Finding Forgiveness: How to Practice and Model Forgiveness

Last week we outlined what forgiveness means, why it is important, and how you might prepare to forgive others (find last week’s post here). We noted that forgiveness is a healthy and positive way to let go of carrying the burden of someone’s hurtful actions towards you. But it can also be a difficult and emotional process. In this week’s Parenthetical post we follow up by discussing how to practice forgiveness.

Refresher: What is forgiveness?

  • Forgiveness involves a wrongdoer and someone who has been wronged intentionally (e.g., someone knew that their action would have a negative consequence for another individual and did it anyway)
  • Forgiveness is a conscious choice that takes time and is under the control of the individual who was wronged
  • Forgiveness involves thinking, deciding and acting
  • Forgiveness involves decreasing one’s negative emotions towards a person who committed harm, while also increasing some positive thoughts or actions towards that person
  • Forgiveness involves letting go of revenge and resentment; it is not a perfect process and it is okay to feel these feelings on occasion after one has forgiven
  • Forgiveness does not have to be requested to be granted
  • Forgiveness is NOT reconciliation, condoning, forgetting, or pardoning

Why are the teen years important for learning how to forgive? Teen brains are developed enough to think abstractly about problems, consider multiple perspectives and place value on others’ thoughts and actions. And because teen brains are still growing and teens are still learning, it is a good time to incorporate forgiveness into their repertoire of life skills. Parents can do this by modeling forgiveness processes when they are hurt by their teen (or others). Moreover, many youth today are experiencing a whole range of risk factors that open the door for experiencing deep hurt; this includes experiences such as being wronged by a friend, dealing with divorcing parents, harassment because they are gay or minority, or being bullied online anonymously or by friends. Parents can also directly help youth practice behaviors that promote forgiveness when such hurts occur.

How can someone practice forgiveness? Forgiveness is about more than telling someone what they did was “Okay.” Forgiveness is an important internal process that helps move an individual away from hurt and towards acceptance, self-love, and personal growth. If you or your teen are dealing with a hurt, there are some concrete steps that can help work through the pain. These often take time and lots of reflection, particularly for deep hurts. While the ideas in this post can be broadly applied, it is important to remember that everyone goes through this process in his or her own way, and that forgiveness is a process that must be entered willingly by the individual who was harmed. Additionally, there are certain incidents, mental health issues, or traumas that require professional help. In such instances it is important to seek support from trained professionals.

Here are a few strategies that might aid in the process of working towards forgiveness:

Uncovering the Hurt: Part of working through pain is knowing exactly what you need to work through. First, it is important to outline the situation that is causing you pain. Just the facts, and not the emotional reactions to it. Ask yourself: what exactly happened?

Journal it: Ask questions such as…

“How angry am I about this situation?”

“How much time in a day to I spend thinking about this situation?”

“How has this experience impacted my life?”

“How has the person’s life who hurt me changed since this incident?”

“How has this situation changed my view about the world as a whole?”

Deciding to Forgive: Before you can act on something, you must decide it is the path you want to take. Think through what forgiveness is or isn’t. Ask yourself: Am I ready to forgive?

Journal it: Make a list of pros and cons associated with forgiving the person that hurt you. Only once you think you are truly interested in trying to forgive them should you try to do so. Consider questions such as “How would MY life be different if I forgave this person?”

Shifting your Outlook: An important component to forgiveness is trying to understand the perspective of the wrongdoer. This is not done to agree with their behavior, but rather, separate a hurtful action from the individual themselves. By understanding that others are similarly human and flawed as we are, we can find a source of compassion and understanding. You might consider ways you could show good will towards this person without excusing their behavior. For example, if an individual who hurt you is having family trouble at home, you could choose to pray for them or try to remember once daily a positive experience they’ve had with the individual.

Journal it: Challenge yourself to come up with reasons why the person who hurt you may have acted the way that they did. Make it a story; if you had to rewrite that day over again what did the other person go through? Consider the question of whether it is possible “this person did a bad thing, but is not a bad person?”

Going Beyond: Working through pain can be difficult. If you are working on forgiveness, make sure to create opportunities to reflect on the important work you are doing. What kind of strengths are you using in the process of forgiveness? What are positives that can come from forgiveness? How might your life be lighter or better after you’ve forgiven someone?

Journal it: Think about what you might want to say to the person who hurt you. Make sure you include a description of the hurtful act, use “I” statements to describe how you felt as a result of the hurtful act, your decision to try and forgive, and what forgiving is going to look like for you. You can even role play these scenarios!

Helping our teens learn to forgive prepares them for the ups and downs of life. We all experience moments where we have been wronged, but in order to feel better, to cope with our emotions, and move forward with our lives, we must also learn to forgive. By practicing forgiveness ourselves, and helping identify for others the strategies that we use when dealing with deep hurt is a long-lasting gift that we can pass on to our teens now.

This post summarizes 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. 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.