Relationships are hard! Sometimes, it’s all we can do to bring ourselves to face the people in our lives that make us angry. Let’s face it, we really like stories and songs that tell how a person got even with the “jerk” that treated them wrong. The problem with these stories and songs is that revenge doesn’t resolve anything. It doesn’t make us feel as good as we thought it would. It really means that we are just as capable of being the “jerk” as anyone else is. What we really need to feel good about ourselves and free us from the anger is to forgive. Okay, I know the “jerk” doesn’t deserve it. I’m going to help you with you, not them. The first place we will begin is to define forgiveness.
Forgiveness is NOT reconciliation, tolerating, forgetting, condoning, or excusing (Rainey, Readdick, & Thyer, 2012). We make it clear that the transgressor’s behavior was never appropriate. Forgiveness IS an act freely chosen by the forgiver. “The willful giving up of resentment in the face of another’s (or others’) considerable injustice and responding with beneficence to the offender even though that offender has no right to the forgiver’s moral goodness” (Baskin & Enright, 2004). It is the undoing of the chains that tie us to the past injustice(s) and free us to live more fully in the present. It is a gift we give ourselves. So, how do we help our clients forgive?
Dr. Everett L. Worthington, Jr, a Professor and Director of Counseling Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a leading researcher on the subject of forgiveness. His REACH Forgiveness intervention has 22 outcomes studies from many labs supporting its efficacy (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013). It is a comprehensive intervention that we can employ as clinicians. Dr. Worthington, Jr. has published many articles in peer-reviewed journals as well as several books, including “Steps to REACH Forgiveness and to Reconcile” (2008). REACH is an acronym for the following elements of the intervention:
· Recall the hurt. This is a very painful task for many clients, but with the help of a compassionate and skilled therapist, they can be led to recall the hurt objectively.
· Emotion replacement. While there are many ideas in the books to help you walk a client through this difficult and resisted step, the empty-chair technique works well in session.
· Altruistic gift of forgiveness. We can have our client recall a time when they were the offender and they were forgiven.
· Commit publicly to forgive. The client can write a letter of forgiveness, even if they don’t mail it. They could also tell a trusted friend. This solidifies, in their own mind, their decision to forgive.
· Hold on to forgiveness. This crucial step can be accomplished in these ways:
o Realize the lingering pain of the incident is not unforgiveness.
o Don’t allow yourself to dwell on negative emotions.
o Remind yourself you forgave that person.
o Seek reassurance from someone you trust.
o If you documented the forgiveness, look at it each time you need to as a reminder.
o Think through the steps of REACH again. You’ll either gain reassurance, or do more work towards fully forgiving.
Of course this is a simplified version of REACH. To gain a more thorough understanding of REACH I encourage you to read the book referenced above or the journal articles listed on Dr. Worthington’s website.
Baskin, T. W. & Enright, R. D., (2004). Intervention Studies on Forgiveness: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Counseling & Development, 82(1), 79-90.
Rainey, C. A., Readdick, C. A., & Thyer, B. A., (2012). Forgiveness-Based Group Therapy: A Meta-Analysis of Outcome Studies Published from 1993-2006. Best Practices in Mental Health: An International Journal, 8(1), 29-51.
Virginia Commonwealth University (2013). Dr. Everett L. Worthington, Jr. Retrieved from http://www.psychology.vcu.edu/people/worthington.shtml.
Worthington, Jr., E. (2008). Steps to REACH Forgiveness and to Reconcile. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.