“I’ll never forgive her.” “It’s going to take a lot before I forgive him.” “It’s too soon for me to forgive.” Statements such as these are evidence of thewe widespread misunderstanding about forgiveness — a misunderstanding that hurts us. A common misconception is that forgiveness requires enough time to pass for us to become “ok” with what happened. Or that amends must be made by the offender before forgiveness has been earned. We mistakenly regard forgiveness as a justice process where accounts get settled between the offender and the offended.
But insights from the clinical practice of Graf Stress Management provide an altogether different view of the nature, process, and purpose of forgiveness. First and foremost is the recognition that forgiveness benefits us. We generally think of it as being the other way around, that it’s something we do for the sake of those who have wronged us. There is some truth to that inasmuch as most people want to be forgiven for their wrongdoing. But from the standpoint of taking care of stress, the main benefit is for us.
The fact is, grudges we hold have no impact whatsoever on those against whom we hold them. Nor do they remedy the original offense, despite the illusion that we are “getting even” by thinking ill of the person who caused it. Moreover, the Stress Evaluation consistently demonstrates that failure to forgive is a more significant stress than the offense itself, sometimes with devastating results. (Additional discussion of forgiveness is found in 11. Forgiveness: The Most Effective Way to Handle Stress.)
One obstacle to effective forgiveness is that we don’t know how to do it properly. A common mistake is conditional forgiveness: “I’ll forgive if she apologizes,” “I’ll forgive if he changes,” “I’ll forgive this time, but not if it happens again.” Yet these conditions prevent true forgiveness from taking place. Remember, we’re the ones who benefit from forgiveness. Let’s make sure it happens!
Forgiveness doesn’t need to be a dramatic, emotionally wrenching, drawn-out experience. It can simply be a gentle “letting go.” Graf Stress Management relies on five basic principles to guide effective forgiveness:
- Say it out loud. There is real power and effect in feeling ourselves say the actual words.
- Be specific. State exactly whom you’re forgiving and what for. Generalized statements like, “I forgive everyone for everything that’s ever happened to me” don’t work. Forgiveness needs to be directed toward actual offenses. Even if the person who offended us didn’t actually do something wrong, the fact that we took offense means we need to forgive. For example, “Pat” was under no obligation to invite us to join her in the cafeteria, but it hurt our feelings, so: “I forgive Pat for causing me to feel rejected by not inviting me to sit with her at lunch.” (Of course, we would need to forgive ourselves as well for our part in that transaction, namely, the taking of offense: “I forgive myself for feeling rejected when Pat didn’t ask me to sit with her.”)
- Use the present tense: “I forgive,” not “I need to forgive,” “I should forgive,” or “I will forgive.” Make it happen now.
- Do it as many times as it takes. Every time you even remember an offense, it offends you all over again, so forgive again, no matter how many times you already have.
- Do it immediately. Don’t let it fester for even a minute. Make it a reflex.
These simple steps have been shown in thousands of clients to have extraordinary effect in managing stress and securing peace of mind, health, and well-being.