I’ve talked a lot about forgiveness on my blog, and forgiveness has been a major theme for me this year. I did not realise until this week that there is an actually process to forgiving someone, especially someone who you felt has deeply wronged you. This past weekend I was reminded of the deep seeded anger that I felt towards someone who I felt had deeply wronged me in the past. I thought that I had forgiven this person but the anger I felt told me that I was wrong, and I still had some work to do. So, I logged back on to BetterHelp, the online therapy tool I’ve been using and saw that there was a “forgiveness worksheet” that my therapist had given me that I never completed. I took a whole day to complete the worksheet, and then the very next day I was listening to my favourite podcast Dissect where the major theme just happened to be forgiveness. At the end of the show, the host talked about The Enright Process Model of Psychological Forgiveness. The very same process model I used the day before! God has a strong sense of irony, and I took it as a sign that I’m on the right path and that this is something that I should share with others as well.
So, without further ado, I will explain the four step process of forgiveness. But first, let me explain what forgiveness is. According to Enright, forgiveness is the “foregoing of resentment or revenge” when the wrongdoers actions deserve it and instead giving the offender gifts of “mercy, generosity and love” or “beneficence” when the wrongdoer does not deserve them. In other words, when people forgive, they basically give up the anger to which they are entitled and give to their offender a gift to which he or she is not entitled. How long and painful the forgiving process is all depends on the seriousness of the event, and how long the person has lived with and/or denied the severity of the harm caused. I decided to explain what forgiveness is first before describing the actual process of forgiveness because a common and major obstacle to forgiveness is misunderstanding what forgiveness is. “Forgiveness stands on the truth that what happened to me was unfair, it is unfair, and it will always be unfair, but I will have a new response to it.”- Robert Enright. Forgiveness is a moral virtue like patience or kindness and it must be practised on a continual basis with everyone we meet. It takes strength, courage, and discipline to decide to forgive and to continue to practice forgiveness every single day despite the injustices we may face. It is easy to respond to injustice with malice, revenge, anger, hate, even if those feelings never get expressed. I tend to repress these feelings as a way to make them “go away” so I can go on as if this person never hurt me and I’m “okay.” No. Forgiveness is feeling those feelings, understanding where they came from, deciding to forgive them or let those feelings go; then find compassion for the person who hurt you by trying to understand where they might be coming from, and then accepting the fact that despite the injustice of their actions, we cannot change it and the only way to heal is to have love and compassion for all parties involved.
Step One: The Uncovering Phase
It is during this phase that you confront the nature of the offence and uncover the consequences of having been offended. It is during this phase that you must objectively as possible describe who did what to whom. You cannot forgive an offence that did not occur, however, you may be able to resolve the anger aroused by a perceived offence when the actual nature of the offence is understood. This part I did with my therapist, someone who is objective. I highly suggest doing this, because it’s hard to look at the event itself and sometimes it’s hard to look past the traumatic event to see all the consequences you suffered. Especially if you’re the type of person who tends to repress your negative feelings. In order to uncover the consequences of what happened it is important to see not only the original unfairness of the event, but also your reactions to the injustice and how it has affected your life. A therapist can help you see the connection between not having forgiven and the experience of various physical or psychological difficulties that are the result of suppressed or repressed anger. This may involve discovering and working through various layers of pain in addition to justifiable anger. These layers of pain may look like: shame, guilt, obsessive thoughts about the offender and/or thoughts about the offence, temporary or permanent life changes due to the offence, and changes in one’s view about the justice of the world and of God. Lastly, when you uncover the pain and trauma from past events or injuries caused by an offender, you learn that you cannot psychologically forgive certain actions like abuse, or drunk driving but you can forgive the offender for the secondary consequences of their actions; emotional pain, distress and loss.
Step Two: The Decision Phase
During this phase a person gains an accurate understanding of the nature of forgiveness and makes a decision to commit to forgiving based on this understanding. Forgiveness is and must be a free choice. For me, I decided to forgive my offender because I realised that what I was doing to try and overcome the harm and suffering caused by the offence was not working. I was still angry, I still held resentment and even though I have no direct contact with this person, when I would learn of their continued attempts to hurt me all of my anger would come boiling up to the top. I would get so upset and concerned with the fact that they couldn’t see the harm they were causing. I would get upset at the fact that I was not doing anything to cause them pain yet they still felt the need to cause me harm. I would get upset over the injustice of this all. I finally realised that this person may never stop trying to cause me harm, but I can choose how I react to their attempts to cause me harm. The more I react with anger, the more damage is caused to my well-being, and the more time and energy I waste being upset over something that may never change. That is why I have decided to forgive them. Not because they deserve it but because I deserve happiness.
Third Step: Work Phase
This is the phase where you actually work on forgiving. In this phase a person gains a cognitive understanding of the offender and begins to view the offender in a new light. For me, I have no real relationship with my offender and to be honest I don’t know much about them. This lack of understanding was a major roadblock in my ability to forgive them. In order for me to gain some understanding and compassion for my offender, I had to ask one of the people closest to them for some background information. When you begin to try and understand your offender and see them in a new light this results in a positive change towards the offender, the self, and the relationship as a whole. It is during this phase that you begin to see your offender as a human being and not as “evil incarnate.” Once you start to think differently towards your offender, you can begin to feel more positively towards them. This leads to feelings of empathy and compassion for those who have hurt you most. You courageously bear the pain caused by the offence and eventually you bear the gift of forgiveness to your offender. This phase is called the “work phase” because it is the most challenging phase but also the most rewarding. Forgiveness is difficult but it is impossible without understanding and compassion for the other. Don’t feel like you need to rush through this phase. Take your time. Just be honest in your attempt to see your offender as human.
Fourth and Final Step: The Deepening Phase
I would say that I am currently in this stage of forgiveness, especially after all the work that I did recently in trying to understand my offender and where they might have been coming from during the offence. This is the phase where you find increased meaning in the suffering you endured. You begin to feel more connected with others, you begin to experience decreased negative affects and, at times, a renewed purpose in life. I would say that this is currently how I feel. It is through the process of forgiveness that I have put myself through for all the traumatic experiences I’ve had in the past that has given me a new sense of purpose and connection to others. It is through this blog that I’ve found connection and healing, which is why I continue to share my experiences. It is through my writing that I deepen my forgiveness and compassion that I feel towards others.
It is during the process of forgiveness that you may find release from the emotional prison of choosing not to forgive, of bitterness, anger and resentment. It is through the deepening phase that you may find meaning in the things you suffered from. You may even find yourself asking for forgiveness for the pain you may have caused others, or even your offender if it applies. For me, I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the opportunity to apologise for any harm I may have caused my offender. I do take responsibility for my reactions to the injustice I felt I was experiencing at the time. Either way, I am choosing to forgive, to learn, and to move past those experiences.
Those are the four phases of forgiveness. Like anything in life, the process of forgiveness is not necessarily linear. You may find yourself oscillating back and forth from one phase to another. The objective is to choose forgiveness, to try to find understanding for the other, which will hopefully lead to some compassion and empathy towards your offender. This will eventually lead to forgiveness, and then a deepening of that forgiveness which comes from a deeper sense of meaning for all the things that happened.
“‘Men who lack conscious will even lie to themselves. A friend once said and I even found it to be true, that everyday people, they lie to God too. So what makes you think that they won’t lie to you.’ The dishonest people Ms. Hill speaks of, live a life based on a complex series of lies. First, and most importantly, they lie to themselves falsely justifying their behaviour and character which allows them to lie to their family, partners and friends, and God. Ultimately this passage lends insight to one’s ability to forgive. If we view the malice of others as acts of ignorance. As acts rooted in their own self deception, insecurity and unhappiness. We realise that their behaviour is unconscious expressions of those insecurities and unhappiness. With this understanding we can evolve from viewing these acts as completely unrelatable. Rather, they’re extreme representations of emotions we all experience. This provides a pathway to empathy. And with practice we can pray for rehabilitation not retaliation. We can empathise rather than exasperate or escalate. We can forgive but not forget.” Cole Cuchna Dissect Podcast MS1E6.