Resilience and Forgiveness
An interview with Dr. Everett Worthington on this important connection.
Posted January 8, 2019
My new book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience, will be released next week. This month, I’ll be running a series of interviews with expert psychologists on how resilience connects to their area of study.
First up in the series is the world’s leading forgiveness researcher Dr. Everett Worthington, Commonwealth Professor Emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University. Since his retirement in 2017, he has served as Visiting Scholar at Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia, 2017), Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the School of Psychology, Counseling, and Family Therapy at Wheaton College (IL; 2018-9), and scheduled for University of Auckland (NZ, Feb. 2019). His research and writing focus on forgiveness, and his mission is to “do all I can to promote forgiveness in every willing heart, home, and homeland.” He is the author or editor of numerous books including The Power of Forgiving and Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past.
JA: How do you personally define forgiveness?
EV: There are two separate types of forgiveness. The first type, decisional forgiveness, is a decision to treat the other person as a valued and valuable person. People can make a sincere decision to treat the other person differently and still feel bitter, resentful, hostile, full of hate, angry, or fearful at being hurt again. This is emotional unforgiveness, which suggests that there is a second type of forgiveness—emotional forgiveness. This is the gradual replacement of those unforgiving emotions until one has eliminated all the negative through empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love. If the person who hurt us is a stranger (i.e., someone who robbed us) or someone we don't want to continue to interact with (e.g., an ex-spouse who moved to Alaska), getting rid of negative emotions is considered complete emotional forgiveness. When the other is a valued and valuable other (e.g., a partner, friend, or family member), we usually keep adding positive emotions until we reach a net positive emotion toward them.
JA: How can practicing forgiveness help us live more resiliently?
EV: Forgiveness is often difficult, and when we are tested and rise to the challenge, it strengthens us. That strengthening helps us bounce back in the wake of disasters and traumas. Forgiveness can help us become more resilient.
JA: What are some ways we can cultivate forgiveness when facing hardships?
EV: We can will ourselves to make a decision to act differently toward the offender. Often this decision is motivated by religion or simply wanting to do something that contributes to peace between the offender and us. But emotional forgiveness is usually more difficult. It is all about spending time trying to empathize, sympathize, experience compassion toward, or even love the person who harmed us. We don't necessarily want to do that, especially soon after we've been hurt. But we can do several things to move toward this. We can read a book about forgiving with our offender specifically in mind, watch a movie with a forgiveness theme (think Les Misérables) with the offender in mind, work through an evidence-based do-it-yourself REACH Forgiveness workbook (which you can download without cost at www.evworthington-forgiveness.com), participate in a group, or—if you are religious—pray for the well-being of the person who hurt you. All of these have some evidence supporting their effectiveness.
JA: Any advice on how we might support a friend or loved struggling with forgiveness?
EV: Remember that forgiveness is a choice the friend may or may not make. Don't try to persuade or force the person to forgive, even if you think it is for the friend's own good. (And lots of research supports that forgiving has physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual benefits, so forgiving usually is good for us.) It might be particularly helpful to tell personal stories of times you've struggled, or are still struggling, to forgive. Try not to fall into the trap of being too positive about forgiving. Also, remember that there are many other ways, besides forgiving, to deal with injustices. These include accepting, forbearing, seeing justice done, and turning the matter over to God (or whatever the person holds to be sacred). Finally, while a decision to forgive can have some immediate positive outcomes, especially if we act differently in relationships, emotional forgiveness takes time. So be a friend to the person and stick by him or her during the struggles.
JA: Can you share what you’re working on these days related to forgiveness?
EV: The evidence-based REACH Forgiveness program is being investigated worldwide—in Colombia, Ukraine, Ghana, South Africa, Hong Kong, People's Republic of China, Indonesia, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere, as well as in the U.S. We are hoping to land a grant to support that research. Also, I have been studying forgiveness as a public health issue, so we have worked to change entire college campuses, churches, and communities. Dr. Nathaniel Wade, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, and I are completing an edited Handbook of Forgiveness, 2nd ed., which should bring together 32 research teams to provide an authoritative story of the status of forgiveness research and practice worldwide today. Finally, I'm working on a professional book on forgiving ourselves, which will complement my 2013 book Moving Forward (for general audiences).
JA: How did you first get interested in studying forgiveness?
EV: I used to have an active practice in couple therapy, and it amazed me that almost every couple therapy case eventually boiled down to partners forgiving each other for past harms. I designed a brief decision-based intervention (published in Psychotherapy in 1990) that later developed into an additional emotional forgiveness intervention (REACH Forgiveness). That understanding was put to a test when my mother was brutally murdered in 1996 and I forgave the young man who did it. Then when my brother committed suicide in 2005, I applied the same model to self-forgiveness, which also has been one of my recent foci.
JA: Anything else you care to share?
EV: I have been continually amazed at the dedication of forgiveness researchers, practitioners, advocates, and peace-workers as well as the dedicated people in the clergy, theologies, and philosophies who unselfishly seek to contribute to a more peaceful world through helping people see the benefits of forgiving themselves and others. I am glad to join that large, dedicated team.