Forgiveness: What is it and how do I do it?

Forgiveness can be difficult to navigate. Learn how to define it, steps of forgiveness and benefits you can experience.

When is the last time you forgave someone for something they said or did? Did it take a long time or just a few minutes? Did it come with an apology? Did you forgive for the good of yourself or your family? Ever wonder what exactly is forgiveness? In this article series, we’re going to explore forgiveness. The first article will discuss how to define it, the steps of forgiveness and some of the benefits associated with forgiveness.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “forgive” means to cease to feel resentment against someone. Forgiveness can be thought of in many different ways: a skill, feeling, emotion or even an action. It can be granted to another person, as well as sought out by an individual.

There’s no quantitative timeline for how long forgiveness takes, but we know forgiveness happens in stages, similarly to grief. The Stanford University Forgiveness Project provides the following steps for forgiveness, written by Fred Luskin, published also at the University of California, Berkeley.

  • Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation was not OK. Tell a couple of trusted people about your experience.
  • Make a commitment to yourself to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and no one else.
  • Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning the action. In forgiveness, you seek the peace and understanding that come from blaming people less after they offend you and taking those offenses less personally.
  • Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset that you are suffering now, not from what offended you or hurt you 2 minutes or 10 years ago.
  • At the moment you feel upset, practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight or flight response.
  • Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to forgive you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship and prosperity, and work hard to get them. However, these are “un-reinforceable rules.” You will suffer when you demand these things occur, since you do not have the power to make them happen.
  • Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that hurt you.
  • Remember that a life well-lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving power over you to the person who caused you pain, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Put more energy into appreciating what you have rather than attending to what you do not have.
  • Amend the way you look at your past so you remind yourself of your heroic choice to forgive.

Forgiveness can be incredibly beneficial to an individual’s physical and mental health. The Mayo Clinic suggests that some of the benefits of forgiveness include:

  • Healthier relationships
  • Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
  • Less anxiety, stress and hostility
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Fewer symptoms of depression
  • Stronger immune system
  • Improved heart health
  • Higher self-esteem

Forgiveness can be an important part of relationship growth between two individuals, but also within a group, such as a family. In “Forgiveness: Discussing it as a family,” learn how to discuss forgiveness as a family.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to Michigan State University Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

Other articles in series

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