Forgiveness! Now that is a superpower. It is a chance to reclaim control of your emotions, your thoughts and your behaviour.
There is a strength OF forgiveness as identified by the VIA Character Strengths and I would like to explore that as well as the strength IN forgiveness. By examining these two aspects together, I believe that we can gain a greater understanding of both the components of forgiveness and the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness as a character strength
The VIA Character strengths explain forgiveness as the ‘means to extend understanding towards those who have wronged or hurt us. It means to let go. In many cases, this is the letting go of some or all of the frustration, disappointment, resentment, or other painful feelings associated with an offence.’ VIA classify forgiveness as a strength that comes under the virtue of temperance, which is the ability to manage habits and protect against excess.
This makes me wonder about which habits we are managing in forgiveness, and which excesses we are protecting against? Is one of them rumination? When someone has harmed us we may ruminate and replay the hurt that we are experiencing. This can become a self-destructive habit. We may also wish for retaliation. Both of these responses take a great deal of cognitive and emotional energy, they harm us more than the person who has harmed us. Therefore there is a strength in forgiveness, it is a strength that benefits us and those we care about. As we are taking control of our response to the hurt, we are more present and available for those around us.
Who benefits from forgiveness?
Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007) backs this up as argues that forgiveness is for yourself and not for the person who wronged you. She argues that this is because forgiveness is correlated with many positive states such as happiness, improved health and empathy. This is a strong argument to develop the skill of forgiveness.
Developing the skill of forgiveness
So how do we develop the skill of forgiveness? One way is to use the REACH model as proposed by Professor Everett Worthington. REACH stands for:
Recall the hurt.
Do not deny that you have been hurt, acknowledge it. Then from this basis decide to forgive. Take control of the situation.
Empathize with your partner.
Empathy is the vicarious understanding of another person’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour, it is showing concern and consideration of another’s perspective. This increased understanding may lead to increased compassion and sympathy for the person who has harmed you.
Altruism is the selfless concern for others, doing something for them that may even be at a cost to ourselves. Everett Worthington proposes that forgiveness is an altruistic act.
We may have a fleeting impulse to forgive then not act on it so Everett Worthington suggests that we write a note to ourselves saying who we forgave and when.
Hold onto forgiveness.
The notes we wrote serve as reminders in case we doubt that we actually forgave the person. By re-reading our notes we can return to the place of strength where we forgave.
Forgiveness is very powerful, it has the power to free us from the chains of hurt. However, we must be prudent when forgiving. Ivtzan et al (2016) state that forgiveness can be harmful if a person tolerates a destructive situation as it may lead to ongoing abuse. This means that we have to keep in mind what forgiveness is not. It is not condoning the person who hurt you, or excusing them, they are not absolved of responsibility for their actions. However, we have the power to respond to hurt in a way that is constructive. By forgiving we take control of the situation and reclaim our lives.
Mindful, considered forgiving, is a skill that we can develop and share with others.
Let me know how you get on.
Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Worth, P. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Embracing the dark side of life. London & New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Lyubomirsky, S., (2007). The How of Happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. London: Penguin.
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