We might all know it’s better to process your emotions and move on, even when someone hurts you. However, is it actually possible? And if possible, how does forgiveness happen in practice?
Anecdotally, we may have heard and experienced the benefits of working through past hurts, perhaps with the help of a counsellor or licensed psychologist with the tools to support you. But is there a specific way to learn how to do it that isn’t only anecdotal but evidence-based?
Whether forgiveness is measurable is the focus of psychologist Everett Worthington’s research. A recent study shows you can improve physical and mental health by following specific steps and regularly practising compassion. To be more precise, forgiving someone can decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety and feelings of unforgiveness.
But how do we develop compassion in real life beyond just talking about it? In this article, we’ll talk through some steps you can take to absolve those who have hurt or wronged you and increase your wellbeing.
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a deliberate process that can only occur once you have decided to do so. We may feel we have moved on but still hold onto hurt and resentment. For this reason, we must choose to absolve our offender and commit to doing it (which can also involve forgiving ourselves). Ultimately, forgiveness is for our benefit – to bring about our own healing.
Sometimes, we might feel it’s impossible to move on, especially regarding violent trauma or losing people we love. A reluctance to let go is entirely understandable, especially considering how much pain and trauma we might need to re-live when processing difficult memories.
If memories are too intense to process independently, seeking help and working with a skilled mental health practitioner is crucial. However, if you have the capacity, using tools like the REACH method can help you systematically work through forgiving someone.
Through this method, researchers have shown that it is possible to forgive but that it takes commitment, time, and regular practice to move forward. In short, beyond committing to moving on, we need to develop the relevant skills and practise them.
How do we truly forgive?
To truly exonerate someone, we have to do so unselfishly, which means there is no expectation for the person to change or repent for the damage they have caused. However, forgiveness doesn’t mean you condone your offender’s behaviour. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t seek justice.
Forgiving someone can be incredibly difficult to do on an intellectual and an emotional level, so it takes working with tools to systematically process trauma and take steps towards better mental health and wellbeing, which you can do using the REACH method, explained below.
The REACH Method
According to the REACH method, the following steps are helpful when learning how to forgive:
- R – recall and face the hurt, but decide to forgive and not pursue reactive retaliation.
- E – empathise and work to understand why you were hurt, which can allow you to heal.
- A – altruism is integral to this method, which means forgiving unselfishly and not seeking anything in return.
- C – commitment involves writing down who you forgave so that you can help make the forgiveness last.
- H – hold on to your forgiveness, which means consistent practice.
You can find more details about all the points above in the REACH workbook, which you can download and go through at your own pace. However, it is essential to work through all the steps in sequential order and not skip out on any of them.
Forgiveness in practice
From reading the above, it’s clear that there are pragmatic ways to work through past hurts. But, this can be more challenging and potentially re-traumatising in the context of trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While many people might be able to do this on their own, it’s vital to consider counselling in addition to using this approach.
Overall, on an individual level, despite what counselling we may or may not need, it is heartening to know that forgiving is possible. One of the most critical takeaways from the study is how this framework can go beyond just working through your pain but can positively impact public health globally.
Imagine if we were all equipped with the tools to develop compassion for each other. It would be a different world that could become a reality with the right psychological support structures in place.
Learn more about mental health, trauma and counselling
If learning how to forgive and process difficult experiences resonate with you, you might be interested to learn about some of our mental health, trauma-related and counselling micro-credentials.
In a world where mental health is a critical issue, learning how to enhance mental health and support clients in a trauma-sensitive way can help bring about relief and recovery, which you can learn more about in the following courses:
- Enhancing Mental Health (which includes a dedicated section on forgiveness)
- Trauma-sensitive Mindfulness for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Fundamental Counselling Skills
- Effective Crisis and Trauma Management
Get in touch if you have any questions!