Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong

By Patricia Weitzman

More and more scientific research shows forgiveness is a process that promotes resilience.  The more you forgive, the happier, less stressed, less depressed, and more physically healthy you will be. The findings don’t mean unhappy, stressed, unwell people are that way because they are unforgiving. They simply mean the more you forgive others who have wronged you, the better you will feel.

A misconception about forgiveness is that you’re saying it’s ok if someone has wronged you — that’s not the case! Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re accepting someone’s bad behavior or that you want to re-establish a relationship with them. That may not be desirable or possible. Forgiveness is a process that, at its core, is not really about the other person at all. It’s something you do for your own benefit.

Everett Worthington, PhD, is a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a pioneer in forgiveness research. Worthington has identified two types of forgiveness: “decisional forgiveness” and “emotional forgiveness.”
Decisional forgiveness means deciding to forgive a personal offense, and letting go of resentful thoughts toward a person who has wronged you. Decisional forgiveness is necessary if you want to reconcile or re-establish a relationship.

Emotional forgiveness, on the other hand, doesn’t require reconciliation. It involves replacing the negative emotions you are feeling with positive ones like compassion, sympathy, and empathy. Research shows that emotional forgiveness is where most of the health benefits lie.

Worthington has developed a five-step process for emotional forgiveness called REACH that has shown positive results in more than 20 scientific studies.

In REACH:

R = Recall the hurt.
To heal, you have to face the fact that you’ve been hurt. Make up your mind not to be snarky (i.e., nasty and hurtful), not to treat yourself like a victim, and not to treat the other person as a jerk. Make a decision to forgive. Decide that you are not going to pursue payback but you will treat the person as a valuable person.

E = Empathize with your partner.
Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s chair. Pretend that the other person is in an empty chair across from you. Talk to him/her. Pour your heart out. Then, when you’ve had your say, sit in the chair. Talk back to the imaginary you in a way that helps you see why the other person might have wronged you. This builds empathy, and even if you can’t empathize — the wrong may be indefensible — you might feel more sympathy, compassion, or love, which helps you heal from hurt.

A = Altruistic gift.
Give forgiveness as an unselfish, altruistic gift. We all can remember when we wronged someone — maybe a parent, teacher, or friend — and the person forgave us. We felt light and free. And we didn’t want to disappoint that person by doing wrong again. By forgiving unselfishly, you can give that same gift to someone who hurt you, even if you initially felt he/she didn’t deserve it.

C = Commit. 
Once you’ve forgiven, write a note to yourself — something as simple as, “Today, I forgave [person’s name] for hurting me.” This helps your forgiveness last.

H = Hold onto forgiveness.
You write a note of commitment because you will be tempted to doubt that you really forgave. You can re-read your note. You did forgive.

Forgiveness might not be easy. But research shows it is do-able, and the personal benefits are real. As Gandhi said: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”