Forgive and Forget: How to Accept a Friend's Apology

Two girlfriends clasping hands as if to say, "apology accepted."

 

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Apology accepted. In a perfect world, when a friend tells you they're truly sorry for something they've done to hurt you, step one is to appropriately acknowledge the mea culpa, step two is to formally accept it, and step three would be for you to let the whole thing go. But, newsflash: We do not live in a perfect world. And friendships aren't always so cut and dried.

When a friend apologizes for a transgression—whether right away or eons after the dust has settled—you may still need more time to forgive, especially if said friend has done something unforgivable (which, BTW, is relative). But while denying or putting off your acceptance just to make them suffer may pale in comparison to what they've done to you, it just isn't the kind thing to do. After all, forgiveness is more about you than it is about them. "Genuine forgiveness finally gets us to a place in which we no longer hold on to the events of the past, for we are so engaged in the now that the past was just how we got here," says cognitive and transpersonal therapist Andrea Mathews.

Here's how to accept a friend's apology—the right way—so you can release those negative feelings you're holding onto.

Step Toward Forgiveness

If you receive a proper apology, like "I'm sorry for doing XYZ," and not a so-called "non-apology" (aka the classic, "I'm sorry you feel that way"), then take the first step toward forgiveness via acceptance. Make no mistake: You may still be hurting. But making that conscious decision to forgive will always precede that sense of utter exoneration.

"Forgiveness is actually not something we do for the other person," says Mathews. "Genuine forgiveness is an internal process that looks and feels very similar to grief. And it is something that happens within us as a response to our willingness to just feel and sit with our own emotions without judging ourselves for having them."

So, it's completely natural not to be quite "over" it when you choose to say, "I accept your apology." Trust that the very act of choosing to forgive will bring some sense of peace, and genuine feelings of forgiveness will come soon after. 

In order to truly forgive, you need to explore the emotions you're feeling. That may mean facing your anger, sorrow, and other negative emotions. Pretending you're not feeling these things and bottling them up could backfire in the future and further damage your friendship.

Mean It

How you accept a friend's apology matters as well. Just as it's super important for you to be able to tell that they're really sorry, you, too, must mean what you say. True forgiveness means you've thought things through, you acknowledge the gaffe, you're now willing to shake hands, and you agree to play your part in repairing the friendship. A good way to express this is to say something like:

"We all make mistakes. I accept your apology."

Or:

"After thinking it through, I realize this was just a misunderstanding and that you didn't mean to hurt me. I accept your apology."

Understand, though, that this is not you letting them off the hook. "Forgiveness is not atonement—so that the person is, through the act of forgiveness, set free from the burden of having done the deed," says Mathews. Rather, look at it as a way of acknowledging your own pain and working to move past it.

Apologies are also a two-way street: When a friend sees how you were able to so graciously move on, she'll likely remember it. And hopefully, it will have rubbed off by the next time it's your turn to say sorry.

When You Need More Time

two women talking seriously over coffee
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It's natural to want to exact revenge on someone who has done you dirty—but doing so only perpetuates, and perhaps magnifies, the issue at hand. (And science has shown that holding onto undue hostility and anger has negative health repercussions.) Instead, take a step back to consider the consequences of an unaccepted apology. The best-case scenario is that your friend gives you all the time you need, no matter how long, to mull it over. But worse yet is the possibility that they'll pull away because they think you'll never forgive, thus damaging the friendship further to the point that it's irreparably broken.

If the friendship is still important to you and you want to salvage it but simply need more time, consider saying:

"I appreciate your apology and I accept it. It means a lot to me. I'm not quite ready to forgive, but I want to be, so I hope you'll be patient with me."

Sure, you may still be smarting from the initial misstep while trying to work through your feelings, but try not to keep resurrecting the argument, as tempting as it may be. Likewise, don't insist that your friend's apology wasn't good enough (when deep down you know it was), don't make her apologize over and over, and try not to hold it against your friend. No one likes or wants to be constantly reminded of the times they've screwed up. Instead, show some compassion, and remember that our mistakes aren't the things that should define us.

If this isn't the first (or second or third) time your friend has made the same hurtful mistake, it may be time to examine the dynamics of the friendship.

On the other end of the spectrum, you may feel it's time to call it quits on a toxic friendship. "We fool ourselves a lot in relationships by telling ourselves that the game we call forgiveness will actually make things different in the relationship," says Mathews. Forgiveness will not change your friend—forgiveness is meant to change you. So after sitting with your feelings, if you think this friendship has passed its expiration date, don't leave the person hanging. Communicate that with them clearly and calmly.

Over Apologizing

Every once in a while, you might receive an apology from a friend who is more upset about their own transgressions than you are. Even though you've already accepted the apology, your friend continues to agonize over the issue and profusely apologize. It could be that they're experiencing high anxiety and can't forgive themself, or your friend just really values your friendship and wants to make sure the relationship isn't harmed—likely a combination of the two. In these scenarios, it's best to try empathizing with the guilt your friend is feeling. Consider mentioning a time you did something similar to relate and connect with them, which should also help steer the conversation in a new direction.

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