None of us makes it through life unscathed. We have all been hurt, betrayed, or disappointed at some point—and sometimes those wounds leave scars in the form of anger and resentment. We are all familiar with resentment—it’s that uncomfortable, somewhat icky feeling of anger and bitterness that seems to fester and grow. But there is no reward in resentment.
Michelle Slusher, a cycling guide from Boulder, Colorado, knows a thing or two about resentment after enduring physical and sexual abuse by her brother during childhood. The resentment was a burden that she carried for many years—until she let it go. Long story short, Michelle forgave her brother. The forgiveness didn’t come overnight; it unfolded over a period of more than 20 years. And it didn’t just “happen”—she worked for it.
Michelle says that in her teens, she was in denial, and in her twenties, she was angry. But at some point, she started actively pursuing peace. Therapy was some help, but what really resonated with her was Buddhist philosophy. She began studying the philosophy and reading books about forgiveness and compassion. “Those studies really taught me whom I wanted to be and how I was being limited by my anger—because I was really closed off and tough, and I wasn’t very happy,” Michelle explains. “I think I got a lot more open-hearted when I started learning that there was another way. The alternative to forgiveness was a really unhealthy lifestyle, emotionally and physically.”
The ins and outs of the long, winding path that Michelle walked toward forgiveness are unique to her own experience, but what is universal is the outcome. “I am free of that burden,” she says. “I am lighter and I feel a lot more freedom—and because of that more happiness, more openness, and less fear facing the world.”
Michelle now knows what forgiveness experts have been teaching for years: forgiveness will set you free. But what exactly is forgiveness, and how do you do it?
There is no single definition of forgiveness. In general, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge—and the process allows us to be happier and free to enjoy the present moment. That’s the simple definition. But researchers who have spent years studying forgiveness provide far more insight into its complexities.
Robert Enright, PhD, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, has been studying forgiveness since 1985. Dr. Enright sees forgiveness as a moral virtue, much like justice, patience, and kindness. “It’s basically goodness starting within myself and flowing out to others. This goes back about 3,500 years to the ancient Greeks and Aristotle,” he explains. “When we have been treated unfairly by others and choose to forgive, we do two things: we get rid of something negative and then we try to offer the one who hurt us some kind of moral goodness, whether it’s respect, generosity, kindness, or even some kind of moral love.”
Dr. Enright says that most social scientists don’t see forgiveness as a moral virtue—but he begs to differ. He says that forgiveness has universal appeal to all, regardless of faith, and that it’s not enough to get rid of the resentment; it’s also important to replace the negative with something positive.
Everett Worthington Jr., PhD, professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, has spent more than 20 years conducting forgiveness research, and he has a similar approach. Dr. Worthington says, “Forgiveness is a replacement of negative, unforgiving emotions like resentment, anger, hostility, or fear with other-oriented positive emotions such as empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love.”
Dr. Worthington explains that forgiveness reaches beyond acceptance. “Forgiveness eliminates the negative and replaces it with something positive. Acceptance only eliminates the negative,” he says.
Dr. Worthington says there are two kinds of forgiveness: decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness. “These are not two halves of one kind of forgiveness,” he explains. “They are really different.” With decisional forgiveness, you may decide to simply let go of angry thoughts. Emotional forgiveness, on the other hand, is more of a process than a decision and involves replacing negative emotions with other-oriented positive emotions.
Michelle’s process of emotional forgiveness was a journey that took her from resentment to compassion. “I went through many years of denial, anger, difficult relationships, and therapy to finally arrive at a place in my thirties of peace and some quiet acceptance that I am not what has been done to me—and, finally, in my forties, to somehow being able to regard this man with some compassion as another human being who is suffering,” she says.
What Forgiveness Is Not
Many people resist forgiveness because they think it will require them to excuse bad behavior or reconcile and continue unhealthy relationships, but nothing could be further from the truth. Forgiveness is not reconciliation, excusing, or condoning.
Forgiveness does not mean that you excuse or condone the behavior. Someone may have hurt or betrayed you, and you can choose to forgive them yet still demand justice. “We have to use justice alongside forgiveness all the time,” Dr. Enright explains. “If someone damages your car, you present them with the body shop bill. That’s a just action.”
Forgiveness does not mean you have to reconcile. Reconciliation is a negotiation strategy, where two or more people work together to restore trust. In contrast, forgiveness starts within and flows out to others. “Reconciliation is about mutual trustworthiness,” Dr. Worthington explains. “If one party is not trustworthy, reconciliation is not a good alternative.
“Forgiveness is something that happens inside your own skin,” Dr. Worthington continues. “It’s not about reconciliation. I can forgive someone whom I never reconcile with. I can’t reconcile with someone who is dead, but I can forgive that person. It might not be wise to reconcile with someone who is abusive, but I can forgive.”
Although Michelle forgave her brother, she still chose not to spend much time around him. Forgiveness unburdened her; reconciliation wasn’t necessary.
What Is Unforgiveness?
Unforgiveness is defined as being unable or unwilling to forgive, and it can have negative consequences for our health. “Unforgiveness is a reaction that people have where they just can’t turn loose of an injustice that has been perpetrated against them,” Dr. Worthington explains. “So they tend to ruminate on it, think about it again and again, and continue to bring it up, which adds to the burden of stress.”
Research indicates that individuals who harbor resentment and ruminate on past wounds trigger a physiological stress response in the body. Over time this chronic stress—and the consequent flood of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol—has a dramatic impact on the immune system. Unforgiveness creates chronic stress and anxiety that can erode the immune system and have lasting consequences. Put simply, anger and hatred eat away at us from the inside.
“First of all, it is good in and of itself to forgive because forgiveness is a moral virtue and every moral virtue is worthy of exercise,” Dr. Enright insists. “Second, forgiveness is good because it helps us in terms of our psychology to have better emotional health. Our research shows that those who forgive have higher self-esteem, less anxiety and depression, and more hope for the future.”
But Dr. Enright is quick to caution against forgiving only for selfish reasons. “As we forgive, we can end up growing in the virtue of forgiveness and becoming a more forgiving and loving person,” he says. “Then we have the possibility of creating forgiveness in communities.” And forgiving communities form the foundation of a more peaceful world.
How to Forgive
If unforgiveness adds to our stress burden and forgiveness relieves it, it seems like a simple choice—but wanting to forgive and being able to forgive are two entirely different things. So, how do you let go of anger and resentment and replace it with something more positive?
“There comes the point where we realize how miserable we have been made, and we have to decide whether or not to forgive,” Dr. Enright says. “That for many is the hardest part of the journey. It’s sort of like deciding to become fit—it’s going to take work. The decision to forgive is anything but trivial. Forgiveness is work.”
Indeed there are several step-by-step processes to help people reach forgiveness (see sidebar “The Four Phases of Forgiveness”), and they all share a common thread: work. It takes time, commitment, and exertion to move from anger to forgiveness—but it is worth the effort. Just ask Michelle. After years of carrying around resentment toward her brother, she feels lighter than ever. “I think a lot of the unforgiveness that we carry around, even if it is unconscious, we kind of choose to do it,” she says. “I think we have more choice than we think of letting that go, putting it down. It doesn’t have to be who we are.”
Indeed. And in letting go of the unforgiveness, we get to reclaim our own life. “One of the endpoints of why we forgive is that even if the other person spurns you, rejects you, or condemns you, at least you have your emotional life back because you have extended forgiveness,” Dr. Enright says. “That’s the ultimate paradox of forgiveness: we spend time thinking about the other person, bearing the pain of the other person, having compassion for the other person, giving a gift to the other person—but in the end, we are the ones who are healed.” _
The Four Phases of Forgiveness
In his book Forgiveness Is a Choice (APA Lifetools, $19.95), Robert Enright, PhD, presents a 20-step forgiveness process that consists of four phases:
1.Uncovering your anger. First acknowledge that you have been treated unfairly and allow for a period of anger. Dr. Enright works with people to help them understand how an initial wound leads to secondary wounds, such as anger, fatigue, stress, and more.
2.Deciding to forgive. Make a decision to forgive. This is often the most difficult step.
3.Working on forgiveness. Forgiveness is work. Dr. Enright suggests four distinct steps:
Work to see the humanity in the one who hurt you.
Bear the pain. “Bear the pain so that you don’t throw it onto others,” Dr. Enright explains. “When you learn to bear the pain, you tend to stand up a little straighter and realize who you are as a person. You realize that you are stronger and more loving than you thought.”
Give an altruistic gift. “We ask people to consider giving a gift to the one who hurt them because forgiveness is centered in giving love,” Dr. Enright says. “It could be a note, a phone call, or even a ceremony if the person is deceased. It is whatever is right for you at the time, but this is a big part of the giving nature of forgiveness.”
4.Discovery and release. The final phase of forgiveness is to discover meaning in suffering and perhaps even a new purpose in life. For example, Dr. Enright worked with a group of incest survivors, most of whom, after going through the process, decided that they wanted to be counselors for other survivors of incest.
REACH for Forgiveness
Dr. Worthington has devised REACH, a five-step program to help people achieve emotional forgiveness:
RECALL the hurt objectively, without blame and self-victimization and without dwelling on the damage.
EMPATHIZE by trying to imagine the viewpoint of the person who harmed you. Can you find empathy, perhaps by recalling a time that you offended or hurt someone? Many people hurt others unintentionally. Those who do so intentionally usually are suffering from their own pain. Work to find empathy for the
Give an ALTRUISTIC gift to the person. Dr. Worthington says this is an opportunity to bless someone out of the goodness of your heart. Think back to a time when you hurt someone and he or she gave you the gift of forgiveness.
COMMIT to the forgiveness that you experience. It helps to make some kind of public gesture, such as writing a note, writing in your journal, or holding some sort of ritual that signifies that you have forgiven the person.
HOLD on to the forgiveness. It is common to doubt the forgiveness we experience, but Dr. Worthington says it is important to hold on to it even when we get triggered by future encounters.
International Forgiveness Institute: internationalforgiveness.com
The Forgiveness Project: theforgivenessproject.com
The Power of Forgiveness (film): thepowerofforgiveness.com