last few years, I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness.
By far, the biggest things that keep me awake at night are the pain of wrongs inflicted on me and regret for the wrongs I've done to others. I have consciously tried to address both.
A few years ago, I made a list of people to whom I felt I owed an apology. These are people I treated thoughtlessly; or I made a joke at their expense or at the expense of someone close to them.
Years had passed (in some cases decades) since I committed these transgressions. But I sought out every person on this list and I apologized to his or her face. One by one, I pulled them aside and told them exactly what I did wrong and I offered my apology. I made no excuses and I waited for them to accept my apology. Some told me it was unnecessary; some told me how much I had hurt them. I think all were surprised that I did it. But every one of them remembered the events I addressed and every one of them accepted my apology.
I completed this list about a year ago and I have slept better since then.
Here are my rules for effective apology.
Be specific. Rather than saying "I'm sorry for anything wrong I may have done", say something like "I was very insensitive to your feelings and I am sorry for that."
Be sincere. Don't apologize unless you mean it. People sense insincerity and will react accordingly.
Accept responsibility. Don't say "I'm sorry if you're mad." Say "I'm sorry for what I did" or "I'm sorry for hurting you"
Don't make excuses. There may be reasons why you behaved the way you did, but an apology is not a time to explain or justify your behavior. If they ask why you did what you did, then go ahead and answer. But generally, this is a separate issue from your wrongdoing and should not affect your apology. Qualifying an apology dilutes its sincerity.
Ask if they accept your apology. It doesn't work unless it is both offered and accepted. It might take them time to accept it; but at least you have started the process. I was lucky that all my apologies were accepted, but I was prepared for the possibility they might need time to think about it or might reject it completely. That is their choice.
During this same period, I listed the people who had wronged me; and, one at a time, I consciously and deliberately forgave them. I did not approach them in person; this was a personal thing for me. None of these people ever offered me a sincere apology or even acknowledged their wrongdoing. I suspect nearly all of them have forgotten what they did. Most of them probably did not even know the pain they caused. Some may be embarrassed by their actions and are hopeful that I have forgotten. But it was important for me to offer forgiveness. I was only harming myself by hanging onto my anger.
I don’t have to offer forgiveness to everyone. There are some bad people in the world and those people I try to exclude from my life and move on. The ones I target are good people who happened to do something unkind to me. Those are the ones that stay in my mind.
I have found both giving and receiving forgiveness to be liberating. A weight was lifted from me - almost in a physical sense - when I began and advanced this journey.
This process has taught me a few things.
Most emotional pain is not caused via deliberate malice; most is caused by thoughtlessness and self-absorption. Most of us are completely unaware of the damage we cause others through an unkind word or action. What seems trivial to us can leave scars in others.
Apologies are not easy - especially sincere ones; But, if done right, they help both the giver and the receiver.
Forgiveness is even harder than apologizing. At least, it is for me. Especially forgiving those who never ask for it. I'm not done forgiving. There are some people I want to forgive that I have not yet been able to, which troubles me. I'm working on this.
And finally, the hardest person I've found to forgive is myself. I've lost a lot of sleep over the years dwelling on regrets. But the process I've described here has helped.