- Forgiveness benefits the forgiver, reducing the persistent anger that comes along with being harmed.
- Forgiveness involves uncovering our own painful feelings and working to offer compassion to the person who harmed us.
- This routine practice offers six steps to practicing the forgiveness process in response to minor harms, to strengthen your ability to forgive.
The person working to forgive benefits through the forgiving process, which eases the psychological pain of resentment—for it hurts to be harmed, and hurts even more to live with both that hurt and the resulting ongoing anger.
Yet it is a mentally and emotionally challenging feat to forgive—an act of strength. When we forgive, we can still hold a wrongdoer accountable, and we don’t excuse or “forget” their actions. We move beyond being haunted by the resentment of a person who wronged us, bringing ourselves to a state of greater peace, through a process that Dr. Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin and colleagues have articulated over decades of research. Briefly, people forgive by first uncovering their feelings of anger in the wake of harm, choosing to forgive, working to extend compassion to the wrongdoer, and reflecting on their experience.
In a paper published in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice, I adapted these stages into a brief forgiveness practice, an exercise that you can do routinely to gain deeper experience with the process of forgiving—a means of strengthening your forgiveness muscles by forgiving minor transgressions of daily life so you are prepared for when greater injustices come your way.
A Routine Forgiveness Practice
Step 1: Identify a Minor Injustice and Discern if Forgiveness is Appropriate
Begin by identifying a recent minor harm or injustice to practice forgiving. This should be a time when you felt harmed and resentful to only a small extent, not a traumatic event.
Then consider if this is a situation that can be forgiven. Forgiveness is appropriate if you do not seek to excuse the other person for their behavior, condone their behavior, or to gain a sense of moral superiority over this person. Forgiveness is appropriate if you genuinely want to try to forgive and don’t feel like you are under an obligation to do so, nor are you putting conditions on your forgiveness, such as the wrongdoer apologizing first. If all of this checks out, then move ahead.
Step 2: Notice Your Feelings and Offer Compassion to Yourself
Step two works to uncover your feelings of anger or resentment in response to the harm, and to cultivate a gentleness with yourself such that you can experience those feelings and identify them.
In this practice you have chosen a minor transgression so the emotional pain should not be overwhelming—this makes it a manageable scenario for practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion involves drawing mindful attention to the feelings and thoughts that come when you consider the harmful event, allowing your feelings to be however they are, and offering yourself care around those feelings in the same way you would a friend.
Step 3: Decide to Forgive
Now that you have uncovered your felt experience, can you make the decision to forgive the one who harmed you?
If you are not able or ready to forgive you don’t have to continue with the practice but you can check in with yourself and see if you can at least decide to refrain from doing any harm to the person who harmed you—then move on to Step 6.
I suggest to my students when I teach them this practice that if they are struggling with the question of whether or not to forgive, they likely have chosen a transgression that is too intense for this exercise.
Step 4: Broaden Your Perspective of the Wrongdoer
There is usually more to the story of our injury than we are considering in the hyper-focused state of resentment. In this step, one considers the factors besides devious intentions that might have contributed to the wrongdoer behaving as they did. For example, were there external pressures on them that motivated their behavior in that context?
Broadening also involves attempting to consider the other person’s behavior without judgment. I suggest cultivating non-judgment by considering when you too have acted in the same way this other person did—a way to put yourself in their shoes.
Step 5: Use Loving-Kindness Meditation to Cultivate Compassion
One of the most difficult parts of forgiveness is working to hold your own painful experience while simultaneously seeing if you can extend compassion toward the person who harmed you. A loving-kindness meditation can be used to help with this. In this meditation, you extend sentiments of care first toward yourself—like you did in the self-compassion exercise—but then follow this up with sentiments of care offered toward the wrongdoer.
For a loving-kindness practice I like to use phrases suggested by Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg. First you direct care towards yourself: “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healed,” repeating these phrases and noticing the feelings and thoughts that arise in response. Then you can direct benevolent phrases outward to the person who caused harm: “May you be safe, may you be happy, may you experience health.”
Notice what feelings arise—perhaps you have felt a reduction in anger, and a burgeoning sense of compassion.
If sincere compassion doesn’t arise toward the person who harmed you, that’s okay—the purpose is just practicing the intention to cultivate benevolence and care, and seeing what happens.
Step 6: Reflecting on the Process
Finally, we can make coherent sense of our experience of the forgiveness process through reflection. What was difficult in this practice? What came easily? What was it like to extend compassion to both yourself and the wrongdoer? Did your feelings of resentment change or stay the same in the process?
Journaling is a great exercise for putting our thoughts and feelings about the practice in order, as is discussing your experience with a therapist or friend.
Smallen, D. (2019). Practicing forgiveness: A framework for a routine forgiveness practice. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 6(4), 219.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2,85–101.
Salzberg, S. (1997). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambala.