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.
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.
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.
“Forgiveness happens inside people’s skin,” explains Worthington, who has written multiple books on forgiveness, including Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. “Reconciliation happens between people — and only when both people are committed to being trustworthy.”
Waiting for that reconciliation can be painful, but tolerating that waiting period may be a necessary evil. If you don't wait, says Tasha Nadasdi, a clinical psychologist in Charlottesville, Virginia, you can wind up actually damaging the possibility of forgiveness. Pushing boundaries may only lead to a breach of trust and could compound the original hurt, she says.
It can be helpful to use that waiting period as a time for self-reflection. When we need forgiveness, there can be guilt, shame and self-condemnation “as we figure out how we’re going to deal with the social, spiritual and psychological fallout of our acts, and that gets complicated,” says Worthington.
His advice: Ask yourself how valuable you find this relationship and how much you want to restore it. Sometimes the answers help overcome those difficult emotions.
Moving past shame
Shame actually may prevent a true apology from taking place, because shame often causes people “to withdraw and hide, or to defend” themselves, says Candyce Ossefort-Russell, 59, a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas. “Remorse — a word we don't use often in our culture, but I think it's a really useful word — is the emotion that comes in good people when they hurt another person.”
Take care of remorse by trying to repair the situation, although just thinking about making that repair can cause the heart to pound. If that happens, Ossefort-Russell suggests putting your hand over your heart as a soothing gesture, to calm the nervous system so you can speak more clearly. That also may help if the person you approach gets angry.
“That hand on the heart can help you stay centered in yourself in the knowledge that you are a good person who made a mistake,” she says, “and that you can withstand their upset.”
If the other person goes on a tirade, it’s probably best to simply listen and apologize, says Ossefort-Russell.
"An angry, upset person is unlikely going to be able to hear you if you try to explain yourself,” she says. “Giving reasons to someone who's angry or visibly hurt is likely to come off as justifying your behavior, which will escalate their upset. When your heart is open and you trust that you're a good person who made a mistake, you'll be better able to disengage from trying to prove you're a good person with explanations and reasons for what you did."
Offer detailed explanations only if the other person requests them, she says.
If you've been wronged, don't believe you have to deny the pain in order to forgive — and know that “forgive and forget” is a concept based more in fiction than in fact, Ossefort-Russell says.
“Allow yourself to feel grief and to mourn,” she says. “Then in the future, when you remember what happened, that little ‘round of ouch’ will move through you. That’s different than harboring anger and resentment, which stays inside.”
Anger and resentment “are toxic ... and must be defeated,” says Terry Larson, 75, from Topeka, Kansas. “Otherwise it's like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”
Larson says she knows this from personal experience. After her sister used the fact that their dad wasn't Larson's biological father as proof that he loved her sister’s children more, Larson cut ties for seven years.
“Above all, forgiveness must be unqualified,” says Larson, who credits a 12-step program for teaching her how to release her anger. “How much you feel you were harmed must not be a factor. Let it all go. Turn it over, either to a higher power or the clouds in the sky. Whatever works. The rewards make it worth it.”
Larson says she and her sister worked to repair the damage and now, "we are as close as siblings can possibly be."
Bruno turned to deep breathing techniques to stop negative feedback loops and studied well-known Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön’s lessons on compassion, including the idea that compassion is often reserved for other people and not ourselves. Bruno not only wound up forgiving herself, but her daughter as well — “and life, for not turning out the way I'd hoped it would.”
Unfortunately, the estrangement between mother and daughter continues, but Bruno’s “heart is always open,” and she hopes for a reunion someday.
“But there's no expectation that will happen, and that has helped me find peace,” Bruno says. “As long as she knows I'm here and that I still love her, that's all that matters.”
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Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M Is for Mindful.