Stages of Forgiveness

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Forgiveness: easier said than done. When we have been wronged and are stewing in hurt, offering forgiveness might be the very last thing on our mind. But most would agree that forgiveness is essentially a good thing, and not just for offender. Forgiveness allows us to release negative emotions and move on with our lives. At its best, forgiveness can help us repair and redeem relationships.

But what does forgiveness actually look like? What are the actual steps we can take to resolve feelings of resentment and hurt? Perhaps one of the reasons that forgiveness can be so difficult is that we’re given so few instructions on how to do it.

Enter Dr. Robert Enright.

One of the pioneering researchers on forgiveness, Dr. Robert Enright, was also the first to develop a comprehensive model of forgiveness. Enright was working as a development psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the mid-eighties when he started thinking scientifically about forgiveness. As a practicing Christian, Enright was intimately familiar with Jesus’ teachings on mercy and wondered if his patients would benefit from learning how to forgive others. He began incorporating notions of forgiveness into his therapies and found the results promising. Those who underwent therapy that had a focus on forgiveness saw greater improvements than those who didn’t. This held true even for patients who had experienced severe abuse.

After conducting several studies with many different types of patients, Enright came up with his own model of forgiveness, which he eventually wrote about in his book, Forgiveness is a Choice. The model is made up of 20 steps, but it can be summed up in four key phases.

Phase 1. The Uncovering Phase

Thinking about forgiveness first entails thinking about how you have been hurt. How exactly were you wronged and how has it affected your life or relationship? The Uncovering Phase means confronting, rather than avoiding, what has happened and what it is that you are feeling. The goal is to be as objective as possible; one cannot begin to forgive unless they truly understand the events that triggered their hurt.

Phase 2. The Decision Phase

In this phase, one actively decides to begin the process of forgiveness. As Enright stresses, forgiveness must be a free choice that someone arrives at on their own. Sometimes, people choose to forgive because they realize that being angry and resentful simply aren’t helping anymore. Forgiveness becomes a real possibility for positive outcome.    

Phase 3. The Work Phase

In the work phase, one partakes in the actual work of forgiveness. This does not mean excusing an offense or necessarily reconciling with the offender. Rather, it means trying to better understand an offender from a more objective standpoint, to understand the motivations or context that may have contributed towards their wrongdoing. When the injured person does this, they are more liable to see their offender as human rather just a malicious force. This is vital, for recognizing an offender’s humanity is how we offer them compassion and empathy. In this phase, one not only accepts the pain of what has happened, but begins to let go of resentment so as to offer their offender the gift of mercy.

Phase 4. The Deepening Phase

Once one has done the work of forgiving, they may start to see the release of negative emotions and distress. They are able to draw meaning from their suffering and see the personal freedom that comes with forgiveness. And in turn, they may also realize how they too are in need of forgiveness from others.

While the four phases are a mere overview of Enright’s 20 steps, they are helpful for revealing what forgiveness can look like in practice. Seeing forgiveness broken down as a process can offer us a clearer vision of our what our own healing can look like. We see that out of hurt comes hope.

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