Many world religions include teachings on forgiveness. In the Christian tradition, forgiveness is a central theme. For Buddhists, forgiveness is the path of compassion and loving-kindness. Islamic teaching presents Muhammad as an example of someone who forgives others for their ignorance, even those who considered themselves to be his enemies. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says: “The one who pursues revenge should dig two graves.” Gandhi told us “If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.”
In the 1990’s psychologists began to study forgiveness. According to the American Psychological Association, forgiveness is the mental, and/or spiritual process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger against another person for a perceived offence, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. Here are 5 steps to forgiveness that came out of the psychological research by Everett Worthington, Jr. He calls it the Pyramid Model (Dimensions of Forgiveness, Templeton Foundation Press, 1998)
Recall the Hurt. When we are hurt, we often try to protect ourselves by denying our hurt. We think, often correctly, that if we don’t think about it, it won’t bother us. But if unforgiveness keeps intruding into your happiness, it may be time to consider forgiving. In this step, you recall the hurt as objectively as possible. Don’t get caught up in your strong emotions about the circumstances or the person who hurt you –don’t dwell on your victimization. Just acknowledge that a wrong was done to you and set your intention to heal this hurt.
Empathize. As best you can, see the situation from the other person’s point of view, feeling that person’s feelings, and identifying with the pressures that made the person hurt you. Write a brief letter to yourself as if you were the other person. How would he or she explain the harmful acts?
Altruistic gift of forgiveness. To give the gift of forgiveness you need to consider yourself. Have you ever harmed or offended someone who later forgave you? Think about how you felt your guilt. Then consider the way you felt when you were forgiven. Forgiveness can free people from their interpersonal guilt. By recalling your own guilt and the gratitude over being forgiven, you can develop the desire to give that gift of freedom to the person who hurt you.
Commit to forgive. When do you know you’ve completed forgiveness in a particular situation? If you find yourself remembering a previous offense, you might think this is evidence that you must not have forgiven. If you make your forgiveness tangible, you are less likely to doubt it later. Tell a friend, partner, or counselor that you have forgiven the person who hurt you. Write a “certificate of forgiveness,” stating that you have, as of today, forgiven. While this idea is not from Worthington’s work, I have read in others’ works that you know you have completed forgiveness when you can feel grateful for what you have received from the situation/person you have forgiven.
Holding onto forgiveness. When you have doubts about whether you have forgiven, remind yourself of this model, refer to your certificate of forgiveness, and tell yourself that a painful memory does not disqualify the hard work of forgiveness that you have done. Instead of trying to stop thoughts of unforgiveness, think positively about the forgiveness you have experienced. If you continue to doubt your forgiveness, work back through these five steps.