Steps to Forgiveness

Learn how to let go of grudges.
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If forgiveness is divine, then most of us are less than saintly. But forgiving those who hurt you can bring a sense of personal peace that we can't experience when we refuse to let go of a past slight. Besides, it's healthier. One recent study conducted by researchers at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, showed that subjects experienced significant cardiovascular stress when they imagined revenge on people who had hurt them, but less so when they visualized forgiving their transgressors. Stanford University's Forgiveness Project, in Palo Alto, California, has found that people who try to forgive report fewer incidents of anger and physical symptoms of stress than those who don't.

Starting the Healing

Don't wait for an apology. "Often we get very self-righteous: 'There's no way I'm going to forgive unless he says he's sorry,'" says Mariah Burton Nelson, author of The Unburdened Heart: Five Keys to Forgiveness and Freedom (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000). "But when we do that, we could end up clinging to anger for years, often at our own expense. We're leaving our well-being in the hands of someone else." So start right now by recalling the facts of the incident and acknowledging your anger and hurt.

Empathize with your offender. He or she may have acted out of ignorance, fear or pain. "There's a saying I use: Behind every jerk, there's a sad story," says Nelson. Everett Worthington, Ph.D., director of the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, in Richmond, Virginia, and author of 5 Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving (Crown, 2001), suggests role-playing the wrongdoer's part, or writing a letter to yourself from his or her point of view.

Adds Robert Karen, Ph.D., a New York City-based psychologist and author of The Forgiving Self: The Road From Resentment to Connection (Doubleday, 2001), "We forget that even people who love us very much will hurt and sometimes betray us. It doesn't necessarily signal the end of the relationship."

Think about the relief you felt when you were forgiven by someone you loved. "It's much more painful to contemplate your own faults and failings than others'," says Nelson, "but it's important for balance."

Perform a symbolic act. Says Worthington: "If you don't make it public in some way, then you may not believe that you've truly forgiven." For example, you could hold a large stone at arm's length and drop it when you're ready to forgive. Or light a candle and imagine that your anger is melting along with the wax.

Remember that forgiving is not forgetting. Hurt feelings can linger even after you've forgiven. You may even need to renew the pardon at some point. But letting go of a grudge frees you to move on. In the Stanford study, people who forgave found that the hurtful incident wasn't as painful anymore.

Finally, be sure to include yourself on the forgiveness list. Says Karen, "Forgiving others is just the mirror image of forgiving yourself."


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