“Forgiveness undoes our own hatred and frees us from a troubled past.”- Christopher Peterson
People often link forgiveness with reconciliation, according to the definition, forgiveness does not always include reconciliation or even interaction with the perpetrator. Forgiveness is defined as “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” (“What is Forgiveness”, 2004)
Peterson describes it as a shift in thinking from “I’ll make them pay” or “I want to see them unhappy” to letting go of grudges. However, forgiveness appears to be more about you than then your perpetrator. As the ancient saying summarizes:
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent to throw it at someone—you are the one getting burned.” -Buddha
Getting to Grips with Forgiveness
Forgiveness can be considered both a trait and a state. The difference between the two being the prevalence of forgiveness for an individual over time, whilst state forgiveness may be short term or apply to one situation, those who possess trait forgiveness will have a blanket approach towards stressful or painful situations where forgiveness is more easily achieved.
A study conducted in Taiwan by Wang (2008) researched the relationship between the big five personality traits and the tendency to forgive. The research found that those people who were agreeable and emotionally stable found it easier to forgive.
This evidence shows that through emotional stability and higher agreeableness you are more likely to forgive those who have wronged you.
The Benefits of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a key part of many religions and civil codes (e.g. Restorative Justice) because it helps societies to heal and function. Numerous studies have found that the positive effects of forgiveness are for those who forgive rather then those who are forgiven.
One such study found that those who forgave had less anger, less stress, less rumination and lowered reactivity in comparison to those who held onto their anger and pain (Harris et al., 2001).
Models of Forgiveness
Everett Worthington (2001) who had studied forgiveness for years, used his own REACH method to forgive the brutal murder of his own mother. Worthington’s five steps to become more forgiving include:
- Recall the hurt
- Empathize with the one who hurt you
- Offer an Altruistic gift of forgiveness
- Make the Commitment to forgive
- Hold on to the forgiveness
Enright’s (2005) Eight Keys to Forgiveness echo much from Worthington, but adds understanding what forgiveness is, forgiving ourselves and developing our “forgiveness muscles” into the recipe. He also acknowledges how using our strengths can to help us forgive easier.
Enright (2005) acknowledges that the search for meaning in suffering helps with forgiving. He also stresses the need to acknowledge one’s own pain, without getting stuck in the hurt.
His eight keys to forgiveness are:
- Know what forgiveness is and why it matters
- Become “forgivingly fit”
- Address your inner pain
- Develop a forgiving mind through empathy
- Find meaning in your suffering
- When forgiveness is hard, call upon other strengths
- Forgive yourself
- Develop a forgiving heart
Various forgiveness exercises have been tested in research. Peterson (2006) tells of getting his students to write a “forgiveness letter”. In the discussion after completion of the exercise, it was felt by all but one student that sending the letter would backfire, unless sent in response to an apology from the recipient; and that it might even be seen as accusatory. Peterson reports that the one student who sent his forgiveness letter has not yet been forgiven for sending it.
More success has been found in workshops which teach the steps to forgiveness, with the objective to change one’s own outlook (Harris, et al., 2001).
For more detail, try this forgiveness exercise based on Enright’s eight keys.
As a mediator and conflict coach, I see how so much pain could be avoided if people were more ready to forgive. For this reason I am motivated when I see that forgiveness can be taught and that its importance in healing is being recognized.
“Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.” – Desmond Tutu
About the Author
This article was written by Nancy Radford of Roundtuit Coaching. For more information on her, her work or this article please contact her directly via her website.
Enright, R. (2015). Eight Keys to Forgiveness. New York: WW Norton.
Harris, A. H., Luskin, F. M., Benisovich, S. V., Standard, S., Bruning, J., Evans, S., & Thoresen, C. (2001). Effects of Group Forgiveness Intervention on Perceived Stress, State and Trait, Anger, Symptoms of Stress, Self-Reported Health and Forgiveness (Stanford Forgiveness Project). Journal of Clinical Psychology 62 (6), 715-733.
Marsh, J. (2010, August 24). Fred Luskin Explains How to forgive. Retrieved from Greater Good: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/fred_luskin_explains_how_to_forgive
McCullogh, M. E., Bellah, C. G., Kirkpatrick, S. D., & Johnson, J. (2001). Vengefulness: Relationships with forgiveness, rumination, wellbeing and The Big Five. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27, 601-610.
Peterson, C. (2006). Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Vintage Books.
Seligman, M. (2007). The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Wang, T. (2008). Forgiveness and the Big Five Personality Traits among Taiwanese Graduates. Social Behaviour and Personality, 2008, 36(6), 849-850.
What is Forgiveness. (2004). Retrieved from Greater Good: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/forgiveness/definition
Worthington, E. (2001). 5 Steps to Forgiveness. New York: Crown.