One kind of stressful event that we all face on occasion is the feeling that we have been offended, wronged or attacked by another person. Since it has been found that strong, positive social relationships are associated with happiness (see my blog, Very Happy People), when we feel insulted, betrayed or deserted, it hurts! Our natural tendency may be to respond negatively, to hold a grudge, to want to reciprocate, or maybe to seek revenge.
Another option, forgiveness, has been the focus of attention of psychologists over the last couple of decades. Forgiveness, in this context, however, has a very specific definition.
It is NOT about condoning or accepting what was done; it is NOT about excusing what was done; it is NOT about denying the harm of what was done and it is certainly NOT about forgetting what was done. Although it might happen, forgiveness does NOT necessarily require reconciliation or re-establishing the relationship with the wrongdoer.
Rather, forgiveness involves a change to our way of thinking. Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward someone who has harmed you. Forgiveness is decreasing our desire to harm that person and possibly even increasing our desire to see them do well. Forgiveness allows you to let go of the hurt.
Why would we want to do that? Why would we want to forgive or even wish good things for someone who has done us harm? WE DO IT FOR OURSELVES!
Anger and hostility can create problems for us, both physical and mental. People who do not forgive are more likely to ruminate, hanging on to their hurt and anger, and repetitively focusing on their distress. Rumination is linked to negative emotions, including depression and anxiety, lower life satisfaction and impaired problems solving. When you ruminate on an old grudge, your physical arousal, including blood pressure and heart rate, increases. Fantasizing about how you might physically or verbally cause pain to someone else increases, rather than decreases, your hostility. Staying angry, resentful or vengeful can come at a price.
Research suggests that forgiving is an effective coping strategy that is associated with lower stress, calmer feelings, more positive emotions, higher life satisfaction, and better health. Forgiveness allows you to be free from the distress of a betrayal. Forgiveness is about moving forward, instead of dwelling in the past.
Forgiving is not easy. It can be a difficult, complicated journey that unfolds over time. Forgiving is not necessarily a straight path, and may fluctuate over time. You may never get all the way to being able to forgive another person but you can work toward getting closer. Rather than being a sign of weakness, it requires a lot of work and strength to forgive. It requires a deliberate decision to overcome your negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours toward the transgressor. You must start by recognizing the intensity of your pain, and accepting that it’s okay to feel those feelings for a while, before you begin to forgive.
Learning to forgive is a skill, a skill that you can practice to improve your coping. So how do you do it? Everett Worthington, is a clinical psychologist and Professor Emeritus of psychology, retired from Virginia Commonwealth University. Worthington developed the REACH model for forgiving, to help people to “reach for forgiveness”. The REACH model has been tested and supported in many clinical studies. In order to learn to forgive, the model suggests that you need to:
- R – Recall the hurt and accept that it has happened – make a decision to not treat yourself as a victim or the transgressor as a bad person
- E – Empathize with the offender, to the extent you can, trying to understand why the other person may have wronged you, trying to see what happened from the transgressor’s perspective
- A – Give the Altruistic, unselfish gift of forgiveness by making the choice to forgive – remember a time when you were forgiven for something and how that made you feel and decide to give the same gift
- C – Commit to forgiving – for example, by writing a note to yourself saying that, on this date, you forgave or by sharing your decision to forgive with others, making your commitment to forgive public
- H – Hold on to the forgiveness – when you are in doubt about forgiving, re-read your note to yourself, or discuss your decision to forgive again with others
Take care, and consider starting on the journey to forgiveness.
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.