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Forgive and Forget

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

How to Encourage Forgiveness

For example, Luskin encourages the practice of gratitude -- the active effort to acknowledge what's good in your life.

"Gratitude is simply focusing your attention on the positive things that have happened," he says. "That creates a biochemical experience that makes it more likely that forgiveness will occur."

Stress management, whether through meditation, deep breathing, or relaxation exercises, also helps quell the stress of anger and resentment, he says. So does "cognitive reframing," which fosters acceptance of the facts of your situation.

"You may wish you had a better mother or a better lover," Luskin says, "but the world is the way it is."

Finally, Luskin encourages people to change the story they tell themselves so they appear more like survivors who are hopeful about the future rather than victims with a grievance.

"You can change, 'I hate my mother because she didn't love me,' to, 'life is a real challenge for me because I didn't feel loved as a child,'" Luskin said. "That makes forgiveness so much more possible."

Two Types of Forgiveness

Everett L. Worthington Jr., PhD, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Applications, divides forgiveness into two types. Decisional forgiveness involves choosing to let go of angry thoughts about the person you feel has wronged you.

"You can tell yourself, 'I am not going to seek revenge,' for example, or, 'I am going to avoid that person,'" Worthington says. "You could choose decisional forgiveness and still have a lot of emotional unforgiveness."

The ultimate goal, however, is emotional forgiveness, in which negative emotions such as resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear are replaced with love, compassion, sympathy, and empathy.

"Emotional forgiveness is where the health action is," says Worthington. "Emotional unforgiveness causes a chronic stress response, which results in obsessing about the wrong done to you. Rumination is what gets people into trouble. Rumination is the mental health bad boy. It's associated with almost everything bad in the mental health field -- obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression ... probably hives too."

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.

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