What is your reaction when someone causes you harm of some kind? Do you forgive and forget so easily that you keep letting the same person insult, hurt or otherwise damage you over and over? Or are you the person who never forgives so that one mistake is remembered forever? Perhaps good relationships are lost over one mistake. Maybe you aren’t spending the holidays with people you love because you haven’t forgiven actions that happened many years ago. Either style can be a way of protecting yourself.
Maybe you believe that if you don’t forgive others, then they can’t hurt you again. Perhaps holding on to the anger helps you keep your guard up. In some situations that may be helpful–you may need the anger to protect yourself. In general, though, chronic unforgiveness mostly hurts you. A forgiving personality has been shown to be good for your health, your mood, a sense of well being, social support and other positives, particularly for older folks.
Sometimes you may tell yourself that you can’t forgive someone because that would mean letting him or her off the hook, but the truth is the other person is probably not spending every waking moment thinking about your anger. The person who lives with the anger twenty-four hours a day is you. That anger can affect your health, your relationships, the way you view yourself, and your outlook on life.
Maybe you want to forgive, but don’t know how. One of the behaviors that gets in the way of forgiveness is rumination. When you go over and over wrongs that have been done to you, then that works against forgiveness. Stopping the rumination is an important step toward forgiveness. When you find yourself ruminating about harm done to you, notice the thoughts and then shift your focus. You may even want to express compassion for that person as a human being who makes mistakes. Showing compassion and connecting with the humanness of others can help you forgive.
Everett Worthington outlines steps to forgiveness that you can apply to various situations and the more you practice the more you can develop a forgiving character.
The first step is to put forgiveness in context, to understand how forgiveness if viewed in your culture and your view of yourself. If you see forgiveness as meaning that you are weak, then you won’t be motivated to forgive. Sometimes your views are based on ideas given by others and perhaps you haven’t questioned them. Examining how forgiveness is seen in literature, music, and in your family can be helpful in deciding what is important to you.
A second step is to understand what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is often seen as a process of letting go of your urge for revenge, soothing your anxiety about being hurt and then moving toward an attitude of goodwill. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you agree or condone what happened, or that you are forgetting. Forgiveness does not mean that you agree to have a relationship with the person who has hurt you. Even when you forgive someone you may still have feelings of anger and upset when you see the person. Forgiveness is often an ongoing process that you work on over time. While this is the way some professionals define forgiveness, your personal definition may be different. Being clear about what forgiveness means to you is part of the process.
The third step is to recall the hurt that was done and to do it in helpful ways. Learning to recognize any positive results of the incident that happened can be helpful. Seeing the event without focusing on the other person as a villain may help you to understand or have more compassion for their position, even it if simply means acknowledging their troubles. Recalling the hurt can be painful, and it is part of the healing process. Ignoring or avoiding thinking about what happened may be less painful in the moment but in the long run interferes with forgiveness.
Step 4 is to have empathy for the person who hurt you. We have all hurt someone at some point in time. We most likely believed we had good reasons for our actions, though sometimes we just made mistakes that we later regretted. Having empathy for the person who hurt you is about attempting to understand the reasons behind the person’s actions or the humanness of their errors. You may not agree with their actions but perhaps you can understand their position. Perhaps you have been in the same position.
Step 5 is giving the gift of forgiveness. Part of learning to forgive is to remember what it felt like to be forgiven by others, then making a commitment to give that forgiveness to others.
Step 6 is holding on to forgiveness and becoming a more forgiving person. This means developing strategies to deal with the feelings that you might experience when you see someone you have forgiven. Forgiveness may require an ongoing effort.
These steps are the work of Dr. Everett Worthington, who has a Christian focus. If you would like to know more or work on the steps, he offers a free workbook on the six steps of forgiveness on his website.
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