Eight Essentials When Forgiving

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Time Required

Each person will forgive at his or her own pace. We suggest that you move through the steps below based on what works for you. 

How to Do It

1. Make a list of people who have hurt you deeply enough to warrant the effort to forgive. You can do this by asking yourself on a 1-to-10 scale, How much pain do I have regarding the way this person treated me?, with 1 involving the least pain (but still significant enough to justify the time to forgive) and 10 involving the most pain. Then, order the people on this list from least painful to most painful. Start with the person lowest on this hierarchy (least painful).

2. Consider one offense by the first person on your list. Ask yourself: How has this person’s offense negatively impacted my life? Reflect on the psychological and physical harm it may have caused. Consider how your views of humanity and trust of others may have changed as a result of this offense. Recognize that what happened was not okay, and allow yourself to feel any negative emotions that come up.

3. When you’re ready, make a decision to forgive. Deciding to forgive involves coming to terms with what you will be doing as you forgive—extending an act of mercy toward the person who has hurt you. When we offer this mercy, we deliberately try to reduce resentment (persistent ill will) toward this person and, instead, offer him or her kindness, respect, generosity, or even love.  

It is important to emphasize that forgiveness does not involve excusing the person’s actions, forgetting what happened, or tossing justice aside. Justice and forgiveness can be practiced together. 

Another important caveat: To forgive is not the same as to reconcile. Reconciliation is a negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust. You may not choose to reconcile with the person you are forgiving.

4. Start with cognitive exercises. Ask yourself these questions about the person who has hurt you: What was life like for this person while growing up? What wounds did he or she suffer from others that could have made him or her more likely to hurt you? What kinds of extra pressures or stresses were in this person’s life at the time he or she offended you? These questions are not meant to excuse or condone, but rather to better understand the other person’s areas of pain, those areas that make him or her vulnerable and human. Understanding why people commit destructive acts can also help us find more effective ways of preventing further destructive acts from occurring in the future. 

5. Be aware of any little movement of your heart through which you begin to feel even slight compassion for the person who offended you. This person may have been confused, mistaken, and misguided. He or she may deeply regret his or her actions. As you think about this person, notice if you start to feel softer emotions toward him or her.

6. Try to consciously bear the pain that he or she caused you so that you do not end up throwing that pain back onto the one who offended you, or even toward unsuspecting others, such as loved ones who were not the ones who wounded you in the first place. When we are emotionally wounded, we tend to displace our pain onto others. Please be aware of this so that you are not perpetuating a legacy of anger and injuries.

7. Think of a gift of some kind that you can offer to the person you are trying to forgive. Forgiveness is an act of mercy—you are extending mercy toward someone who may not have been merciful toward you. This could be through a smile, a returned phone call, or a good word about him or her to others. Always consider your own safety first when extending kindness and goodwill towards this person. If interacting with this person could put you in danger, find another way to express your feelings, such as by writing in a journal or engaging in a practice such as compassion meditation. 

8. Finally, try to find meaning and purpose in what you have experienced. For example, as people suffer from the injustices of others, they often realize that they themselves become more sensitive to others’ pain. This, in turn, can give them a sense of purpose toward helping those who are hurting. It may also motivate them to work toward preventing future injustices of a similar kind.

Once you complete the forgiveness process with one person on your list, select the next person in line and move up that list until you are forgiving the person who hurt you the most.

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
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Why You Should Try It

We have all suffered hurts and betrayals. Choosing to forgive is a way to release the distress that arises again and again from the memory of these incidents—but forgiveness is often a long and difficult process.

This exercise outlines several steps that are essential to the process of forgiveness, breaking it down into manageable components. These steps were created by Robert Enright, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading forgiveness researchers. Although the exact process of forgiveness may look different for different people, most anyone can still draw upon Dr. Enright’s basic principles. In certain cases, it may help to consult a trained clinician, especially if you are working through a traumatic event.

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
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Evidence That It Works

Baskin, T.W., & Enright, R. D. (2004). Intervention studies on forgiveness: A meta-analysisJournal of Counseling and Development, 82, 79-90.

Researchers compared several studies that used Dr. Enright’s “process model of forgiveness,” similar to the steps outlined above. All the studies were done in a clinical setting including individual and group therapy. Therapies that used these methods were shown to be effective in increasing forgiveness, and in decreasing negative psychological states such as anxiety and anger. These were often long-term therapies, ranging from 6 to 60 weekly sessions, aimed at helping individuals cope with serious offenses.

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
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Why It Works

Forgiveness is a long and often challenging process. These steps may help along the way by providing concrete guidelines. Specifically, they may help you narrow and understand whom to forgive—to name and describe your pain; to understand the difference between forgiving and excusing or reconciling; and by thinking about the person who has caused you pain in a novel way, you may begin to feel some compassion for him or her, facilitating forgiveness and reducing the ill will you hold toward this person. These steps also attune you to residual pain from your experience, and encourage you to find meaning and some positivity in it. 

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
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Sources

Robert Enright, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Madison

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For More

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
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When someone hurts you, are you more likely to turn the other cheek—or seek revenge? Take our Forgiveness quiz to find out: 

Completion Status

Comments & Reviews

  1. Sally Stone
    Sally Stone
    August 3, 2016

  2. Linnea Pyne
    Linnea Pyne
    July 14, 2016

    I am a Certified Mindfulness Facilitator through UCLA. I love this exercise but I think it can be dangerous for some people to follow such advice without the guidance of a qualified therapist. It's a long and sometimes cyclical process to forgive someone who deeply harmed you - particularly as a young person or child. The difference between forgiveness and reconciliation is very, very important. IMHO, if the person does not agree that they bear any responsibility their actions or for rebuilding trust, a reconciliation and contact may not be possible. "Danger" is different for every person. You may not have to be in physical danger to realize that additional or continued contact with this person is emotionally harmful to you. Self compassion is as deeply important as developing compassion and forgiveness for others. In our culture, we often try very hard to be "good" hoping that will right past pains when just realizing our own feelings are valid and understandable given the circumstances is equally as important in the process. In addition, simply addressing the issue honestly and openly with the person who harmed you may, in fact, cause them pain, particularly if they have been living in denial. This does not mean you are "throwing pain back on them." In addition, it is important to understand your own expectations in the process. Expecting the party who harmed you to somehow be a different person or interact with you differently because of your forgiveness can in itself be dangerous and cause quite a lot of additional pain. Again, often only a qualified therapist can help you discover what you are safely ready for at any given time. Offer yourself compassion for your feelings of pain, anger and even rage. Perhaps buy yourself a gift first. A gift for even having the courage to allow the ideas of forgiveness to enter your mind and, perhaps, then work for it to enter you heart. It is an act of great courage to open our hearts to our own pain and anger and work with them, to offer forgiveness - to not only the other but to ourselves for our very human responses to being deeply hurt by another we trusted.

  3. Joy Boothroyd
    Joy Boothroyd
    November 24, 2015

    Where is the quiz?

  4. Dr. gloria wright
    Dr. gloria wright
    October 14, 2015

    Whew. Forgiveness has never come easy for me. One piece of insight in the course, "Science of Happiness," was very helpful, for some reason: that getting a "no" when you want a "yes," opened a door for understanding. Like "I want to be close to ___," "I wished that ____ understood, loved and accepted me," etc. It seemed less important when I framed it in this way. Another piece that mattered was the reiteration of the negative consequences that NOT forgiving has on me and my other relationships. All in all, there are a lot of benefits to forgiving and opening the tight space in my heart. Makes me tear up just writing this. It (the exercise:"Eight Essentials When Forgiving") is working - and it is a work in progress. "May I have the grace and courage to continue to forgive and detach with love!" Kudos to all of you who are helping "the greater good"!!!!

  5. Colleen Casey Leonard
    Colleen Casey Leonard
    September 24, 2015

    This is going to take a while, but I am thankful to see there are acceptable and helpful ways listed. I have already started some of the forgiveness processes, but it does not happen overnight. This makes me feel more hopeful.

  6. TeeJay Garcia (Hop Studios)
    TeeJay Garcia (Hop Studios)
    July 14, 2015

  7. Ronaldo Battaglini
    Ronaldo Battaglini
    May 28, 2015

    I attended 'The science of happiness' last year and it was a wonderful experience that still touchs my life as I continue to practice the things I learned on it. Now you made available this magnific source of learning that for me is unique on the internet, giving us hope and optimism that there are people fighting the good fight for something better. I started this process of forgiveness last year and it's amazing how we start to leave behind our shells, our old skins and start to see the world and our lives with brand new eyes, just as a child at the first time. Certainly it's not a one-time-task, on the contrary, it's something we'll always learn and practice for the rest of our lives. Congratulations!

  8. Jason Marsh
    Jason Marsh
    May 27, 2015

    Thanks very much for sharing, BeeJay. Glad to hear the process has been helpful so far.

  9. BeeJay
    BeeJay
    May 27, 2015

    I have just started this, so I haven't gotten to the more serious hurts. So far I have felt very happy after going through the process, and I particularly am helped by writing everything out, by imagining what may have caused that person's actions, and by finishing with good wishes toward the other person.

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