How do I forgive?
In a previous blog, we talked about what forgiveness is and why it’s so beneficial for us – check it out! But this blog is focused on how to forgive.
Forgiveness isn’t quite as simple as just making the decision. You need to actually take steps to work towards it. As is often the case, the person or situation we are forgiving isn’t easy to let go of. We can feel anger or even upset at the idea of moving on without seeking retribution or revenge.
But as we previously shared, forgiving is crucial to living a happy and fulfilling life.
So what do you do when you’ve made that initial decision that you want to forgive?
Well you happen to be in luck, a number of researchers have focused on this very question and we have summarised here the two most successful methods. These two methods have received the most support from psychologists and researchers alike.
The two most supported methods are Robert Enright’s Process model and Everett Worthington’s REACH Forgiveness approach.
Robert Enright’s Process
Enright’s model of forgiving suggests that there is a four-phase repeatable process which people can use to successfully achieve forgiveness. The stages are:
Uncovering phase: in this step, the individual seeks to understand the situation and the particular offence and its impact on their life
Decision phase: in this stage, the person is taught about what forgiveness is, the benefits and how it works
Work phase: in this stage the individual seek to understand the offender better, including the potential reasons behind the offender’s actions
Deepening phase: the final stage is where the individual seeks to find a meaning or purpose in the situation which they can learn from
Although Enright is a devout Christian and his model was inspired by religious teachings, the fundamentals of the approach are essentially psychological and can be used by everyone. They focus heavily on understanding the process and motivations behind the offence. In this, the approach deems that when we understand and can rationalise the situation, we are more easily able to come to terms with the situation and move on.
If you want to attempt this approach, you need to set aside some time to work through in detail the below questions. Take your time and come back to it across a period of time so that you can really work through each step slowly:
To what extent have I denied - or attempted to forget – that I was offended and the suffering which I have experienced as a result?
In what ways have I avoided feeling and dealing with my anger and suffering?
In what ways have I attempted to feel and deal with (i.e., face) my anger?
To what extent do I experience, and avoid exposing, any shame or guilt?
In what ways does my unresolved anger affect my physical and emotional health, relationships, and work productivity?
To what extent am I obsessed or preoccupied with how I was offended and/or with my offender?
To what extent do I compare my own life situation with that of my offender?
To what extent has the offence caused permanent, difficult change(s) in my life?
How has the offence changed my worldview?
What is forgiveness?
What is not forgiveness?
To what extent do I experience that, although I have tried – or am sincerely trying – to forgive, I realize that emotionally I haven’t?
What stops me from courageously confronting my offender’s unjust actions toward me – both internally and directly?
To what extent may I “idolize” or “demonize” my offender – i.e., regard him or her either as not needing my forgiveness or as being unforgivable?
Am I willing to consider forgiving my offender (i.e., willing to become willing to forgive?)
What hasn’t worked for me so far in trying to forgive my offender?
What stops me from being (or becoming more) willing to try to forgive now?
To what extent have I decided to forgive – am I committed to trying to forgive now?
Have I developed an understanding of how I was offended and the past and immediate consequences of the offence, as well as a deeper self-compassion?
In what way(s) have my prior attempts to understand, develop compassion for and forgive my offender, made it difficult for me to fully realize and feel the consequences of the offence?
What in justice do I need to do now, if anything, to seek restitution, i.e., deal with the lingering effects of the past offence(s) and/or to protect myself or others from actual or new offenses?
What, if anything, stops me from seeking restitution for past offences by the offender and/or protecting myself and others from future offences by him or her?
What may I do now to accept and resolve the pain and consequences of how my offender did and did not treat me?
How may I grieve my sadness and pain and use my anger to assertively care for myself – and if relevant, others?
How safe – or possible – is any direct contact with my offender at this time?
What human and spiritual help do I need in order to forgive my offender as I may chose to, and how will I seek and cooperate with this help?
What was and is my offender really like?
What was my offender’s life like when he or she was growing up?
What was my offender’s life like at the time he or she offended me?
What is the long-term history of my relationship with my offender; specifically, what is good, bad, true and false about it?
How does my offender treat me – and others – now, and how do I treat him or her?
What is my offender like as a human being, and to what extent does he or she deserve my respect simply for being another human being?
What specific word, action, gesture or “gift” may I do for or give to my offender – even if s/he is dead – as an expression of my intent to offer him or her compassion or mercy at this time?
In what ways have I grown through my efforts to feel and deal with my suffering and anger, and to act with compassion and mercy toward my offender.
In what ways have my efforts to forgive set me free – free from unwanted emotional suffering and free for having a better relationship with the offender (perhaps), others, myself and God?
In what ways do I recognize that I am not alone in my suffering – that others share my suffering and I theirs, whether we suffer for the same reasons or not?
To what extent have I discovered my own need to be forgiven, to seek and ask for forgiveness, perhaps even from my offender, or from someone else whom I have offended?
What meaning am I discovering in and through my suffering and my trying to forgive and, if appropriate, to be forgiven?
What am I learning about my purpose in life and how I may be called to serve others?
Worthington’s REACH Forgiveness Model
Worthington’s REACH Forgiveness model also is a therapeutic model, which uses an acronym as a reminder of each of the key steps required. This can be used for forgiving yourself as well as another person. The steps are:
R = Recall the hurt:
To heal, you have to face the fact that you’ve been hurt. This can be difficult to address if you’ve been ignoring or avoiding thinking about the situation. In this step, you need to clearly decide not to be hurtful or vengeful, not to treat yourself like a victim, and not to treat the other person badly
E = Empathize with your offender:
Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s position. It can help to imagine that the other person is in an empty chair across from you. Talk to him or her. When you have had your say, move to sit in his or her chair and play the role of that person. Talk back to the imaginary you in a way that helps you see why the other person might have wronged you. This way, you can begin to better understand the other person’s perspective and why the offence occurred.
A = Altruistic gift:
Forgive as an unselfish, altruistic gift. It may feel like the offender does not deserve to receive forgiveness. Yet, we are all human and we all make mistakes. To help you want to give the gift of forgiving, try to remember when you wronged someone and that person forgave you. Remember how that forgiveness freed you. By forgiving altruistically, you can give that same gift to someone who hurt you.
C = Commit:
At this point, you need to commit to forgiveness. Once you have forgiven, write a note to yourself—something as simple as, “Today, I forgave [person’s name] for hurting me.” This simple step can help the forgiveness last long term.
H = Hold onto forgiveness:
Now that we have forgiven and committed, we need to maintain that state of forgiveness, The self-addressed notes of commitment (above) may help us if at any point we become tempted to doubt that we really forgave. Re-reading the note can help remind us of the steps we’ve progressed through and maintain that resolve.
As with any new skill, it will be difficult at first. But the more we practise it, the better, and more natural, it will be to us. To make either of these approaches more manageable, we recommend starting small. By practising small acts of forgiveness in everyday life, you can get yourself more comfortable with the concept and the steps. For example, if somebody is rude or cuts you off in traffic, use that moment to work through the forgiveness steps. Not only will it help you master the steps so that when you try them on bigger offences, you're more fluent in the skill of forgiveness, but it will make your everyday life that little bit happier. Now what’s not to love in that?