Dr. Everett Worthington is a Professor of Psychology and expert on forgiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University. He earned his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has written more than 25 books and over 250 articles and chapters on topics related to forgiveness, marriage, and other family topics. In 2009 he won Virginia Commonwealth University’s Award for Excellence in recognition of his teaching, research, and service. You can learn more about Dr. Worthington at www.psychology.vcu.edu/people/worthington.shtml.
1. How do you define forgiveness?
There are two types of forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is a statement about one’s intentions about future behavior–intending to NOT seek revenge and TO treat the person as a person of value. (One can make a decision to forgive, and yet one might still harbor negative emotions toward the offender. Emotional forgivenessis the emotional replacement of negative unforgiving emotions (e.g., resentment, hostility, anger, and fear) by positive other-oriented emotions (e.g., empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love). The replacement can be fast and powerful (in a strong, moving emotional forgiveness) or herky-jerky and occurring in small increments. People say they have completely emotionally forgiven strangers and people they don’t want to stay in contact with if they have replaced all negative emotions and got back to feeling nothing toward the person. If the offender, however, is someone they value and want to continue a good relationship with, they must eliminate the negative and build a net positive emotion back toward the person. Importantly, forgiveness happens inside a person (decisions in the head; emotions throughout the body, including the brain).
2. What do you believe are the most important elements of the forgiveness process?
The most important part of forgiving is, once a decision to forgive is made, experiencing some positive emotions toward the person (e.g., empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love).
3. What suggestions do you have for people who are trying to forgive someone?
Forgiveness usually takes time. Don’t think you can do it instantly. You can make an instant decision to forgive, but emotions change over time and are often two steps forward, one backward. I have created free leader manuals and free participant manuals that lay people can use to lead or participate in forgiveness groups. There are explicitly Christian manuals and there are secular manuals that don’t mention religion. We have done research that shown that either type works and helps people forgive. Get them at www.people.vcu.edu/~eworth/. If someone wants to lead a Christian-oriented group, I also have a 2-hour training DVD that I will provide free (although I ask for $4 for postage and handling that goes to my academic department to cover its costs). The training DVD shows me leading a Christian group for trainers. I intend to make a secular training DVD this summer, and it ought to be available some time in the fall. I teach people to REACH Forgiveness. R=Recall the hurt without grudge or feeling victimized. E=Emotional replacement, usually by empathy or compassion toward the person who hurt you. A=give an Altruistic (for the good of the other person) gift of forgiveness. C=Commit to the forgiveness your experience. H=Hold on to the forgiveness if you doubt you’ve forgiven. I explain these in the Christian book Forgiving and Reconciling (InterVarsity Press) or the secular book (Five Steps to Forgiveness).
4. What do you think is the most common misconception about forgiveness?
(a) People confuse forgiving (which occurs inside a person’s skin) to telling someone you forgive. A person can say, “I forgive you,” and be lying or setting you up to take advantage, or be insincere, etc. Or a person can forgive you, but find that if he or she does NOT tell you, you can be manipulated. (b) People confuse forgiving with reconciling. I can forgive without having to go back into a relationship with someone. For example, a woman could forgive someone who physically abused her, but she does not have to return to live with him. Forgiveness happens inside people’s skin, but reconciliation requires the offender to be trustworthy and is about restoring a relationship. That obviously takes two people (whereas one person forgives or doesn’t.) (c) Forgiveness is not opposed to justice. Forgiveness happens inside a person, so I could forgive someone who murdered my mother. Justice happens socially and societally. So, even though I forgave the murderer, I can still hope to see him caught and go to trial for the murder. Therefore, forgiveness (internal) and societal justice do not contradict each other because they are in opposite spheres–internal versus societal. A slightly different thing happens within my internal experience. Internally, my SENSE of injustice if I’m wronged might be high. The higher it is, the harder it is for me to forgive. If something brings justice into the situation (such as my offender apologizes), it lowers my sense of injustice and thus makes it easier to forgive. Thus, internally, justice and forgiveness work in tandem.
5. If there was one thing you would like people to understand about forgiveness, what would it be?
I’d like people to know that there are documented physical benefits, mental health benefits, relationship benefits, and sometimes spiritual benefits to forgiving.