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How and When to Forgive for Personal Growth

growth people Nov 03, 2022
How and When to Forgive for Personal Growth

Forgiving is tough. Especially if someone who is close to you hurts you deeply. In this article, we want to discuss how and when to forgive for personal growth. We also cover why it is important to learn to forgive -- even when it’s tough. You do that for yourself and for your own well-being. 

If you do not forgive but keep the anger inside, it will cost you energy without any gain. We want to encourage you to better use this energy to go through the process of forgiveness. At the end of it, your well-being will greatly benefit. 

The good news is that forgiveness is a skill. So, it can be learned. We describe a couple of models and offer ten practical tips to make forgiving easier.

Let’s take a look.

What Is Forgiveness?

Being able to forgive is being able to make oneself free. Psychologists define forgiveness “as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” 

In this context, it is important not to confuse forgiving with forgetting. We are not forgetting what harm someone did to us, but rather we find ways to make peace with it and move on. Relieving this burden is essential for our well-being, especially emotionally.

One of the pioneers in the science and practice of forgiveness is Fred Luskin, author, and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. He describes forgiveness as “the ability to make peace with the word ‘no’.” We are expecting people to act a certain way. We want a harmonious and faithful relationship. But our partner may cheat on us. We get a ‘no’. Forgiving then is being resilient when things don’t go your way. And find ways to move on. 

Forgiveness has two sides: decisional and emotional. 

Decisional forgiveness is a conscious choice to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. It’s when you consciously start to no longer wish the wrongdoer bad things. The decisional part is typically quicker and easier to accomplish.

The hard part is emotional forgiveness. In this aspect, you try to move away from the negative feelings and stop thinking and suffering from what happened. This is a slow process with ups and downs as the memories will keep recurring. Also because you may be reminded by certain triggers. The only way is to understand the benefits of forgiving selfishly for your own personal well-being, to create a strong coping mechanism, to build your own strong narrative, and consistently remind yourself about it whenever it comes up again. 

Why Is It Important to Forgive?

We may think that forgiving is just a generous act that helps the other person. And it’s often hard to forgive someone especially when they really wronged you badly. In fact, however, forgiving someone has massive personal benefits for the person who is able to forgive. Here are some: 

  • Forgiveness improves our health. Research shows that forgiving reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, results in better sleep, and improves the immune system. 
  • Forgiveness is also beneficial for our mental health. People who learn to forgive also experience a reduction in depression, anxiety, and even it reduces the occurrence of suicidal thoughts. 
  • Being able to forgive someone has positive effects on relationships in general with other people. If we hold a grudge against someone makes us also miserable to others. Letting o allows us to trust others again, escaping from a downward spiral. 
  • Generally, forgiveness makes us happier. Happy people are more likely to forgive. But that works also the other way around. Forgiving is an act of kindness. It’s something positive that makes us feel good and this contributes to happiness.   

In the next section, we will look into some established models about how to forgive. 


Established Forgiveness Models

In this section, we cover three models from renowned personalities: Covey’s Three Circles, Luskin’s Nine Steps, and Worthington’s REACH Model.  


Covey’s Three Circles

Stephen Covey described in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) the concept of the circle of concern. This is a model that includes three concentric circles.


The inner circle is called the circle of control. This is everything you have control over and essentially the things you should really worry about and act upon, like your thoughts, words, actions, behavior, diet, how much you exercise or not, what you eat, etc. 

The second circle is called the circle of influence. Things in this area we cannot directly control but we may have some influence on them. This could include the choices of other people around me, my productivity at work, my children’s future, or what other people think about me. 

Finally, the third circle is called the circle of concern. This circle represents all the things that trouble or concern us. We don’t have much influence over these issues. Examples include media, politics, stock prices, the economy, war, or death. 

The main recommendation and power of this model are to focus your energy on the inner circle -- i.e. the things that you can control. You can also change things (or yourself) to move certain aspects between circles. Everything else is just demoralizing and may even be depressing. Being betrayed by someone is outside of that circle but how you react to this betrayal is in your circle of control. Forgiving is in your power. It’s in your circle of control. 


Luskin’s Nine Steps

We mentioned forgiveness expert Fred Luskin before. He also developed the following Nine Steps to Forgiveness model, which he describes in his book Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness

  1. Learn to understand exactly the situation and what about it is not ok.
  2. Make a commitment to yourself to do this to make yourself feel better.
  3. Understand that you seek the peace that comes from forgiving. You are not necessarily condoning the action.
  4. Get the right perspective. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from feeling hurt now, not from what happened potentially a long time ago.
  5. In the moment when you do feel upset, practice stress management to address your body’s fight or flight response, like breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, sauna or massage.
  6. Give up on wishful thinking. Give up on hoping for certain things to happen. Focus on those things that you can actively control. Remember Covey’s circle of concern from above.
  7. Look forward. Put your energy into future, positive goals. 
  8. Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t have. Don’t give the other person power over you by staying hurt.
  9. Always remind yourself of your heroic choice to forgive. Get energy from that and grow from there. 


Worthington’s REACH Model

Professor Everett Worthington is one of the key people who invented the REACH model to practice forgiveness. The five stages include:


  1. Recall the wrongdoing in an objective way. 
  2. Empathize with your partner and try to understand their point of view. 
  3. Consider an altruistic gift and change sides. Recall a situation in which you did something wrong, were forgiven, and how that felt.
  4. Commit yourself to forgive. Make it concrete by, for example, writing it down or telling a friend or family member. 
  5. Hold on to forgiveness. Even if you manage to forgive in that moment, memories will reoccur. It will not disappear. In those cases, keep in mind your forgiveness and control your reaction to those memories. If needed, re-read what you wrote in step 4.


In the next section, we go over a range of practical tips that will help to forgive easier. 


10 Practical Tips to Make Forgiving Easier

Here are our top 10 practical tips to make forgiving easier.


Understand What’s in Your Circle of Control

The first step is to understand Covey’s model of the circle of control and map it to your life and your particular forgiveness situation. What is really in your control? What is not? What can you and what do you want to elevate into your circle of control? What do you need to do to elevate it? Then do not stress about the things that are not in your circle of control.


Are You Ready?

Look deep inside yourself and ask yourself if you are ready to start the forgiveness process. It’s not easy. And sometimes the grief is too strong. You are still too upset. In that case, it’s simply too early. Wait a little more and then start the process. 


Look Through Many Lenses

Try to really understand the situation as detailed as possible. Collect data if you need to. Try to understand different perspectives -- not only yours. Try to understand the “offender.” Who else is involved? What is their potential point of view? Usually, there are angles that can help you understand the behavior better. Could be that the offender herself is having problems, stress or is suffering from certain conditions. Try to be fair. This can help tremendously in the forgiving process. 


Forgive Smaller Things First

Forgiveness is a skill with a process. So, it can be learned. One way to get more comfortable is to practice forgiving smaller things in everyday life. If someone upsets you because they are rude, immediately recognize the wrong, do not take it personally, and forgive them on the spot. Doing this often with small things will train you in the forgiving process. 


Externalize Your Feelings

It is a very powerful tool to externalize your feelings. That means not keeping the thoughts and feelings within yourself anymore. Means to externalize could be to write a letter that you could send to someone or just keep it for yourself. Another way could be to talk to someone who you trust and tell them your story. In any case, when you do this, structure your story well and fair, from all the perspectives that you analyzed earlier in the process. This will give you a narrative that is credible not only for other people but especially for you. 


Focus On Positive Things

Getting hurt by someone can be tough and sad. It’s negative energy that temporarily flows through your life. One tough but effective coping mechanism is to focus on positive things to counteract the negativity. There is so much beauty in our world, that we often don’t see. In case of disappointment, try and actively, mindfully focus on the good things in life. Often these are simple things (no need to go on an expensive trip), like a sunset, the sound of the waves on a beach, the smell of a forest, a meal with friends, time with family, a match of tennis, etc. There are tons of good things. Often we just need to open our senses a bit more. 


Practice Gratitude and Kindness

In line with the focus on positive things, being kind to others is a simple thing that makes you (and others) feel good. And it’s so easy: help someone, greet someone, or smile at someone. Little acts of kindness are simple but getting a positive reaction is often priceless. 

In addition, studies show that practicing gratitude can have a significant impact on feelings of hope and happiness. And it’s so simple. Every day think about one thing that you are grateful for. This could be that you recovered from an illness, that you have a great son, that you can go to the beach, that you played tennis, that you met a friend. You can make this a habit by thinking of this one thing every day while brushing your teeth in the morning. 


Find Ways to Distract or Compensate

Often in life, we need to go through some adversity (like getting hurt). But keep in mind, usually, not everything is shit. There are always other areas in life that are working really well. In cases of hardship, these other areas can compensate, but you need to let them. These other areas could be your family or friends, a sport that you practice, your health, your education, your job, your career, or a hobby. One way to visualize this and let other areas compensate is to use models like our Live better, not perfect Well-Being Triangle. This model presents the three areas health, people, and personal growth. 


Set a Goal and Start a Project

In line with the previous point about distractions, another effective technique is to select a new project and set a specific goal. This will keep you busy, focus on other things, and can help find different perspectives around a certain wrongdoing by another person. These projects can be anything that makes you feel good but also challenge you. Examples may include learning a new skill like playing the Ukulele, climbing a difficult mountain, volunteer for a good cause, or going on an expedition. 


Move On

At some point for your own health, you have to move on. There will be times when you’ll think back. Sometimes this will be easier to cope with, sometimes harder. When it’s harder think back to the narrative that you developed during the forgiving process. If you externalized it via a letter, re-read that. 

To move on, identify some lessons that you have learned. So, at least the whole story also had some positive aspects. Focus on those. Focus on your happiness. If you have to, maybe even re-evaluate your goals and values. Whatever you do, make your own well-being a priority. There is a lot that you can do within that space -- there is a reason why our triangle has three areas. 


How and When Should We Forgive?

With this article, we aimed to answer the question how and when to forgive for personal growth. To summarise, it’s a process that starts with you being ready and understanding that you are doing it for yourself, not for the other person. It’s the only way to let go, and continue your personal development into your better self. This is all very individual. Hence, also the time, when you are ready to start the process depends on various things. The “seriousness” of the deed itself plays a big role. But also the relationship with the offender and your own coping mechanisms. 

We all know it is very hard to forgive someone. But remember: forgiving is not forgetting. And holding on to some grudge forever, will not change the situation but will continue to harm you. Whatever you do, it is important that you do something. It is for your own well-being and happiness in the long run. 

"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned. " -Buddha


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