They say forgiveness is a virtue, which sounds honorable enough. But it can be tough to give — and to receive.
Just ask Beth Bruno, 59, from Blacksburg South Carolina, who has looked at forgiveness — including self-forgiveness — from lots of angles.
Bruno separated from her husband when her daughter was 14. Over the next four years, as Bruno tried to recalibrate, her daughter grew angry and, at 18, chose to cut ties with her mother. That decision, in 2011, shocked and devastated Bruno. It took years, but she eventually came out of a “bottomless depression” once she realized she didn’t have to be perfect.
“Yes, I made mistakes, but that did not make me a worthless human being,” Bruno says. “It was a long process of forgiving myself over and over and over again, until I finally got to a place where I felt worthy of love and acceptance.”
Forgiving others and seeking forgiveness can be especially complex in families and long-term friendships, when there are years of feelings and relationship histories to navigate.
That’s because forgiveness is tied up in identity and connection. It’s messy and heavy, and research into the process “has continued not just to grow but to accelerate,” reports Virginia Commonwealth University Commonwealth Professor Emeritus Everett L. Worthington Jr., who has spent his career studying the subject.
Worthington became interested in forgiveness through his work counseling couples — and after a tragedy in his own life. He has done several studies on a forgiveness protocol he helped develop when his mother was murdered, and he worked through that protocol (see sidebar) himself to ultimately forgive the man who took his mother's life.
All sides of the forgiveness equation require vulnerability, Worthington says. On one hand, for example, asking for forgiveness can come with potential rejection. On the other, “If I’m the one admitting wrongdoing, that really challenges my ego.”
As Bruno is well aware, forgiveness and reconciliation are two very different things.
5 Steps to Forgiveness
Licensed clinical psychologist Everett L. Worthington Jr., who has dedicated his career to forgiveness research, shares his REACH Forgiveness techniques for forgiving others in five steps — steps he used to forgive his mother’s murderer.
R = Recall the hurt. Make up your mind not to be nasty and hurtful in return, not to hold a grudge, not to treat yourself like a victim and not to treat your partner as a jerk. Decide to forgive — not pursuing payback but instead treating the person as a valuable person.
E = Empathize with your partner. Pretend the other person is in an empty chair across from you. Pour your heart out. When you’ve had your say, sit in the chair and talk back to the imaginary you as the other person might. This builds empathy. Even if you can’t empathize, you might feel more sympathy, compassion or love, which may help you heal from hurt.
A = Altruistic gift. Give forgiveness as an unselfish, altruistic gift — one that the offender does not deserve. We all can remember when we wronged someone — maybe a parent, teacher or friend — and the person forgave us. We felt light and free. We didn’t want to disappoint that person by being hurtful again. By forgiving unselfishly, you can give that same gift to the one who hurt you.
C = Commit. After you’ve forgiven, write a note to yourself — something as simple as “Today I forgave [person’s name] for hurting me.” That will help your forgiveness last.
H = Hold on to forgiveness. We write such notes because we will almost surely be tempted to doubt that we really forgave. When we doubt our forgiveness, we can reread our note. We did forgive.