It is difficult to experience feelings of well-being when we constantly ruminate on misgivings from the past. There are many ways in which others may have hurt us whether by abuse, abandonment, disloyalty, insult, or other means. The human brain is naturally wired to more readily fixate on negative versus positive emotions. The only way to revamp this phenomenon is to reframe previous transgressions and view them in a different light. This is no easy feat by any means. There are many reasons we hold on to feelings of ill-will, even when it is in our personal interest to let go of these resentments. We may want to get revenge against another, protect a person who was hurt, be it yourself or a loved one, or avoid the person who hurt us, altogether.
Psychologist Everett Worthington has developed a 5 step research-based process called REACH for learning how to forgive. Worthington’s expertise comes not only from his many years as a clinician but also in having to cope with the brutal murder of his mother. Utilizing the REACH method, first, recall what transpired in an objective manner as possible. Visualize what happened while you use slow, deep breaths to stay calm. Next, empathize with the other person’s viewpoint. Try to understand their motivations for hurting you—others often attack out of fear, hurt, a need for survival, or without thinking a situation through. Then, give the altruistic gift of forgiveness to the person you are upset with. Let go of the feelings of hurt and anger as you give this extremely generous gift. Finally, hold onto the forgiveness even as bad feelings and memories of the event surface now and again. If you are truly able to forgive someone, than you will no longer harbor a desire for revenge or a need to avoid the individual.
Forgiving another does not mean that you excuse or condone the victimizer’s behavior, that you even wish to re-establish a relationship with them, or that you will forget what has been done to you. When you forgive, you are also giving yourself a gift……people who are forgiving are less depressed, anxious, and angry and are more serene, happier, and healthier.
Exercise #1: When we haven’t forgiven someone, we tend to replay the events of what served to make us upset in our minds, repeatedly. This only serves to make us angrier and more hostile towards the perpetrator and less likely to be able to let things go. Are you able to recognize when you get caught in this cycle of thinking? Which people and events do you tend to do this with? Are there any strategies that you can use to interrupt or stop this pattern?
Exercise #2: Consider a time when you’ve been given the gift of forgiveness by another individual. What did you do to hurt the other person and what were your motivations? How did you feel when they forgave you? What did it do to your relationship? Did you learn anything from the experience?
Exercise #3: Write a letter of forgiveness to someone who has wronged you. Describe how they hurt you and what impact it had on your life. Discuss how you have forgiven them and how to move on from here. How do you feel after writing the letter? Would you prefer to share the letter with them or keep it private? If you find the letter too difficult to write, put is aside for awhile and come back to it at a later point. If it is still too hard to complete, consider choosing a person to forgive, with whom you are not overwhelmed by negative feelings towards.
Exercise #4: Imagine how you would like a scene to play out whereby someone who has wronged you, ultimately apologizes. What would you like for them to say or do? Do you believe the explanation as to why they’ve wronged you? Are you able to accept their apology? How does it feel to be on the receiving end of their gesture?