On Practicing Forgiveness
THC Editorial Team June 23, 2021
- What Is Forgiveness?
- Types of Forgiveness
- How to Practice Forgiveness
- Benefits of Practicing Forgiveness
- Therapies and Forgiveness
- Forgiveness, Health, and Mental Wellness
What Is Forgiveness?
When we experience interpersonal hurt, negative feelings such as anger, hostility, and sadness may fester within us and affect our mental well-being—especially when these feelings become chronic. One way people cope with such negativity is by practicing forgiveness. Cross-culturally and contextually, people define forgiveness in different ways. Many view forgiveness as a religious imperative, something that they seek from their deity, or as a way of emulating God in everyday life.1 From a scientific perspective, forgiveness is seen as a set of “prosocial motivational changes”2 involving a decrease in one’s desire to act negatively toward (e.g., avoid or seek revenge against) someone who has harmed them.
However, one common theme in how people approach forgiveness is the concept of letting go. Often, when people refer to letting go in this context, they are speaking about releasing inner turmoil that results from interpersonal hurt and disappointment rather than outwardly releasing the resulting anger to a potentially destructive end. Because extended internal turmoil can undermine an individual’s mental health, cultivating the ability to release or replace such negative feelings may create room for healing and growth or offer other mental health benefits. For example, forgiveness can be used as a tactic to reallocate power in interpersonal dynamics; it allows people to reclaim responsibility and control over their mental health and inner stability and prevent others’ transgressions from influencing their well-being. Notably, forgiving someone does not necessarily mean reconciling with them. Instead, it is a process of seeking peace and understanding for one’s own healing.
Types of Forgiveness
Robert C. Roberts somewhat initiated scholarly discussions of forgiveness in his 1995 paper entitled “Forgivingness.”3 In addition to that of Michael McCullough and Everett Worthington in the early 2000s, his work prompted the examination of different types of forgiveness.4 Three commonly cited forms of forgiveness include trait forgiveness, state forgiveness, and self-forgiveness.
Trait forgiveness is the tendency to offer, feel, or seek a change from negative to positive thoughts, behaviors, and feelings pertaining to specific offenses committed by oneself or others.5
State forgiveness is the process of offering, feeling, or seeking a change from negative to positive cognitions, behaviors, and affect pertaining to specific offenses committed by oneself or others.5 This process requires compassion and benevolence in addition to the relinquishment of the right to hold revenge, resentment, and indifference.6
Self-forgiveness is another, less-researched form of forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is the ability to release self-directed resentment and blame for wrongdoings someone believes they have committed and to replace associated negative connotations and emotions with self-love, compassion, and acceptance. Those who engage in self-forgiveness tend to have better mental health and increased life satisfaction.7
How to Practice Forgiveness
There are many different ways to implement forgiveness in your life and reap the benefits. Here are some ideas to help you get started:
- Exercise empathy by putting yourself in the shoes of others and trying to see or understand the situation from another person’s perspective.
- Acknowledge that no one is perfect and everyone has flaws to relate to someone’s ability and right to make a mistake and offer them forgiveness.
- View forgiveness as a gift to yourself rather than a gift to another person whom you may not deem deserving of your forgiveness.8
- Acknowledge the negative impact of holding a grudge or being resentful and the positive impact forgiveness will have.8
- Commit to seeking peace to feel better; you may find that forgiveness is crucial to letting go and finding inner peace.9
- Give up the expectation that you will receive from life or other people things that they are unwilling to provide; releasing expectations will help you forgive those who have not met them.9
- Amend the way you look at your past so that you can more easily forgive past mistakes and transgressions.9
Benefits of Practicing Forgiveness
There is a multitude of reasons to practice forgiveness in your life. Here are some of the many benefits of forgiveness:
- Enhanced sense of well-being6
- Improved self-acceptance6
- Improved competence to deal with challenges6
- Reduced disordered eating behavior10
- Fewer feelings of remorse and self-condemnation10
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Reduced depression11
- Increased subjective well-being11
- Improved positive affective outcomes such as feelings of peace, contentment, joy, calmness, freedom, confidence, vitality, and autonomy11
- Spiritual growth
- Feelings of empowerment11
- More positive social relationships11
Therapies and Forgiveness
As research on forgiveness has increased over the past 2 decades, therapists have incorporated it into their counseling practice. Many therapists will educate clients on the importance of forgiveness and offer a step-by-step process to show them how to forgive.12 Overcoming and replacing the negative consequences of experiencing interpersonal pain is the central focus of forgiveness-based interventions. These interventions aim to unpack, process, and mitigate the adverse effects of interpersonal hurts for clients to improve their mental health.
According to Sadaf Akhtar, a health and social scientist with a research concentration in forgiveness, and Jane Barlow, a professor of evidence-based intervention and policy evaluation in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford, there are two key models of forgiveness interventions. These two models are described below.
Process-based interventions use various cognitive, behavioral, and affective strategies and are relatively long in duration. There are several models of process-based forgiveness, such as the Enright model and the REACH model.
The Enright model of forgiveness, developed in 1991 by Robert Enright and the Human Development Study Group, is a comprehensive model involving four phases. The uncovering phase consists of confronting the nature of the offense and understanding how holding resentment has had negative impacts. The decision phase consists of making the conscious choice to forgive and committing to this choice. The work phase involves the active process of forgiving, which includes reframing the situation and viewing the offender from a different perspective. The final phase, the deepening phase, occurs after forgiveness has been achieved. In this phase, one can find new meaning in their suffering and experience emotional relief.13
The REACH model is a five-step process developed by Everett Worthington and detailed in his book Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving. In addition to writing about his research, Worthington relates forgiveness to his personal story of how he coped with his mother’s murder.14 The REACH model is effective because it focuses on the emotional element of forgiveness—changing the negative emotions associated with holding on to a grudge to the positive emotions related to forgiveness.15 The five steps require a person to:14
- Recall the hurt
- Empathize with the offender
- Give an altruistic gift of forgiveness
- Commit to forgiving
- Hold on to forgiveness
Decision-based interventions rely more heavily on cognitive strategies and are much shorter in length than process-based interventions. In this type of intervention, clients take part in 1- to 2-hour sessions with either their offender or other victims, where the wrongdoing is explicitly discussed and the decision to forgive is made. For example, one particular approach, detailed by Worthington and DiBlasio in a 1990 article, produces a scene in which two individuals engage in a “forgiveness session.”16 Here, they take turns offering one another forgiveness and committing to changing their ways to prevent future transgression.13
Other activities used in forgiveness interventions include the following:17
- Defining and understanding forgiveness
- Using positive and negative visualizations related to the event to promote awareness and reframing
- Meditating using heart-focused meditation and relaxation techniques
- Learning about the adverse effects of unforgiveness and how grievances are created and maintained
Forgiveness, Health, and Mental Wellness
By practicing forgiveness, individuals may shift their perspectives; past transgressions may be reconceptualized through a kinder and less rigid lens. Research by Menahem and Love published in 2013 indicates that this shift reduces symptomology regarding mental health conditions and enhances quality of life.18
Several researchers have examined the impact of forgiveness interventions on psychological well-being:
- A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis by Akhtar and Barlow indicated that process-based forgiveness interventions, specifically the aforementioned Enright and REACH models, effectively reduced depression, anger, hostility, stress, and distress and increased positive affect in both adolescents and adults. These findings provided moderately strong evidence suggesting that forgiveness improves various dimensions of mental health and subjective well-being.17
- Another meta-analytic review of 14 process-based forgiveness interventions showed that forgiveness improved positive affect and self-esteem and reduced negative affect. An important finding of this review is that these benefits were maintained at various follow-up periods.19
- Allemand, Steiner, and Hill tested a psychoeducational forgiveness group intervention using 78 older adults as participants. Psychoeducational therapy focuses on teaching clients about a process or illness, promoting awareness, and debunking misconceptions.20 The intervention decreased levels of perceived transgression painfulness, transgression-related emotions and cognitions, and negative affect.21
- In 2015, Cornish and Wade conducted a pilot study on the effectiveness of a self-forgiveness intervention. The intervention consisted of emotion-focused individual counseling. Participants in the experimental group experienced significantly decreased self-condemnation, decreased psychological distress, and improved self-compassion. These results were maintained at a 2-month follow-up.22
- In 2017, Massengale, Choe, and Davis carried out a qualitative literature review of 65 empirical studies on self-forgiveness. The results indicated that self-forgiveness was associated with improved general mental health and perceived social support. Furthermore, the results of this review suggested that self-forgiveness interventions may be beneficial in treating depression and suicidal ideation and in couples counseling.23
Forgiveness is not just a virtuous act but an important part of life. Incorporating forgiveness into your everyday mindset might be one way to improve your mental health and overall well-being. Being able to let go of grudges and transgressions frees you to focus on the positive things around you.