Know that forgiveness is available to everyone
Everyone has someone who’s wronged them in one way or another – be it a parent who neglected them growing up, a spouse who cheated on them in a rocky relationship, or even a person who stood them up on a set of plans. Not all these injustices result in long-lasting internal disruption – which can be identified by symptoms like fatigue, disruption in sleep, anxiety, depression and other forms of unhealthy anger. But when they do, it’s important to know that forgiveness is an option.
“When we’ve been treated deeply unfairly by others, we should have the tools to deal with that, so the effects of that injustice don’t take hold in an unhealthy way,” says Robert Enright, a psychologist who pioneered the study of forgiveness, and author of Forgiveness is a Choice. What’s more, you don’t need a mental health professional to teach you how to forgive. It’s something you can achieve on your own, as long as you know which steps to take.
Decide you want to choose forgiveness
The first step toward achieving forgiveness is deciding it’s something you actually want to do, not something someone has pressured you into trying. “People should not be forced into forgiving,” says Enright. “I think it’s important that people are drawn to it.”
Enright also stresses that forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing or forgetting an injustice, or returning to a relationship that’s harmful. “Some people misconstrue forgiveness and say, well, if I forgive then I can’t seek fairness,” he says. “That’s one of the big criticisms of forgiveness, which is not true.”
Make a list
Start the process of forgiveness with this preliminary step: Make a list of all the people who have hurt you, no matter how small or large, going back to childhood. Next, order the names from the lowest level of injustice and anger to the highest. You’ll start the process of forgiveness with someone toward the bottom of the list.
“Starting with the highest person on the list would be like asking someone who’s not physically fit to run a marathon,” says Enright. “Go through the process first with someone who is still bothering you, and it’s not pleasant, but it’s also not crushing. As you repeat the process moving higher and higher up the list, you’ll become more forgivingly fit, and better able to face those people who have truly hurt you.”
Uncover your anger
This is the official start to phase one of Enright’s forgiveness model, and it’s crucial in reinforcing the importance of forgiveness. “It’s kind of a checklist,” says Enright. “How are you doing in terms of your anger? How have you been denying it? Are you angrier that you thought you were? What are the physical consequences of your anger?”
Fatigue is the most common physical complaint Enright hears, as is a pessimistic worldview – believing no one can be trusted or that everyone is only out for themselves. “Once you look at those effects, the question becomes, Do you want to heal?” says Enright. “Which leads us into phase two: deciding to forgive.”
Commit to forgiveness
Phase two is all about revisiting the definition of forgiveness and committing to it. That definition, more or less, is being good to those who weren’t good to you. “Once people have completed phase one and seen how the effects of their anger have made them unhappy, there’s a tendency to give this a try,” says Enright.
In this phase, it’s also important to commit to doing no harm toward the person you’re trying to forgive. “That doesn’t mean be good to them,” says Enright. “It just means don’t do anything negative.”
Consider the other person’s wounds
This step starts the “work” phase of the forgiveness model. The goal is to ultimately feel compassion for the other person, but don’t start there. Instead, think about them in a new way. How was that person hurt in life? How were they treated unjustly? Are they so wounded that they wounded you? “We don’t do this to excuse their actions, but to see a vulnerable person, a scared person, maybe a confused person. Someone who is not infallible and all-powerful,” says Enright.
Consider the other person’s humanity
Now that you’ve assessed the person’s woundedness, consider how you share a common humanity. “You were both born, you will both die, you both bleed when you’re cut, you both have unique DNA and when you die there will never be another person like you,” says Enright. “And given the humanity, you share with this person, is it possible that they might be just as special, unique and irreplaceable as you are?”
Feel a softening
It could take weeks or even months, but you should begin to feel a change of heart. “When the person’s feelings start to change, that’s the beginning of the unhealthy anger starting to leave,” says Enright. “It’s a tiny glimmering of compassion.”
Bear the pain
Once you’ve begun to feel a softening, the next step is to accept the pain. “We don’t ask people to get rid of the pain,” says Enright, “but to stand with the pain.” That means not passing your pain onto others, in many cases offspring. “It builds self-esteem because you’re saying, ‘If I can see the humanity in the one who didn’t see the humanity in me, and if I can soften my heart to the one who didn’t to me, then who am I as a person? I’m stronger than I thought.’”
Give the person a gift
No, we don’t mean you have to buy them a set of candles. But Enright does encourage doing something good to the one who hurt you in some creative way or another. “If the person is a danger to you, you don’t have to let them know you’re doing this,” he says.
“You can donate some money to a charity in their name, send an email that hasn’t been sent in a year, or if you have direct contact, give them a smile or a kind word.” Doing so doesn’t mean you must interact with the person or reconcile, just that you’re willing to do something good to the one who hurt you.
Begin the discovery phase
This is the fourth and final phase of the forgiveness model. During it, you’ll find meaning in what you’ve suffered. “Typically, people are more aware of the wounds in the world,” says Enright.
“They become more patient with people who might be having a bad day; they see that people are walking around wounded all the time, and they’re generally more aware of others’ pain and want to be a conduit for good.” And once you’ve got that worldview, you can begin to thrive in life again.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
Since you likely didn’t start this process with the person who’s hurt you most, you’ll have to repeat the pathway on each person you’re hoping to forgive. Enright suggests keeping a journal or enlisting a trusted friend or family member to keep you on the path. It helps to set aside around 15 minutes a few times a week to work on the process, but it’s all about quality over quantity.