Being Able To Forgive
Being Able To Forgive
Dear Tacit,

I want to let go of the anger I have towards some people who have hurt me.  But how do I do this if they don’t apologize, or if I don’t want to talk to them about what they have done?

Signed: Being Able To Forgive

Dear Being Able To Forgive,

Being able to forgive someone who has wronged us is a skill that we all need to develop at some point in our lives.  Holding onto the resentment, anger and pain that results when someone has hurt us only ends up creating a heaviness in our own life.  In a sense, we end up causing ourselves suffering twice over (from the initial wound and then the ongoing triggering of that wound every time we remember it), while the other person goes on with their life, often in complete oblivion to what we are experiencing.  But the concept of forgiveness (especially when no apology has been forthcoming or it has not been earned) is a challenging one.

Dr. Everett Worthington created a concept of forgiveness that has been modified and used throughout the world of psychology after the murder of his mother (in 1996).  In it, he describes two types of forgiveness.  He explains that there is “decisional forgiveness” which is when we make the conscious decision to release/let go of the angry or resentful thoughts/feelings we may be carrying inside of us, towards the person who has wronged us.  And there is “emotional forgiveness” which is going further and replacing our negative feelings (anger, hurt, resentment) with more positive ones (like compassion, sympathy or empathy).  “Decisional forgiveness” is a necessary first step in the process of emotional forgiveness.  And both types of forgiveness have been proven to have positive health benefits (a reduction in stress reactions and ruminations) when applied to the hurt and anger that we sometimes hold onto when someone has done us wrong.

Dr. Worthington created a “REACH” technique that helps walk individuals through this “emotional forgiveness” process, by using these 5 steps

  1. Recall the hurt or wrongdoing. Replay the scenario in your head with as much clarity and accuracy as possible.  Acknowledge how you are feeling and take steps to process/release the feelings that surface.  Then make the conscious decision to forgive the other person for what has happened, for the benefit of your own emotional and physical wellbeing.
  2. Empathize with the feelings that the situation created, in both yourself and in the other person. Visualize the person who has hurt you and express how you have been feeling (you can do this by saying it out loud, or by writing a letter that you never send). Reverse the roles and become the other person.  Try to express their reasons for their behaviour out loud (or through the letter you are writing).  This step can be the most difficult.  It requires us to connect to an element of compassion for the person who hurt us, as we try to understand what they were thinking/feeling when they did what they did. It might be helpful to consider things like the pressures the other person might have been feeling; or the past issues they are struggling with; or the personality issues they have developed (and why); or the perceptions the other person may have had about things you were doing/saying in the situation; or the underlying good intentions they may have had, even if their behaviours didn’t reflect these well.
  3. Offer an “altruistic” gift of forgiveness towards the other person. Remember a time when someone forgave you.  It likely made you feel better about yourself and/or the situation overall.  Offer the person who has wronged you this same opportunity by specifically expressing your desire to forgive them.
  4. Commit to the forgiveness process. Create a mantra for yourself – it might sound something like “today I forgave ______ for hurting me”.  Or write a simple forgiveness note to the other person (you don’t need to send it) to remind yourself of the path you want to be on. Tell someone about your intention to forgive.  Or commit to a public or private gesture of forgiveness, to make the act more real.
  5. Hold onto the feelings of forgiveness (and empathy and compassion) anytime you feel the anger or hurt surfacing again. Reread the note, say your mantra to yourself repeatedly or replay any of the previous steps as needed.  It’s normal for the hurt you are experiencing to return, especially if the wrongdoing impacted you deeply.  But it is your choice whether you feed the negative feelings or the positive ones, with every recall of the situation that you experience.  Remember that you can always reach out for help if you find that you are getting stuck.

The best part about the process of forgiveness is the fact that you do not ever need to interact with the person who has wronged you in order to accomplish the end goal.  And the person who wins from the process of forgiveness is yourself.

Take care!

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