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Six Steps That Will Help You Forgive

Last year I was involved in putting together two weeks of programs and public speaking on the topic of forgiveness at Bethel University. I was amazed at how strongly college students seemed to resonate with the stories that were shared. I was also struck by the level of personal engagement that took place: students really wrestled, they really seemed to struggle through what it might mean for them to forgive some very deep wounds. As I listened I heard stories of every kind, involving roommates, professors, siblings, or friends…

Interestingly, the vast majority of the hurts that students shared with me, and usually the most difficult and hard to get over, had to do with family members- or the people closest to them in their lives. Isn’t that incredible? That the people who love us most are also often the people who hurt us most?

I have found that college students ask really good questions… really tough questions. I wonder if you have ever had any of these kinds of questions when it comes to forgiveness?

  • How do you forgive when the person who hurt you never owned up to what they did and apologized?

  • How do you forgive when the person who hurt you won’t apologize?

  • How do you forgive when every day you still experience the effects of what someone else did?

  • What do you do when you’ve tried to forgive but you still wake up every day hating the other person?

  • What do you do when someone has hurt you over and over again, or when they hurt you every time you are around them?

  • What if you thought you forgave a person, but then see that person again and all the negative feelings you had toward her or him come flooding back?

When it comes to forgiveness, there are no two stories that are the same and every one will bring with it different questions. But know this: at some point in our lives we will experience hurt- we will be offended against. In every person’s life, at some point, there will be a wound that someone else has created.

And not everyone forgives.

But for those who do forgive (or try to), we know that forgiveness is a process more than it is an event. And while forgiveness is an intensely personal and therefore unique journey for everyone, there is hope! There is research on forgiveness that has revealed six steps that has been proven to be helpful in aiding the process. The following steps have been adapted from the work of Dr. Everett Worthington, a world-renowned expert and social science researcher on the topic of forgiveness, and his R.E.A.C.H. model:

Know the difference between decisional and emotional forgiveness. Both kinds of forgiveness involve releasing your right to get revenge or condemn the person who offended you. Decisional forgiveness, however, is making a voluntary decision to not act on this right and deciding to let go of the grudge that you might be holding against another person. It is crucial for us to understand that decisional forgiveness is: 1) the primary aspect of the process we can control and, 2) is complete and total forgiveness- nothing more is required. Emotional forgiveness is letting go of revenge because you no longer have negative and vengeful feelings toward the person. It is important to distinguish between the two because we often have more control over decisional forgiveness than emotional forgiveness, which means that we often have to start with decisional forgiveness and trust that the emotional forgiveness will come over time. Many times it is the decision to forgive and commitment to that decision that “paves the way” for emotional forgiveness to come at a later time.

  1. Recall the hurt: one of the first steps in dealing with any kind of hurt is acknowledging it and validating its legitimacy. This is one of the most prominent mistakes that couples make with one another. When one person expresses hurt and the other person, feeling defensive, responds with a “yeah, but” statement, the hurt is never addressed. Progress is never made and the event persists to be a “sensitive subject” that keeps coming up in the relationship.

  2. Emotionally replace (or Empathize): to create the space for emotional forgiveness, at some point we have to explore what led to the offense from the perspective of the person who did it. Most people in the world do not wake up in the morning thinking, “I’m going to try and ruin someone’s life today,” and we need to recognize that. We have to try and understand that this person had some kind of reason or intention when they committed the offense and it most likely was not a premeditated attempt to hurt us but rather the person’s own unhelpful way of dealing with her or his own issues.

  3. Make forgiveness an Altruistic gift: research indicates that doing forgiveness only for our own sake is often not motivation enough on the long journey of forgiveness. At some point we need to decide to offer forgiveness as a gift. Ironically, this will give us a more enduring commitment to the process. We may see our act of forgiveness as a gift to the person who offended us or we may see it as a gift we are giving to those who look up to us and model their lives after us. Either way, our commitment to the process will last longer if we think of not only the benefits of forgiveness to ourselves but also to others.

  4. Commit to the forgiveness you have experienced: this act is simply a verbal or written acknowledgement of the progress you make in the forgiveness process. For example, you may tell a trusted person how much you have experienced emotional forgiveness as you’ve worked your way through the process- “I have emotionally let go of _____% of my unforgiveness.”

  5. Hold on to the forgiveness when you doubt: it is often the case that we will re-experience our negative feelings toward the person that hurt us. Sometimes this causes us to question the decision we made to forgive in the first place. Do our feelings mean we haven’t really forgiven? It is important at this point to remind ourselves that our decision to forgive, whether we experience emotional forgiveness or not, was complete and sufficient. Our feelings are important, but they do not have to dictate our decisional forgiveness.

If you are on the fence about entering a forgiveness process, here are a couple ideas on how forgiving may benefit you*:

  • Your physical health: forgiveness has been proven to be associated with less physical stress, better focus, better and stronger immune system functioning, and lower risk of heart disease.

  • Your mental health: forgiveness is correlated to decreases in rumination, negative thoughts and feelings and an increased sense of personal control and freedom.

  • Your relational health: practicing forgiveness will lead to greater ability to let go of grudges or a desire to “get back” at people in your life- not only for the person you are trying to forgive but also the people in your life in general. Forgiveness can also lead to greater overall satisfaction in your relationships.

  • Your spiritual health: many faith traditions place high value on forgiveness and even instruct that giving and receiving forgiveness is central to experiencing personal wholeness and experiencing God more fully.

*Note: If you are a survivor of or are experiencing severe abuse or trauma, forgiveness may not be the most appropriate first step for you. It may be more beneficial to seek individual treatment and/or find help to deal with the wounds created and to ensure your personal safety before entering a forgiveness process.

To learn more about forgiveness or to work on forgiving someone with a counselor, please send me a note!

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