In the aftermath of being wronged-no matter how large or small the offense- forgiveness can seem like an elusive, almost mythical concept. Whether facing a betrayal by a friend, infidelity in a marriage, or any kind of hurt you’re hanging onto from the past, it can feel unfair that on top of dealing with the unpleasant effects of the event, you have to do the work to find forgiveness and move past it.
Ultimately, though, forgiving others’ wrongdoings can have a huge impact on your own well-being: Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, forgiveness researcher and co-director of the Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explains that “our research indicates that forgiving an offender over time leads to lower levels of depression and anxiety and higher levels of hope, happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem.” Sounds great, right? But perhaps-no, definitely-easier said than done. Luckily, throughout years of research, Dr. VanderWeele and others have found specific, proven steps and methods anyone can use to help them forgive and forget.
Dr. Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness and Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Happy Relationship, eagerly points to three main takeaways from his decades of studies: First, that forgiveness is a teachable skill no matter how large the offense, second, that becoming more forgiving is good for your physical and emotional health, and third, that it’s not an immediate response. “There's a process to find a resolution to your grief,” he explains. Here, these two experts in the field explain some of the methods that have helped people reach forgiveness for everything from cheating the death of a child.
Understand that forgiving someone isn't a sign of weakness.
“Sometimes there’s a misconception that forgiving is about giving in, or that it’s letting people trample all over you,” says Dr. VanderWeele. “The research we’ve done suggests that’s not the case, and that it’s actually an incredibly powerful and self-healing response to an offense.”
Forgiving can lead to lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of hope, happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem.
He explains that his researchers define forgiveness, at the most basic level, as the replacing of ill will toward the person with goodwill, so that “the victim is no longer held captive to the offender or to the feelings of bitterness and anger.” The result, his research indicates, is that forgiving someone who hurt you leads to lower levels of depression and anxiety and higher levels of hope, happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem. Try reframing forgiveness as wanting to find those things for yourself, because you can forgive without condoning unacceptable behavior.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are not necessarily the same thing…
When someone hurts you, especially in cases of cheating and infidelity, it’s important to draw a distinction between forgiveness (again, wishing goodwill toward the offender), and reconciliation.
Forgiveness, Dr. Vanderweele explains, can sometimes bring about reconciliation, but not always, and there are situations where reconciliation may not even be appropriate. (Dr. VanderWeele points to cases of domestic violence and consistently unchanged behavior as examples.)
And, in cases of infidelity, reconciliation takes work from both people.
“Infidelity is really painful and destructive within a relationship, and when there’s been a betrayal of trust, one person’s forgiveness alone isn’t sufficient to reconcile and move forward,” says Dr. VanderWeele. There needs to be, in addition, “repentance on the part of the offender, and some sort of assurance that this isn’t going to happen again. Both partners have to want that healing to take place.”
When you’re ready to forgive, first start by calming the nervous system.
Dr. Luskin has a four-step process to help people work toward forgiveness, and it starts by practicing stress management when upset. He explains that when people are hurt or offended, their adrenaline spikes, and “adrenaline’s purpose is to make you focus on a problem and not let it go.” The body develops that habitual adrenal response, so that every time the issue comes to mind, the adrenaline spikes again.
Take two deep breaths, and try to think of something positive every time the offense comes to mind.
To change the body’s response, he instructs people to take two deep belly breaths and then think about something positive every time the offense comes to mind. After fifty or so times of practicing this, the body can more effectively calm itself.
Second, evoke your capacity for gratitude.
The next step in Dr. Luskin’s process involves becoming more thankful because “when you see things that are wrong, you need to also notice what’s right in order to create a nervous system balance and the ability to tell a different story.” He has patients take time to appreciate things like pleasant weather or beautiful sunsets, or other small things in their lives that they’re grateful for, further calming the nervous system.
Then, remember you don’t always get what you want.
These seemingly harsh words are critical to Dr. Luskin’s method, as “forgiveness is about situations that didn’t work out the way we want,” he says. “This cognitive framing helps you work towards acceptance and even lowers blood pressure.”
Lastly, change how you tell the story in your head.
Once you’ve taken those steps to get into a different headspace, it helps you change the story in your mind from one in which you’re the victim of a terrible deed to one in which you’re a hero for forgiving said deed.
“Ultimately, forgiveness is a change in story,” says Dr. Luskin. “Instead of the ‘poor me,' narrative, it’s ‘look how I’ve grown, learned, and handled this situation. Look how I’ve overcome adversity.’” He explains how that mindset can, for example, help someone leaving an unhealthy relationship to go on to have other, healthier relationships in the future. “Suddenly you’re able to say, ‘Even if that person treated me horribly and the relationship was a complete disaster, I’m not giving up on relationships because I know I can get through anything.’”
Alternatively, try the REACH method to forgive the past.
Dr. VanderWeele encourages people to practice forgiveness working through the process of this acronym for “Recall, Emphasize, Altruistic gift, Commit, and Hold.” This model has been used in a number of randomized trials and one-on-one group therapy, and has been shown to lower depression and anxiety and increase hope and forgiveness. Dr. VanderWeele’s team of researchers are currently further exploring the impact of this intervention model globally in the form of a two-hour workbook.
Step-by-step, this process looks like:
RECALL: Think about the wrongdoing objectively, without suppressing it.
EMPATHIZE: Try to put yourself in the shoes of the other person, and consider whether there were motivations at play besides hatred. You don’t need to minimize the wrongdoing or invalidate your own emotions, but try to think about ways in which the action may not have been personal.
ALTRUISTIC GIFT: Think of giving forgiveness as a gift. Most people feel better about themselves when they give to others, and forgiveness works that way as well. It can also be helpful to reflect on a time that someone else gave you the gift of forgiveness, and to think about how that felt.
COMMIT: Commit to forgiving. You can do this by telling the offender face-to-face, telling someone else, or even writing it down.
HOLD: Hold onto the forgiveness that has happened, realizing that the emotional side of it may still take time.
Remember that forgetting shouldn’t be your goal.
You’ve probably heard people talk about “forgive and forget” as a concept, but the consensus among psychologists and researchers is that “that’s a very misguided and untrue sentiment,” says Dr. Luskin. “Sure, there are small things you can forget, like if someone tells a tiny lie to get out of dinner plans, but anything that’s real and important you can’t forget, nor should you.”
The key to forgiveness is not seeing yourself as a victim.
The key to finding forgiveness isn’t suppressing memories or never thinking of them again, but rather “remembering differently, and doing the work to go from remembering it as a victim to remembering as a form of coping, with a more resilient take and without the emotional charge.”
Practice forgiveness every day.
You can actually train yourself to have forgiveness as a personality trait: “When you make it a practice to forgive others for small offenses, like cutting you off on the highway or any small offense within the context of marriage, it actually shapes your character and makes you more likely to feel goodwill towards others,” says Dr. VanderWeele, adding, “That can lead to a better life and a better society as well, helping break the cycle of offense and retaliation.
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