Forgiveness is a complex process of change, and although beneficial cannot be accomplished by simple means. It requires sustained effort and commitment.
Below we have compiled 24 tips, activities and exercises that hopefully can be used to help find some effective ways to start the process of forgiveness today.
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How to be Forgiven: 7 Actions We Can Take
We all make mistakes, and we inevitably find ourselves in situations where we need to be forgiven. There are however effective ways for how to ask for forgiveness and they often require that we humble ourselves and admit we were wrong.
One model for seeking forgiveness called CONFESSing and proposed by Worthington has 7 elements for how to communicate when one is wrong (2003).
We are told that making a good confession of one’s wrongdoing requires the following elements:
- C: Confession without an excuse: we must say that we did wrong and name the wrongdoing specifically.
- O: Offer of a genuine apology. An apology involves taking responsibility and expressing remorse and contrition. Most importantly, we must get across the idea that we are truly remorseful and contrite, ashamed, guilty, and disappointed, even if we do not say explicitly the words “I’m sorry.” The key is to communicate the sadness and sorrow for having done the hurtful or offensive act.
- N: Note the pain of the other person. We need to express empathy for the person we’re asking forgiveness from and show that we understand their experience. It also helps to describe what we perceive them experiencing and suffering in a way that suggests that we understand their perspective and emotional experience and can even identify with them had we been in the same situation.
- F: Forever value the relationship. It is important to express how resolving the relationship problems is more valuable to us than winning or being right and are willing to offer to sacrifice whatever is necessary to resolve the difficulty.
- E: Equalize through restitution. However uncomfortable, we need to ask if there is anything that can be done to make up for the wrongdoing but must resist making suggestions of restitution as people understand love in different ways and value different things as an expression of it. Then be willing to do the restitution or negotiate something comparable.
- S: Say we will never do it again. We need to also express how we will never try to hurt him or her in the same way ever again.
- S: Seek forgiveness by explicitly asking for it as in: “Can you ever forgive me for hurting you?”
For a more in-depth discussion on effective confession see Worthington’s 2003 Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope published by InterVarsity Press of Downers Grove, IL.
Another method for practicing asking for forgiveness involves reflecting on a time when we were forgiven. We can recall a time when we hurt someone else, either intentionally or accidentally. Then we can engage in a discussion on whether or not we feel forgiven for the offense.
If we feel we’ve been forgiven, there are benefits to reflecting on this further by asking questions like:
- How do we know we’ve been forgiven?
- Why do we think the person forgave us?
- Do we think the person we hurt felt better or worse after they forgave us?
- How did we feel after we were forgiven?
- What is our relationship like with the person now?
- Did this experience make us more or less likely to repeat the hurtful behavior?
- What did we learn from the whole ordeal?
- If we do not feel that we’ve been forgiven, it may be helpful to talk about how we might ask for forgiveness.
8 Tips and Techniques for When It Feels Too Hard to Forgive
Forgiveness is a complex process of change, and although beneficial it cannot be accomplished by simple means. It requires sustained effort and commitment and is often more difficult than giving into unforgiveness.
Here are a few exercises that can help when it feels too hard to forgive.
1. Sympathy for the Transgressor
Sometimes it will simply be impossible to empathize with the transgressor, particularly in case of unexpected betrayals or heinous harms.
A realistic and legitimate goal in those cases will be simply the cultivation of sympathy. A therapist could invite the client to speculate about reasons for and ways in which she can feel sorry for the person who inflicted the harm.
A practitioner could also ask the client to think of what kind of help the offender might be given and if there are nice things that people could do to help this person.
Although not easy, the intent of this intervention is to stimulate even the smallest amount of thoughts of compassion toward the transgressor (Worthington & Scherer, 2004).
2. Benefit Finding Method
McCullough suggests that writing about the benefits of interpersonal transgressions can be an effective form of intervention as it allows for cognitive processing that facilitates forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a process of change and McCullough suggests that what makes this type of journaling approach different from other approaches like empathy finding or relationship commitment, is the positive focus of the benefit finding method (McCullough, & Witvliet, 2002).
To deal with a transgression, one tries to change what one can possibly change after a transgression has occurred because we cannot undo the transgression. We can perceive the transgression as a hurt or an offense and respond to it with anger or fear.
But, perhaps we can control some of the anger and fear. If we can self-soothe, we can lessen any subsequent unforgiveness. Self-soothing can also give us a sense of control and can help convince us that we are not all that unforgiving (Worthington & Scherer, 2004).
4. Lessen the Injustice Gap
To reduce the perceived injustice gap and unforgiveness people often attempt to cope through problem-solving or regulating emotions by self-soothing, avoiding the thoughts, replacing of negative with positive emotions, and finding meaning.
We can change the magnitude of the injustice gap through two strategies. A victim can introduce more justice by changing how one perceives things as they currently are. Alternatively, a victim can lower expectations about the ideal outcome. Usually, one cannot fully exact justice.
Although people can mouth the words that a situation is merely challenging, the physiological threat appraisals are notoriously unresponsive to willful changes. A tip from the solution-focused therapists suggests that we should find what might be working, even to a small degree and try to magnify that positive perspective.
5. Short-Circuit Rumination
Rumination that triggers negative emotions activates neoassociationistic networks. If one spots rumination quickly, he or she can usually short-circuit the rumination before it gets revved up.
6. Emotional Replacement
Replacing negative unforgiving emotions gradually with positive other-oriented emotions is facilitated by experiencing other self-forgetful positive emotions.
The therapist facilitates emotional replacement by helping the client give an altruistically motivated gift of forgiveness.
The practitioner can use a memory described by the client to motivate altruism through:
- humility in realizing that the client too has offended,
- contrition over his or her wrongdoing,
- gratitude for having been forgiven, and
- hope from the expectation that we can all do something good for others, even those who have hurt us, and that blessing will come back to us.
Clients are basically directed to reflect on their past to recall times in which they offended another but were forgiven.
These times can be difficult to recall. The therapist can give prompts to think of whether the client offended a parent, teacher, romantic partner, friend, or coworker.
Usually, with these prompts, people can recall many experiences where they wronged someone and were forgiven (Worthington & Scherer, 2004).
7. Empty Chair Technique
One of the most effective ways to help a client experience empathy is to use the empty-chair technique. The client imagines sitting across from the offender, who is imagined to be sitting in the empty chair.
The client describes his or her complaint as if the offender were there. The client then moves to the empty chair and responds from the point of view of the offender.
The conversation proceeds with the client moving back and forth between chairs. The objective is to allow the person to express both sides of the conversation personally, and thus experience empathy.
In doing so, the person might imagine an apology or at least an acknowledgment of the hurt that was inflicted.
8. Naikan Therapy
Still relatively unknown in North America, Naikan therapy is a Japanese practice of self-reflection that involves, by Western standards, an arduous method of meditation.
The traditional and most rigorous form of Naikan involves a degree of sensory deprivation and isolation and is practiced in Naikan centers for a duration of one week.
Naikan retreats start by focusing on the three questions:
- What have you received?
- What have you returned?
- What trouble have you caused?
They first focus on the individual’s relationship to the mother and then expand outwards to other relationships. During the sessions, a guide comes and listens to the participant from time to time allowing them to put into words what they have discovered.
It is important to stress the unique environment that Nikon centers create. Many participants report vivid and religious-like experiences that seem to be a direct result of the deprivation.
There are viable substitutes for the sensory deprivation of Naikan therapy and the intensity of the contemplative practice of Buddhist meditation.
For example, a simplified form of Naikan therapy could involve asking the intervention participants to journal daily for one week answering the three Nikon questions after a brief version of loving-kindness meditation. But these may not be as effective in cases where forgiveness seems out of reach (Ozawa-de Silva, 2006).
7 Activities and Exercises to Help Practice Forgiveness
The activities and exercises below can be used by anyone alone but can also be used as interventions with the help of a practitioner.
1. Perspective Taking
A key to helping someone forgive and develop empathy for the transgressor is to help them take the perspective of the other person. We can use five prompts and write the five Ps on a sheet of paper as a cue:
- Pressures: What were the situational pressures that made the person behave the way he or she did?
- Past: What were the background factors contributing to the person acting the way he or she did?
- Personality: What are the events in the person’s life that lead to the person having the personality that he or she does?
- Provocations: What were my own provocative behaviors? Alternatively, might the other person, from his or her point of view, perceive something I did as a provocation?
- Plans: What were the person’s good intentions? Did the person want to help me, correct me, or have in mind that he or she thought would be good for me, but his or her behavior did not have that effect? In fact, it had just the opposite effect (Worthington, 2004).
2. Fantasizing About Apology
Leslie Greenberg and Wanda Malcolm (2002) have demonstrated that people who can generate such fantasies and vividly imagine the offender apologizing and being deeply remorseful are ones who are most likely to forgive successfully.
Those who cannot imagine such scenarios are often unable to forgive without some form of justice actually being involved, or without a large amount of work to promote experiences of empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love.
Also positively linked to forgiveness, especially when it comes to forgiveness towards others, not as much with forgiveness directed toward self or situation.
Depending on the level of a client’s spiritual diversity, the process can be explained as an energy exchange where forgiveness frees up energy for mindful engagement (Webb, 2012).
Both mindfulness and forgiveness have been linked to greater psychological health in separate research undertakings, but we can combine the two to amplify benefits and find similarities. Cultivating forgiveness promotes mindfulness and therefore better health.
4. Naikan Therapy
The Naikan therapy focuses on distinguishing between first the actual memories we have, second the interpretations we give them, and finally how we develop the sense of self as a result.
The self is shaped by the narrative of the past we create, and our memory is deeply influenced by how we see ourselves through the judgments we make about our past.
Our memory, being a subjective experience, is often static and we are convinced that ours is the only valid perspective and we often accept it as an absolute (Ozawa-de Silva, 2006).
A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.
To develop a fluid sense of self would take a lot of energy if we had to do it all the time. However, if the static memories are built around a painful past, often the only way to recreate the past is too take a dynamic approach.
The Naikan method suggests that taking another perspective on the painful memory is the answer, and particularly from the other person’s point of view by asking other focused questions: “What have you received? What have you given? What troubles and difficulties have you caused?”
Our sense of self is defined through our relationship with others. Cultural context becomes important here and discussion on collective memory can play a role as the social sense of self can be developed only in relation to others (Ozawa-de Silva, 2006).
5. Roleplay Forgiveness
Forgiveness can also be practiced through roleplay. We can pick a family member to be the forgiver and ask them to describe a particular person that they blame for something hurtful.
Then we stand in the offender’s shoes and ask questions like: Why might he have done what he did? What emotions might he have been feeling? The forgiver is encouraged to see the broadest picture possible, to give the offender the benefit of the doubt, and to imagine different things that the offender might have been going through.
It is important to remember here that practicing empathy is not the same as excusing bad behavior, but that it is simply a technique for letting go of anger. Then role-play forgiving by verbally expressing forgiveness to the offender.
It helps to pay attention to emotions we are feeling as we do the role-play and even try on the facial expressions that we might have when expressing forgiveness. Finally, we want to bring attention to what our body feels like when we’re feeling or expressing forgiveness.
6. Write a Forgiveness Letter
Write about a time when we were hurt in a letter that we may or may not ever send to the person who hurt us. Illustrate how we were affected by it at the time and the hurtful or negative feelings we are still experiencing.
State what we wish the offender had done instead. End this forgiveness letter with an explicit statement of forgiveness, understanding, and even empathy if we can muster it. Another variation of the forgiveness letter would be to write a letter as if we were the offender.
7. Combining Methods
Unforgiveness might be reduced most effectively by using several different strategies. Sometimes, in the spirit of problem-focused coping, a person might seek redress for injustice.
Sometimes, in the spirit of handling negative emotions, a person might emotionally forgive. Both strategies might be simultaneously or sequentially employed. In addition, a person might use meaning-focused coping (Park & Folkman, 1997).
Forgiveness Worksheets (PDF)
McCullough showed that writing about the benefits of interpersonal transgressions can be an effective form of intervention as it allows for cognitive processing that facilitates forgiveness.
Forgiveness worksheets provide prompts that can help with emotional and cognitive processing of hurts, rewriting the narrative of transgression, and practicing of perspective taking, among other benefits.
Whether you’re practicing forgiveness toward another or self-forgiveness, there are plenty of useful resources and the examples below are just some of many available out there.
Forgiveness has been investigated through many methods of assessment and these measurements can be grouped into three types of forgiveness scales:
- dispositional forgiveness,
- episodic forgiveness, and
- dyadic forgiveness.
All other measures of forgiveness that don’t quite fit into above categories but assess some aspect or characteristic of forgiveness are implicit, behavioral, or biological measures of forgiveness (Fernández-Capo, et al. 2017).
The gold standard measure of forgiveness is the Enright Forgiveness Inventory (EFI), which is available for purchase at Mind Garden. EFI is the most comprehensive and best psychometrically supported measure of forgiveness.
There is extensive research supporting its use. Three other recently developed instruments for adults are described and presented in their entirety in the book The Forgiving Life (Enright, 2012):
- the Forgiveness Landscape Rating Scale,
- the Personal Forgiveness Scale, and
- the Forgiveness Guidepost Form.
There is also the Enright Forgiveness Inventory for Children which is available in the store section of the International Forgiveness Institute website.
Here are some examples of forgiveness assessments and some specific categories of questions they include. Available from Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès website, all questions are answered on the scale of:
Disagree Completely o—o—o—o—o—o—o—o—o—o—o Completely Agree
- The world has brought me to never forgive
- I don’t feel able to forgive even if the offender has apologized
- I keep feeling resentful even if the offender has begged for forgiveness
- I feel unable to forgive even if the consequences of the harm done have been canceled
- I can more easily forgive a person I well know than a person I don’t know
- I keep feeling resentful even if the consequences of the harm done are minimal
Sensitivity to Circumstances
I forgive more easily:
- if my family or my friends invite me to do so
- when I feel good and everything goes well
- if the person is a member of my family than anyone else
- when the consequences of the harm have been canceled
- when I feel bad and everything goes badly
- when the offender has begged for forgiveness
I can easily forgive even if:
- the consequences of the harm done have not been canceled
- the consequences of the harm done are serious ones
- the offender has not begged for forgiveness
- the offender has not apologized
- the offender did the harm intentionally
Inability in seeking forgiveness.
I don’t feel able to seek forgiveness even when:
- I positively consider the person I have harmed
- What I have caused has clearly visible consequences on the person I have harmed
- I think I am entirely responsible for the harm done
- when the consequences of the harm have disappeared
- the harm was not intended
Sensitivity to circumstances
I feel it is easier to seek forgiveness when:
- I feel good and everything goes well
- my family or friends have encouraged me to do so
- the person I have harmed has not taken revenge
- the harm done has clearly visible consequences in the person I have harmed
- I feel bad and everything is going badly
A Take Home Message
Although dwelling on injustice and holding onto grudges can be tempting options, study after study shows that forgiving those who have harmed us can systematically reduce distress and increase satisfaction with life. One study found that forgiving on one day resulted in participants reporting higher levels of happiness on the next day (Witvliet, 2001; Worthington, 2004).
To find out more on why forgiving others can be the best thing you can do for yourself, be sure to check out our other articles on the topic.
What are your thoughts on the forgiveness process? If you have any other tips or activities, please feel free to share them in the comments section.
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