How to Forgive
by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.
Forgiveness is often discussed in addiction treatment, and in general has been shown to bolster mental health, hope, and self-esteem. People are frequently told that they ‘should’ forgive a loved one, or that they ‘need to’ forgive themselves. Tangible tactics on how to forgive are oft-omitted. This article neglects philosophical pontifications as to what forgiveness is and instead focuses on specific techniques, based on the Enright model of forgiveness, that actually result in the experience of forgiveness.
According to researchers, forgiveness starts with an unflinching look directly into the nature of the offense and the objective and subjective effects caused by it. To forgive, one must identify and work through the layers of pain, shame, guilt, anger, etc., to gain a true understanding of how the offense impacted one’s life. Often, an important aspect of uncovering the impact of the offense also includes an honest look into how not forgiving may negatively impacting one’s life.
After an unflinching look at the nature and impact of the offense, to forgive one must make a decision and commit to forgo well-deserved resentment and/or revenge. Children engage forgiveness with the expectation that they will get something in return. Mature forgiveness does not expect anything in return. Indeed, forgiveness in no way requires reconciliation or anything from another.
Once one decides to forgive, the next step is to gain an understanding of the offender that results in a change of affect towards the offender. Fevered resentment and desire for revenge against the ‘so-called addict’ because he stole the antique Rosary my Grandmother gave me and pawned it for a dime-sack of schwag weed may be dampened when I learn that said ‘addict’ did so because he kept experiencing dreams about the Stepfather who molested him when he was eight and I understand that cannabis is an effective dream suppressant. Understanding softens resentment, and less resentment is conducive to well-being.
After understanding the offender results in different thoughts about and feelings toward the offender, forgiveness comes from action. Actions that result in forgiveness tend to include offerings of mercy, love, and generosity even though such offerings are not deserved. Action is essential to forgiveness. Allowing a loved one to move back in to the family home might be just the act of mercy and generosity that helps her turn things around – but not always! Love and mercy can also involve taking a loved one out for dinner, or offering to help her with the costs of a sober living home, or giving him a hug.
Lastly, forgiveness is finalized when we find meaning in the injustice we suffered. Perhaps forgiving others helps us recognize and take responsibility for our own mistakes. Maybe forgiving someone helps us improve other relationships, or maybe it improves our baseline mood. One of the many beautiful things about forgiveness is that everyone tends to win, and there’s nothing like getting a good win under the belt to motivate and inspire more positive changes in other areas of life.