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Nine Steps to Forgiveness

A research-backed process for letting go of a grudge.

Duration: Variable Frequency: Variable Difficulty: Intensive

Time Required

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

How to Do It

  1.  Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then tell a few trusted people about your experience.
  2.  Make a commitment to yourself to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and no one else.
  3. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning their actions. In forgiveness, you seek the peace and understanding that come from blaming people less after they offend you and taking those offenses less personally.
  4. Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what hurt you two minutes—or 10 years—ago.
  5. At the moment you feel upset, practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight or flight response. This could mean taking deep breaths, doing a mindful breathing exercise, taking a walk outside—whatever is most effective for you.
  6. Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to give you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship, and prosperity, and work hard to get them. However, these are “unenforceable rules”: You will suffer when you demand that these things occur, since you do not have the power to make them happen.
  7. Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you.
  8. Remember that a life well-lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving power over you to the person who caused you pain, look for the love, beauty, and kindness around you. Put more energy into appreciating what you have rather than attending to what you do not have.
  9. Amend the way you look at your past so you remind yourself of your heroic choice to forgive.

Why You Should Try It

We all suffer slights, hurts, and betrayals, and it’s natural to be upset with the people who hurt us, or sometimes even cut off contact with them. But holding onto a grudge too deeply or for too long can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health—it can elevate stress, increase our blood pressure and heart rate, and even compromise our immune system.

Forgiveness entails letting go of resentment or vengeance toward an offender and making peace with what happened so you can move on with your life; it doesn’t necessarily mean reconciling with that person. Because forgiveness can be a daunting challenge, Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University has designed these nine steps to walk people through the process of forgiving someone who hurt them.

The process of forgiveness takes time and should only be initiated when you feel ready and have had time to grieve the wrong that was done to you. Research suggests that practicing forgiveness can not only strengthen relationships but also reduce toxic feelings of stress and anger and boost happiness and optimism.

For more on the benefits of forgiveness, see the Greater Good Science Center’s forgiveness definition page.

Why It Works

By reducing feelings of anger and resentment that are not serving a constructive purpose, the steps described above can help shift people’s mental attention away from ruminating on negative events in their past; this can decrease stress levels and potentially even improve physical health. In addition, these steps encourage people to focus on and appreciate the positives in their lives, such as experiences of receiving kindness and love—an orientation to life that, research suggests, can increase happiness and improve relationships.  

Evidence That It Works

Harris, A. H., Luskin, F. M., Benisovich, S. V., Standard, S., Bruning, J., Evans, S., and Thoresen, C.  (2006). Effects of a group forgiveness intervention on forgiveness, perceived stress and trait anger: A randomized trial. Journal of Clinical Psychology,  62(6), 715-733.

Mostly white, college-educated adults who completed Fred Luskin’s six-week forgiveness training (90 minutes per session) reported lower stress, anger, and hurt than people who didn’t undergo the training. They also felt more capable of forgiving and greater optimism immediately after the training and four months later.

Luskin’s training program (Forgive for Good) teaches the core Nine Steps to Forgiveness, including taking less personal offense, blaming the offender less, and offering more understanding of the offender and of oneself.

Who Has Tried the Practice?

Additional studies explore how this exercise benefits other groups and cultures:

  • Christian college students at an American university became more forgiving for at least six weeks after learning about Nine Steps to Forgiveness.
  • Christians from Northern Ireland with a family member who was murdered learned about Nine Steps to Forgiveness during a week of Luskin’s forgiveness training. In addition to becoming livelier and more forgiving, they decreased in emotional hurt, anger, stress, depression, and physical illness symptoms.
  • Teachers in Sierra Leone attended a five-day version of Luskin’s program that incorporated culturally specific prayer. The teachers became more benevolent, grateful, and satisfied with life, but also decreased in negative mood, stress, and depression.
  • Iranian women with marital problems who engaged in Luskin’s program became more satisfied with their marriages and developed better relationships with their husbands.

More research is needed to explore whether, and how, the impact of this practice extends to other groups and cultures.

Keep in Mind

It may be easier to practice Nine Steps to Forgiveness in certain circumstances. Forgiveness seems to come more easily for unintentional offenses, when you receive an apology and an attempt at repair, and with people who are close to you. It’s also true that women, older people, and people who are highly educated tend to forgive more in general. The benefits of forgiveness may be less pronounced for people with lower socioeconomic status.

The claims that forgiveness “is for you and no one else” and “does not necessarily mean reconciling” may not be culturally appropriate for people from non-Western countries, as collectivist cultures tend to prioritize social harmony and reputation over the needs of each individual; to these cultures, reconciliation and relationship maintenance may be an important part of forgiveness. In fact, this attitude may even be an advantage when it comes to doing the hard work of forgiving.

Sources

Fred Luskin, Ph.D., Stanford University 

For More

Learn more about Dr. Luskin’s work on the Stanford Forgiveness Projects and through his book, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (HarperOne, 2003).

He also elaborates on the theory behind his nine steps to forgiveness in these Greater Good Science Center videos and this article.   

References

Derakhtkar, A., & Ahangarkani, M. (2016). The effect of forgiveness training on the level of respect to spouse and marital satisfaction in women with marital problems. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology, 22(1), 30–38.

Girard, M., & Mullet, E. (1997). Forgiveness in adolescents, young, middle-aged, and older adults. Journal of Adult Development, 4(4), 209–220.

Hanke, K., & Vauclair, C. (2016). Investigating the human value “forgiveness” across 30 countries: A cross-cultural meta-analytical approach. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal of Comparative Social Science, 50(3), 215–230.

Hook, J. N., Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Utsey, S. O. (2009). Collectivism, forgiveness, and social harmony. The Counseling Psychologist, 37(6), 821–847.

Huwaë, S., & Schaafsma, J. (2019). Cross‐cultural similarities and differences in motives to forgive: A comparison between and within cultures. International Journal of Psychology, 54(2), 256–263.

Joo, M., Terzino, K. A., Cross, S. E., Yamaguchi, N., & Ohbuchi, K. (2019). How does culture shape conceptions of forgiveness? Evidence from Japan and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 50(5), 676–702.

Kadiangandu, J. K., Gauché, M., Vinsonneau, G., & Mullet, E. (2007). Conceptualizations of forgiveness: Collectivist-Congolese versus individualist-French viewpoints. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 38(4), 432–437.

Kane, D. K., Allen, G. E. K., Ming, M., Smith, T. B., Jackson, A. P., Griner, D., Cutrer-Párraga, & Richards, P. S. (2021). Forgiveness and gratitude as mediators between religious commitment and well-being among Latter-Day Saint Polynesian Americans. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 24(2), 195–210. 

Karremans, J. C., Regalia, C., Paleari, F. G., Fincham, F. D., Cui, M., Takada, N., Ohbuchi, K., Terzino, K., Cross, S. E., & Uskul, A. K. (2011). Maintaining harmony across the globe: The cross-cultural association between closeness and interpersonal forgiveness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(5), 443–451.

Komiya, A., Ozono, H., Watabe, M., Miyamoto, Y., Ohtsubo, Y., & Oishi, S. (2020). Socio-ecological hypothesis of reconciliation: Cultural, individual, and situational variations in willingness to accept apology or compensation. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 18.

Luskin, F., & Bland, B. (2001). Stanford-Northern Ireland HOPE-2 project. Unpublished manuscript, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.

Marca-Ghaemmaghami, P. L., Allemand, M., & Martin, M. (2011). Forgiveness in younger, middle-aged and older adults: Age and gender matters. Journal of Adult Development, 18(4), 192–203.

McFarland, M. J., Smith, C. A., Toussaint, L., & Thomas, P. A. (2012). Forgiveness of others and health: Do race and neighborhood matter? The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, 67(1), 66–75.

Merolla, A. J., Zhang, S., & Sun, S. (2013). Forgiveness in the United States and China: Antecedents, consequences, and communication style comparisons. Communication Research, 40(5), 595–622.

Mullet, E., Houdbine, A., Laumonier, S., & Girard, M. (1998). “Forgivingness”: Factor structure in a sample of young, middle-aged, and elderly adults. European Psychologist, 3(4), 289–297.

Orathinkal, J., Vansteenwegen, A., & Burggraeve, R. (2008). Are demographics important for forgiveness? The Family Journal, 16(1), 20–27.

Paz, R., Neto, F., & Mullet, E. (2008). Forgiveness: A China-Western Europe comparison. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 142(2), 147–157.

Pineda-Marín, C., Muñoz Sastre, M. T., & Mullet, E. (2018). Willingness to forgive among Colombian adults. Revista Latinoamericana De Psicología, 50(1), 71–78.

Toussaint, L. L., Griffin, B. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Zoelzer, M., & Luskin, F. (2020). Promoting forgiveness at a Christian college: A comparison of the REACH forgiveness and Forgive for Good methods. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 48(2), 154–165.

Toussaint, L. L., Peddle, N., Cheadle, A., Sellu, A., & Luskin, F. (2010). Striving for peace through forgiveness in Sierra Leone: Effectiveness of a psychoeducational forgiveness intervention. In A. Kalayjian & D. Eugene (Eds.), Mass trauma and emotional healing around the world: Rituals and practices for resilience and meaning-making, Vol. 2. Human-made disasters (pp. 251–267). Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Quick Description

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

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Science-based practices for a meaningful life, curated by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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