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Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP


Forgiveness: 4 Helpful Strategies To Do It Better

It is easy to say that we should forgive more but hard to do—very hard to do!

It is so easy to say that we should be more forgiving of others (and perhaps ourselves) but it is hard to do— very had to do! In my blog post from last week I outlined 7 principles to keep in mind when it comes to forgiveness. I’d like to now offer 4 helpful strategies to actually do it… or at least do it better.

1. Constantly remind yourself that we are all terribly flawed

No one is perfect and no one is even close to perfection. For example, even Pope Francis recently admitted that he is a sinner and used it as the very first adjective to describe himself in an interview published in America magazine. We are all hopelessly flawed. Too often we expect perfection or at least really good behavior from those around us who matter the most such as our parents, siblings, and closest friends and family and yet they often disappoint us. Sometimes they are even intentionally harmful and abusive. When we remember that everyone is terribly flawed we can often find it a bit easier to forgive them for their various transgressions. We don't need to excuse them but we can forgive them.

One of my patients in my clinical practice this past week had a great deal of trouble forgiving his abusive father when he was growing up years ago. He reported that his father was highly critical, very irritable, and often physically and verbally abusive to him as well as to his other family members. He offered a very sad and disturbing story. Yet, upon reflection, he came to understand that his father was also highly stressed by his work life and his own family of origin problems. While it doesn’t excuse his abusive behavior my patient came to forgive his father more when he better understood the context of his life and accepted that he was struggling with many internal and external demons. Looking at his father through thoughtful adults eyes rather than through the lens of a child growing up was transformative for him.

2. See the divine spark in all

Just about all of the religious and spiritual traditions talk about everyone having some divine spark or that everyone is sacred in some way. Regardless of your religious and spiritual views or affiliations (or lack of them) if you can try very hard to see the sacred or divine spark in all (even in those you really don’t like) it becomes easier to forgive them. This is true for self forgiveness too. If you can see or find the divine spark within yourself self forgiveness becomes easier too.

3. Practice mindfulness

Certainly mindfulness is all the rage in recent years and has become even trendy. Yet, regardless of your religious or spiritual persuasions, practicing and cultivating mindfulness can be helpful in terms of practicing forgiveness. It helps us to let go and not attach too much to our troubles and to what others did or didn’t do to harm us. A mindful approach to life helps us to let go of the anger, bitterness, and stress that often comes with conflicts in relationships. So, if you can practice mindfulness you'll be better at forgiveness of self and others as well.

4. Focus on coping rather than curing

Many people somehow believe that they have to fix others or themselves in order to forgive. So often they believe that their forgiveness problem needs a particular solution. It is more helpful to focus on coping with the challenges of forgiveness than trying to cure or fix anything. Coping can occur at multiple levels including biological, psychological, social, and spiritual. For example, exercise is an excellent biological coping mechanism while reframing negative thought patterns into positive ones (e.g., "the glass as half full rather than half empty") can be an excellent psychological coping strategy. Getting social support from others of like mind is a good social coping strategy while prayer, meditation, religious/spiritual practice, and spiritual direction can be helpful spiritual coping techniques.

One of my patients this week in my practice has troubles forgiving her daughter-in-law. But after a long walk, talking it over with her husband and her therapist (i.e., me), and listing some of the things that she likes about her daughter-in-law she feels better—not perfect, but better. She may not be able to completely forgive but can get closer to it.

Forgiveness is never easy but good progress can be made by following these four helpful tips. Using a football example, think of it as a running rather than a passing make progress a few yards at a time and very rarely does one Hail Mary pass help you win!

So what do you think?

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Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP