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Forgive and forget

It's not always easy, but the benefits of forgiving -- and 'forgetting' -- can be powerful. Some tips.

REACH for Forgiveness

To help people achieve emotional forgiveness, Worthington has devised a 5-step program called REACH, with each letter representing one step.

"First you recall the hurt objectively, without blame and self-victimization," Worthington says. "Then you empathize by trying to imagine the viewpoint of the person who wronged you. The altruistic part involves getting people to think about a time they were forgiven and how that felt. When it's time to commit to forgiveness, people usually say, not yet, but when they finally do, they must then hold on to forgiveness."

All this is not merely theoretical for Worthington. His mother was beaten to death with a crowbar in 1995, and yet, by applying the five steps of REACH, he managed to forgive.

"Within 30 hours I was able to forgive the youths who had committed this horrible crime," he writes in Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

When Not Forgiving Is OK

But some people cannot forgive, and that's OK too, according to Jeanne Safer, PhD, a psychotherapist and the author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving. For some of her patients, recognizing that they don't have to forgive is a huge relief.

"Many don't have to forgive in order to resolve their feelings," Safer says. "They say, 'I can never feel OK about these terrible things, but I'm not going to be vengeful.'"

To help them achieve this resolution, Safer offers a three-step process. The first step involves re-engagement -- a decision to think through what happened. The second step, recognition, means looking at every feeling you may have about the injury. "You ask yourself, 'why do I want revenge?'" Safer said. "Revenge is based on powerlessness and it's doomed to failure."

The final step involves reinterpretation of the injury, including an attempt to understand the person who caused it. "This is where forgivers and nonforgivers divide," Safer said. "Sometimes you're not able to reconnect with the person, but if you go through this process, at least you won't be a victim."

Forgiveness research proliferated after the publication in 1984 of Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve, by Lewis B. Smedes, who claimed that forgiveness produced benefits for the forgiver.

Safer, however, is wary of those who picked up on this idea and started to promote what she calls "promiscuous forgiveness." She considers such an approach "religion masquerading as psychology.

"It's really a Christian notion -- turn the other cheek," she says. "We have to extend forgiveness in order to receive it, since we are all sinners. They've substituted psychology for religion -- instead of going to hell if you don't forgive, you're going to be depressed forever, or get heart disease.

"What's important is working it through and achieving resolution, whether it leads to forgiveness or not. Forgiveness involves wishing the other well. You're already there if you don't wish them ill," Safer says.

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Reviewed on August 25, 2008

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