Each of us, at some point in our lives, has to decide what to do with strong, unpleasant emotions. We would rather not admit to feeling things like anger, jealousy and shame, let alone acknowledge their intensity or the urges that accompany them. Associated with this desire for revenge is an unwillingness to forgive, which is often connected to persistent negative thinking, leading people to feel stuck, hostile or depressed.
What’s the alternative?
Forgiveness is an old-fashioned concept, but psychologists are interested its link to health and wellbeing. The power of forgiveness is such that when we forgive a person who has harmed or annoyed us in some way, the desire to seek revenge on them is reduced. This decreased desire is accompanied by increased positive feelings, so it becomes a cathartic release. But to forgive is to not always forget, and nor is forgiveness reconciliation. To forgive is not to condone, justify, or dismiss the hurt inflicted. People can still be held accountable for their actions.
Research shows that those who have done courses in forgiveness tend to be happier, healthier, serene and more able to empathise with others than those holding onto their resentment. By choosing to forgive, you are doing something for yourself, rather than for the person who has harmed you. While letting go of anger, jealousy or resentment is not as easy as acting on it, forgiveness is the wholesome, healthy alternative.
How can I learn to forgive?
A well-researched method is the REACH model, developed by Everett Worthington. To put it into practice, think of someone in your life who has hurt you, then:
- RECALL: remember the hurt and acknowledge the effects (e.g. fear, anger etc.) as objectively as possible. Talk this through with another person if this helps.
- EMPATHISE: see things from the other person’s point of view and identify the pressures they were under. How would they explain their harmful actions? Find a plausible explanation you can live with, even if you aren’t happy with it.
- ALTRUISTICALlY FORGIVE: remember a time when you hurt someone who later forgave you. Consider how that felt and offer the gift of forgiveness.
- COMMIT TO FORGIVENESS: make your forgiveness tangible by telling a trusted friend about it or writing it down.
- HOLD ONTO FORGIVENESS: it’s normal to have doubts about whether you have truly forgiven someone. Thoughts about a previous injury are to be expected, but instead of trying to stop thoughts of forgiveness, let them be there and then gently realign your focus.