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How To Forgive Someone: 2 Science-Based Models Of Forgiveness

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When someone does something that upsets you, or causes you pain and anguish, how do you forgive them?

It’s a question we’ve all asked at some point in our lives.

Whether the wrongdoing was big or small, we believe that forgiveness is the right course of action.


Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily.

In fact, to forgive someone who has hurt you can take considerable time and effort.

Some acts are so terrible that they can take a lifetime to come to terms with. And forgiveness may never be fully achieved.

That’s okay.

Forgiveness can be complicated. Even taking steps in the right direction can provide great emotional and physical benefits.

Fortunately, there has been significant scientific study into how forgiveness works.

This article will explore two of the most widely used models of forgiveness:

1. The Enright Forgiveness Process Model

2. The Worthington REACH Forgiveness Model

These models have been shown to help people forgive more quickly and completely than those who do not follow a model.

But first, let’s ask an important question…

What Is Forgiveness?

When we say we forgive someone, what do we actually mean?

It’s harder than you think to find an answer to that question.

Forgiveness is not a single act. It is not something you simply do.

Psychologists have broken forgiveness down into two parts:

1. Decisional forgiveness.

Part of what it means to forgive is to make a decision not to seek revenge or retribution.

This is often the easier side to forgiveness as it relates to the type of person we wish to be.

Even though someone has wronged us, our moral compass and self-concept mean we do not see it as just to cause that person an equal level of pain in return.

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” is a common expression that suggests that retaliation for an offense only serves to harm everyone in the end.

So, in response to being wronged, we decide that we will not try to get our own back.

We will, instead, see the wrongdoer as a person deserving of fair treatment.

2. Emotional forgiveness.

The second side to forgiveness is the release of negative emotions toward the wrongdoer and the wrongdoing.

Forgiveness may be considered to have been granted when no more negative emotions exist; when neutral feelings toward someone are present.

Or, it could be said that forgiveness occurs when the types of feelings you once had for a person are able to return.

In other words, if you felt warmth toward someone prior to the wrongdoing, you feel that same level of warmth toward them once full emotional forgiveness has taken place.

This is the part that typically takes longer to achieve.

You cannot so easily rationalize your emotions like you can your decisions.

While it might require you to bite your tongue or fight physical urges, deciding not to exact revenge is something you can do consciously.

Processing the emotional impact of a wrongdoing requires more time and work.

Emotional forgiveness requires the elimination of unforgiving feelings.

Resentment, anger, hostility, bitterness, fear – working on these and other emotions that you hold toward the wrongdoer or the wrongdoing is not always easy.

If the wrongdoing was severe or long-lasting, the work required to process and deal with these emotions in a healthy way often requires professional help.

Thus, it is quite possible for a person to experience decisional forgiveness and still harbor emotional unforgiveness for an extended period of time.

What forgiveness is NOT.

People often confused forgiveness with letting someone “off the hook.”

This is not the case.

Forgiveness is not any of these things:

1. Forgetting – while you may come to terms with a wrongdoing emotionally, you do not have to forget that it happened.

In fact, it’s better that you remember the wrongdoing or you might fall foul of the same thing again by not removing yourself from certain situations or standing up for yourself.

2. Condoning – you don’t have to accept the wrongdoing as okay.

Nor do you give the wrongdoer permission to behave in the same way again, toward you or anyone else.

3. Denying/Minimizing – you do not have to deny the severity of the offense.

Yes, you may be able to move on from it emotionally, but this does not make the wrongdoing any less hurtful or painful at the time.

4. Pardoning – forgiving someone does not mean you cannot seek justice for what they did.

Where appropriate, you can enforce the laws that govern the society you live in.

5. Reconciliation – forgiving someone may involve mending the relationship that has been damaged by the wrongdoing, but this is not a requirement for forgiveness.

You may forgive someone and still not wish to have that person in your life anymore.

6. Repression – when a person hurts you, that feeling is a valid one. Forgiveness doesn’t require you to push that feeling down into the recesses of your unconscious mind.

As we have already explored, emotional forgiveness means to release those negative feelings having dealt with them.

The Health Benefits Of Forgiveness

You may be wondering why you should bother trying to forgive someone for the things they have done.

It is often said that forgiveness is more for you, the forgiver, than it is for the wrongdoer.

And this is absolutely true.

Forgiveness is only necessary when one person feels hurt by the actions of another.

It is the elimination of this pain that is the core reason why you should try to forgive those that hurt you.

The science so far confirms this view.

Forgiveness interventions have been shown to be effective ways to combat the physical and emotional effects of the wrongdoing.

Whilst individual circumstances will vary greatly, forgiveness can have positive effects on anger, anxiety, grief, post-traumatic stress, depression, blood pressure, and even lower back pain.

In 2015, there was the most comprehensive look yet at the data around forgiveness and its benefits to health and well-being.

It is certainly not necessary to read such research to understand that the process of forgiving someone can be of great benefit to you.

How To Forgive Someone

Now that you have some background on what forgiveness is and is not, and you understand the real health benefits of pursuing forgiveness, let’s get more practical.

Whilst there are a number of models to help people find forgiveness in their hearts and minds, two such models are most commonly discussed.

The Enright Forgiveness Process Model

This model was conceived by Robert D. Enright Ph.D, a researcher and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He is a pioneer in the scientific research of forgiveness and first described his model of forgiveness in 1985.

Dr. Enright breaks forgiveness down into four phases. Within these phases are some 20 steps which create a pathway to forgiveness.

The full approach is detailed in his book Forgiveness Is A Choice, but here is a brief overview.

1. Uncovering phase.

What has happened and how do I feel about it?

These are the core questions you have to answer in this phase.

Before forgiveness can take place, you have to be clear about what exactly is to be forgiven.

You need to address these questions: Who? What?

Who has hurt you? Who are they to you – a friend, partner, colleague, stranger, group?

What did they do to cause you to feel hurt? What act took place? What was said? What were the circumstances surrounding this act?

Next, you need to consider how this act has impacted you.

What are the objective consequences of the act? This may involve physical injury or harm, an impact on your financial situation, the loss of a job, the breakdown of a relationship.

What are the subjective consequences? How has the act affected your mental and emotional well-being?

This can involve various emotions such as shame, anger, and guilt.

Or it may have caused anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders.

Perhaps you have obsessive thoughts about the wrongdoer or the wrongdoing. Or you suffer nightmares about it.

And how has the act altered your view of the world? Are you now more cynical or pessimistic?

This phase is called the uncovering phase because you have to do precisely that: uncover as much as you can about the wrongdoing and the impact it has had on you.

Confronting these things will often cause emotional distress.

2. Decision phase.

This phase generally begins when you realize that what you are doing isn’t working.

Your efforts so far to overcome the pain you feel have gone unrewarded and you are tired of feeling so damned bad all the time.

The decision that you have to make is to try to begin the process of forgiving the person who hurt you.

You don’t yet have to forgive them, but you have to accept that forgiveness is the way that you will feel better again.

This decision is one that you make to take your life in a more positive direction than the one the wrongdoing set you on.

This decision phase relates to the decisional forgiveness discussed earlier. It requires you to forego any desire for revenge or retaliation.

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3. Work phase.

Forgiveness for small wrongdoings may come naturally with time as the emotional intensity of the situation subsides.

In cases where the wrongdoing caused greater impact to your life and on your feelings, work is required to bring about emotional forgiveness.

The first part of such work often takes the form of changing how you view the person who wronged you.

This may involve looking beyond their hurtful actions or words to their background and the reasons they might have behaved the way they did.

Were their actions influenced by a particularly troubled childhood or by poor examples set by their parents of caregivers?

Were they under a lot of stress when they hurt you?

How might you look beyond the act itself and see the wrongdoer as a human being who is flawed?

How might you reflect on your own flaws and times when you have hurt others to see the wrongdoer differently?

Once you are able to see them in a new light, you can take steps to begin the process of feeling empathy toward them.

And empathy often leads to more positive feelings toward the wrongdoer. It certainly helps to lessen the negative feelings you might have toward them.

Acceptance of the hurt that was caused is also a vital step to take in this phase. It’s important to remember that this pain is in no way justified or deserved.

It is simply the pain that you feel. The pain that was inflicted upon you.

This phase may or may not include reconciliation between you and the person who hurt you.

If you wish for that relationship to continue, now is the time to begin the baby steps toward rebuilding the trust and respect, and in some circumstances the love that existed.

4. Deepening phase.

With this last phase comes the realization that forgiveness is providing an emotional release.

You see that you have a need to forgive the person who has hurt you.

The negative emotions associated with the wrongdoing are lifted, perhaps even gone altogether.

In their place, you might even begin to view the pain and suffering you experienced as an important turning point in your life.

You may discover meaning that was absent prior to the wrongdoing. Not so much a reason for it, but a positive outcome of it.

Growth often comes during the toughest times of our lives and you may view this episode as an important catalyst in your personal growth.

You may even look at your own life and your own actions differently and decide that you need to seek the forgiveness of others.

This overview cannot do justice to the full process that Dr. Enright has developed.

If you wish to learn about and implement his full model, we suggest you read his book Forgiveness Is A Choice.

2. The Worthington REACH Forgiveness Model

This model was conceived by Everett Worthington Jr., Ph.D., a semi-retired professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

He has worked in the field of forgiveness since 1990 and has a very personal reason for his continuing efforts – the murder of his mother in 1996.

The term REACH is an acronym with each of the letters representing a stage in the model.

Let’s look at them one by one.

R = Recall

The first step is to think back to the event that hurt you.

Only, try to keep the vision in your mind as objective as possible.

Stick to the facts: the actions themselves, the words that were spoken.

But don’t attach any labels to these things.

The person who wronged you is not a bad person. They are merely a person.

You are not the victim. You are merely another person.

The wrongdoing is no more than a series of actions.

E = Empathize

As difficult as it might be, try to step into the shoes of the wrongdoer.

If asked why they hurt you, what possible reasons could they give? What were their motives?

What were the circumstances surrounding the wrongdoing and how might these have contributed?

What were they feeling at the time?

See if there are any reasons to feel some level of sympathy and understanding toward them.

Ask what you would have done in a similar situation. Answer honestly.

A = Altruistic gift

In this model, forgiveness is seen as a gift to be given to the wrongdoer from a purely unselfish standpoint.

This is a difficult step, but the reason behind it is quite simple.

Consider a time when you hurt someone else or caused them significant difficulty, and they forgave you for it.

How did this make you feel?

Were you grateful? Relieved? Happy? At peace?

Now think back to a time when you have previously forgiven someone and how this made you feel.

Did you feel lighter, as if a burden had been lifted? More at ease, with less inner turmoil?

Now consider the wrongdoing at hand. Given that you have been forgiven for previous hurt you have caused, ask whether this person is worthy of similar grace?

And knowing that past forgiveness has made you feel better, could you consider offering this gift in this situation?

C = Commit

Once you have reached a point where you feel prepared to forgive your wrongdoer, commit to that forgiveness.

How do you do this?

Write it in your diary.

Tell a friend that you have chosen to forgive.

Write a letter of forgiveness to the person who caused the hurt (you don’t necessarily have to give it to them).

These simple things act as a contract for your forgiveness. They remind you that you have committed to forgiving the person.

H = Hold onto forgiveness

The previous stage of committing to your forgiveness in a concrete way helps you to hold onto that forgiveness when you might waver.

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is entirely in your hands. You have the power to choose which emotions you allow to control your mind.

This is a particularly useful reminder when faced with something that might trigger memories of the hurt and pain you suffered.

It can also help if you find yourself thinking about the wrongdoing again and again.

Whilst memories of it will always exist, you can tell yourself that the feelings you experience due to these memories are not you taking back your forgiveness.

You are not unforgiving that person. Those feelings are lessons that can help you to avoid getting hurt in the same way again.

Repeating the stages.

The REACH model is not something you go through once.

And the emotional forgiveness you work on is unlikely to be complete first time round.

But by going through the stages multiple times, you continue to diminish the negative feelings.

And you can grow the positive feelings you might feel toward the wrongdoer – empathy and compassion – until they are more dominant than the negative feelings.

To learn about the REACH model in more detail, you can refer to Dr. Worthington’s book Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope.

Additionally, he offers several workbooks on his website that you can download for free. These contain lots of exercises to help you along the path to forgiveness.

These workbooks can be found here:

Can anything be forgiven?

Sometimes people do awful, awful things to others.

Can these people and these acts really be forgiven?

The short answer is: yes, they can be, but they often aren’t entirely.

The first thing to remember is that forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight. For the most serious offenses, it might take a lifetime.

But the process of forgiveness as described in the two models above can help to lessen the intensity of the negative feelings you might hold.

You can go through these models again and again, and each time they might help you move closer to complete emotional forgiveness.

But it’s important not to beat yourself up if you can’t fully forgive someone.

And even if someone else proclaims to have forgiven a similar offense (perhaps someone at a support group), you shouldn’t feel like a failure for not being able to forgive the wrongdoing that was done to you.

Always show kindness to yourself. Be gentle and accept that the process is long and difficult.

Whether you reach a positive end point or not, you can always try to move slowly in the right direction.

With each step, you may feel a little bit better.


About The Author

Steve Phillips-Waller is the founder and editor of A Conscious Rethink. He has written extensively on the topics of life, relationships, and mental health for more than 8 years.