Forgiveness Firsts: How to Prepare for Forgiveness

This week’s Parenthetical post is one of two in a Parenthetical forgiveness series summarizing many of the concepts presented by Dr. Bob Enright of the International Forgiveness Institute during his Forgiveness Seminar at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. It offers suggestions for the importance and practicality of forgiveness for adults and teens.

You bump into someone at the store, you say you’re sorry; you are 5 minutes late to a meeting, you apologize; you forget your friend’s birthday, you blame Facebook for not sending you a reminder – we are constantly experiencing situations where our feelings or the feelings of others may be at risk. Many of these things are mindless errors; indeed, stepping on someone’s foot in a crowded room is hardly the same thing as robbing a family business or driving drunk and causing a deadly accident. While it may be easy to passively forgive someone for a mere oversight, there are other experiences that hurt more, dig a little deeper, and require a bit more effort to really work through.  Although many adults struggle with letting go of negative emotions and experiences, the teen years are a particularly relevant time during which parents can both practice their own ability to forgive (because let’s be honest, your teen, at some point, will probably hurt your feelings), as well as model the process of forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? Across time, forgiveness has been considered a universal virtue — one that is inherently good (in act and implication) for both oneself and others. By its very nature, forgiveness is interpersonal, it happens between and among people. It is a positive act that can release someone who has been wronged from feelings of pain and hurt. This is achieved through reflection of the wrongdoing, an increased awareness of one’s self-worth, and positive thoughts or actions towards the wrongdoer. Forgiveness does not require reconciliation with the wrongdoer or forgetting or condoning the wrong behavior. In fact, forgiveness is increasingly considered to be a process that allows someone to create ownership over their own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

Why forgive? Research on forgiveness therapy finds that forgiveness can reduce the negative emotional toll of holding on to hurtful experiences. Forgiveness is linked to lower reports of depression, anxiety and anger, greater self-esteem, improved academic achievement, and happier and healthier relationships with others and the self.

Getting Ready to forgive: Since forgiveness is a very personal and often times emotional process, it is important to build a strong foundation from which to practice forgiveness. It’s never too early to start laying the groundwork for forgiveness. Doing so means having ways you are comfortable processing emotions, understanding your self-worth, and being familiar with coping and forgiveness strategies.

Some concrete steps you can take include:

Explore the art of writing and reflection: Feeling hurt and practicing forgiveness is usually an emotional process. One of the best ways to work through these feelings is to have an outlet for thinking about and processing the things you are feeling. Become comfortable with expressing yourself in a way that works well for you.

Give the gift of expression: Do you like to write? Are you artistic? Does music speak to you or would you rather sit quietly and meditate? Figure out the most comfortable way for you to express yourself and make sure you have the tools to do so.

In action: Keeping a journal is an easy and personal way to have an outlet in times of need. Taking time to pick out a journal you like can be a good self-care trick too.

Focus on self-worth: Forgiveness starts with YOU. Realizing that you need to forgive someone suggests that you have been wronged; however, for someone to be able to wrong you requires a belief that you are worthy of better treatment. For example, maybe your teen decided to throw a party while you were away and trashed your house. Understandably, you’re mad. You are likely mad because you feel like your trust and home were disrespected, but these feelings inherently suggest that you believe that your rules and home deserve Before an individual can recognize why a wrong is wrong, they must understand their own worth as a human being. Understanding that a wrongdoing was unjust because you deserve better is an important component to the foundation of forgiveness.

Practice self-exploration: It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes us worthy. Take the VIA Character strengths quiz and reflect on the results. What kind of strengths do you possess? Can you remember times you’ve used these strengths? In what situations do your strengths really shine?

In action: Reflect on the expectations you have for other people. How do you expect your partner, children, siblings, friends, or employees to treat you? How do you want to treat others? Think of examples.

Make the language of forgiveness commonplace: Before one can practice forgiveness it’s important to know what exactly it means to forgive another person, and situations where you feel forgiveness is necessary.

Use situationsThink through personal problems or crises you’ve experienced. Did they call for forgiveness? How did you respond? How could you have responded differently? You can even use example stories too. Imagine someone whose dog got run over by a car. Did the driver do something wrong? Should the dog owner try to forgive the individual? Add factors to complicate the issue as well such as asking: what if the driver was texting and driving?

In action: Make lists. Write out a list of 10 things that commonly happen between people that warrant forgiveness and 10 things you would not forgive someone for. Challenge yourself to come up with things that might help you consider forgiving someone for the “unforgivable actions” you listed.

Discuss different coping strategies: Knowing what you’re feeling is an important precursor to knowing how to appropriately address those feelings.

Talk FeelingsCan you identify the feelings that you are having when you have them? Take opportunities to identify specific feelings using labels in your daily life. If you feel frustrated, acknowledge it. If your teen is happy, share in their happiness but make sure to point out that they appear happy. Knowing how to distinguish different emotions can help lead to appropriate coping strategies for you and your teen.

In action: Write down your common feelings and the impact they have on your physical and mental well-being. How do you react to feelings of sadness, pain, frustration, or happiness? Do these strategies cause more harm than good? If punching a wall is your response to feeling angry, consider whether there are positive or negative long-term outcomes to that choice.

Forgiveness is a way to take back control of your feelings and well-being. Forgiveness can help you let go of pain and hurt, but it begins by recognizing your feelings and worth, and is fueled by actions that help you process and reflect. For strategies on practicing forgiveness, check back next week for our second post in this series.

More information on forgiveness and forgiveness therapy can be found here.

Article by Dayana Kupisk

dkupDayana is a graduate student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dayana previously worked as a life skills coordinator at a residential living program for teens and young adults. She has one older brother, and, for the first time in her life, is living in a different state from her parents.