You’ve probably been hurt by someone before, or you may have done something that you wish you hadn’t and are now mad at yourself. You know you shouldn’t let the anger or disappointment consume you, but forgiving that person or yourself can be easier said than done. When you can actually get past it, though, you release all that pent-up negative emotions inside you, feel good about yourself, and confidently move forward with your life.
Of course, these benefits are contingent on enacting true forgiveness, which takes a lot of work. But it’s worth it. “When you forgive, you see the personhood in the one who hurt you, and you have a wider story of who they are,” says Robert Enright, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of Forgiveness Is a Choice. “When you see that someone is more than what they did to you, you realize you are more than what was done to you. You start to see the inherent worth in all people, including yourself.”
There are a lot of myths about what forgiveness means, which can make it seem harder than it is. “People equate forgiveness with giving in and not fighting for justice,” Enright says, but it isn’t about excusing bad behavior. You can still hold someone accountable while choosing to release resentment.
Basically, forgiveness is a conscious, voluntary step to let go of a grudge. And it’s not quick or simple. “People feel they can’t forgive because they assume it should happen immediately,” says Suzanne Freedman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, who notes that research shows it can take a little over a year to forgive someone. It’s a journey with ups and downs, and you might go back and forth about what you want to do.
Ready to start building your forgiveness muscle? Follow these steps to follow deep forgiveness. They are based on the four phases identified by Enright and Freedman.
1. Make The Decision To Forgive
First is the uncover phase. Pinpoint, through therapy or journaling, exactly who and what made you upset. If you can, safely, tell the person how their actions affected you. Next comes the decision phase, in which you declare to yourself that you want to forgive. (Note: It’s okay if you don’t want to forgive, or aren’t there yet.)
If you’re struggling to make up your mind, consider whether hanging on to your indignation is working for you, says Enright. “When you live with resentment, you tend to ruminate about the person who hurt you often,” he says. “You can slowly drift into a pessimistic worldview and avoid relationships as a result. One person has so much power over you that now your ability to trust and feel joy is damaged. That is a motivation to forgive.”
Need an extra push? Weigh the outcomes of choosing not to forgive, says Amanda E. White, the therapist behind the Instagram @therapyforwomen. “By avoiding forgiveness, you don’t have to put yourself out there, you get to be ‘right,’ and you don’t need to have uncomfortable conversations,” she says. “But you’re losing time and the power to get on with your life.”
2. Do The Work Of Forgiving
Now for the third phase (the big work): Ask yourself what the story is behind the person who upset you. How were they raised? What wounds do they have? “You’ll likely find they’re a vulnerable, scared, confused person who is taking it out on you,” says Enright.
It can also help to look for shared humanity. “I’ll ask people, ‘Do you recognize there’s no one else just like you in the world? Doesn’t that mean you have worth?’ Then I’ll ask them the same questions about the individual who wronged them. It can take months, but people eventually admit that person has their own value,” he says.
This acknowledgment can be difficult to accept at first. “We ask people to stand in that pain and not throw it back at the other person or anyone else, and as they realize they can endure it, it actually begins to leave,” says Enright. As a next step, consider giving something good to the transgressor, like kind words, a phone call, or a donation in their name. That act solidifies your lack of hard feelings and may inspire them to be better too.
3. Lean Into The Positives Of Forgiving
Last comes the discovery phase. Enright suggests journaling about who you are as a person after leaving it all behind. Do you feel more worthy of compassion yourself? Are you more sensitive to the suffering of others? Do you feel a new purpose in life? If your answer to any of these questions is a resounding yes, give yourself a pat on
the back. Mission accomplished!
4. Forgive Yourself Too
Okay, so you’ve mastered (or are working on) forgiving others. But what about you? It’s an internal thing too! White finds that women often struggle with self-forgiveness because they tend to be perfectionists, and owning up means admitting failure.
A simple yet powerful trick: “Get into the habit of asking what you can do better when you mess up,” she says. “That builds actual confidence because your self-worth is coming from your ability to take responsibility and fix things.” Carry it a step further by jotting down who you’d like to be and start to live out that vision.
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