9 Steps to Forgiveness

Carrying resentments and holding grudges requires energy. These emotional burdens not only impact our psychological health, but research shows that holding grudges actually exerts a toll on our physical health as well.

So how do we let go of our resentments and grudges? Why do we hold grudges in the first place? And why are they so hard to let go of?  

Research suggests that the key to releasing these old wounds (with the added benefits of fostering happiness and reducing stress), lies in the act of forgiveness.  

We essentially have two choices when it comes to resolving conflict and dealing with our resentment: We can hang on to our anger and seek vengeance, or let it go and seek forgiveness. As humans, we are hardwired for both of these responses. What we choose ultimately depends on what we focus on.

In order to make an informed decision, it’s important to understand what forgiveness is – and what it isn’t.  

Dr. Fred Luskin, author of the best-selling book Forgive for Good, and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, describes forgiveness as essentially making peace with the word “no.” To accept what happened when something doesn’t go the way we wanted (receiving a “no” instead of a “yes”) is to forgive.  

We all have a vision of how we want our lives to be. If those plans don’t materialize (we’re basically told “no, things won’t go as you planned”), we can stay angry and resentful, or we can move toward accepting the change and making peace with it. Releasing the grudge (forgiving) by accepting what happened allows us to move forward and give the next moment a chance to be “yes.”

It is crucial, however, to understand what forgiveness is not! It does not require us to condone the actions or behavior of another person, nor does it mean relinquishing them from responsibility. To release a grudge and forgive also does not require forgetting what happened, agreeing with it, or even necessarily reconciling with the other person.

Making peace – the essence of forgiveness – is something we do for ourselves and our own wellbeing. It is a way of being resilient when things don’t go as planned. We accept what happened, and move on.

Luskin also points out that if we’re really at peace with “no,” we can lead our lives without prejudice, meaning we are no longer influenced by the event.

When examining the benefits of forgiveness in relationships, studies have found that partners who forgave each other were happier (even nine weeks later) than couples who remained resentful and held grudges against each other.

A great quote from the renowned Nelson Mandela sums up this paradox perfectly: “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemy.”  

Those who hold grudges are burdened physically and psychologically by the poison left inside them.

Dr. Luskin, in his work with the Forgiveness Project, created nine steps to help us reach a state of forgiveness in our lives, which I’ve outlined below:

  1. Pinpoint how you feel about what happened and what you didn’t like about the incident. Then share the experience with people you trust. “Getting it out/talking it out” is the first step in releasing the negativity you’re holding inside.

  2. Make the decision to feel better – just for yourself, not anyone else.

  3. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to like the offending person or event, but that you are releasing the offense and its power over you, and seeking peace.

  4. Recognize that what hurts most is how you’re actually feeling right now – not the atrocities of an injustice that occurred five years, or even five minutes ago.

  5. Learn and practice stress management techniques to better control impulse reactions to behaviors or actions that affect you negatively.

  6. Give up expecting everything to go as you plan. Much of what happens in life is out of our personal control. You will needlessly suffer if you refuse to accept that fact.

  7. Focus on new and positive ways to meet goals, rather than the previous disappointing experience. Consider it a valuable life lesson. Learn from it and move on.

  8. Look for and appreciate the many blessings in your life, instead of focusing on pain and suffering. Living well is the best revenge over negativity!

  9. Don’t hesitate to pat yourself on the back for having “taken the high road” in less than ideal experiences. Reminding ourselves of how we appropriately overcame adversity brightens the darkness of the memories we carry.

In Dr. Luskin’s forgiveness studies, participants had the benefit of a therapist to help guide them through these nine steps.  

Go ahead and try to work through them yourself. However, do not hesitate to seek professional support if you find yourself struggling with one of the above steps, or have difficulty learning to forgive on your own. Making peace with “no” can be a very challenging process, but it can make a very positive impact on your overall wellbeing.

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