Illustration by Briana Hertzog
Children learn how to forgive and be forgiven the hard way — skinned knees and playground scuffles necessitate that they learn quickly. Forgiveness becomes increasingly complex, and increasingly important, as we age. Everyone will be wronged at some point; moreover, everyone will commit wrongs against others.
What should we do when this happens? How do we forgive ourselves?
According to several Richmond psychologists and counselors, these are questions of great importance. The answers affect our relationships and our physical health.
“What we know about stress is that it has its way over time. Even at a cellular level, stress deregulates the body’s systems,” says Everett Worthington, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The key is that [self-forgiveness] is a stress and coping process.”
Worthington is author of numerous books and academic papers on forgiveness, reconciliation and related topics. What began as an area of research interest quickly became personal for him: His mother’s murder in 1996 prompted him to think about forgiveness and other virtues in new ways; his brother’s suicide in 2005 led him to process some big questions regarding self-forgiveness.
Worthington worked through feelings of guilt and shame after his brother’s death, feelings that were especially focused on an argument they’d had not too long before. Worthington attempted to forgive himself by resolving to continue his research on forgiveness — a resolution that he says felt empty and cheap. Turning to his Christian faith didn’t completely resolve that tension:
“Although I feel that God forgives our sins, if we ask for that, that is not sufficient either. I needed to respond to that forgiveness — to make things right as far as I was able.”
Worthington was eventually able to come to terms with his feelings of guilt and shame by “paying it forward.” He cared for his brother’s widow in some practical ways, like helping to get the estate in order.
Paying forward a debt in such a direct way is not always possible, particularly if the person we owe is deceased or inaccessible. Worthington says that striving to make things right even in an indirect sense can create a path toward self-forgiveness.
Stress and the body
When we wrong other people, particularly those with whom we are in close and continual relationship, it causes stress. That negatively affects our bodies, the cardiovascular and immune systems, in particular. Heart rates quicken and veins and arteries become rigid. Our bodies produce more cortisol — a natural hormone that, in unhealthy levels, impairs our immune responses. According to Worthington, this process becomes dangerous when we are under chronic stress. “Every system in the body is attacked by high levels of cortisol.”
These reactions to stress don’t typically cause immediate danger, but chip away at long-term health, according to Brandon Griffin, a doctoral student at VCU who works with combat veterans and has researched with Worthington.
“The build-up [of stress] over time is the real threat,” says Griffin. “The same thing that cows do with their grass, we can do with our negative thoughts. Chew a little, digest; chew a little, digest. We ruminate on them.”
This rumination is a red flag for poor mental health, and often points the way to a cocktail of emotional maladies: inhibited problem solving, social isolation and chronic negative emotion.
Chances are good that you are familiar with this phenomenon. “Rumination is like the common cold of mental health,” Griffin says. “It is not good, it is not healthy, but it happens to everyone.” Prolonged, intense rumination is also a hallmark of psychological problems including depression, addiction, and even suicide.
Guilt and shame lie at the heart of most patterns of rumination. The two are frequently spoken of together, but are quite different to counselors. Alec Kean, a licensed professional counselor with the Center for Christian Counseling in Richmond, separates them like this: “Guilt, or conviction, the term I prefer, says, ‘I have done a bad thing.’ Shame says, ‘I am a bad thing; I am wrong, uniquely.’ ”
There can be an upside to guilt, though: It can be a powerful motivation for attempting to repair a relationship, according to Andrea Weisman, a psychologist with Commonwealth Counseling Associates. Also, people who feel guilty may express more empathy, she says.
As for self-forgiveness, it combats rumination by helping you to resolve feelings of both guilt and shame. When we forgive ourselves, we don’t forget an offense. Instead, we resolve feelings of guilt and shame by accepting responsibility for our actions, apologizing and learning from our mistakes. Ultimately, forgiving helps us to react differently to reminders of an offense and opens the possibility of restoring a wounded relationship — both with others and with ourselves.
Forgiveness is a progressive act. Griffin compares it to going to the gym. “You don’t pick up the heaviest weight on the rack your first time lifting. You have to build up to it, you have to train yourself to do it.”
Forgiveness and Faith
The sacred is a large factor in Worthington’s work, and plays a large role in the ways that people go about forgiving themselves.
“Almost everyone holds something to be sacred, whether it is humanity, nature or the cosmos,” Worthington says.
It is to these sources of meaning, whether inside or outside of a religious faith, that people turn in order to self-forgive. The things that people fundamentally believe about the universe drastically shape how they seek forgiveness — whether that is through prayer, confession, meditation or service.
For the Rev. Corey Widmer, pastor of Third Church in Richmond, self-forgiveness is an extension of divine forgiveness. “Because God has forgiven me, I’m able to release myself from shame.”
But Widmer will be the first to point out the gap between theory and practice. “Shame is an enormous problem in the Christian community, and at the root of it is a sort of unwillingness to forgive yourself — to see and know that you have been forgiven completely.”
Widmer says that the power of divine forgiveness lies in its external nature. “God issues this external verdict that we are forgiven. We don’t only rely on an internal voice.”
Both within the Christian tradition and outside of it, the practice of confession allows people to experience an external human voice. Widmer explains that both the beauty and the difficulty of the practice are inextricably linked. “Vulnerability is the thing that we most fear. We don’t want to be exposed, but we need it desperately in order to heal. We all need to hear the word of grace from another human being.”
Forgiveness does not exist in a vacuum. It is one virtue of many that occur in what Griffin refers to as a “constellation of character”. Worthington describes these virtues as a hierarchy that exists in individuals — some people express more courage, some more forgiveness and others, more wisdom. He says that there are traces of many virtues in everyone, and that situations can call them out as needed. Virtues also can be cultivated.
“Virtue is all about practicing [forgiveness and courage] until they become habits of the heart,” Worthington says. Pursuing virtue requires that people act out of what they believe to be good, especially when situations are complex or difficult. All virtue, he believes, is empowered by humility. “Seeing yourself rightly, keeping power under control, focusing on others — that’s humility, and it’s at the heart of forgiveness.”
Small steps to forgiveness, according to Brandon Griffin:
1. Recall a specific instance in which you have wronged someone.
2. Ask yourself, who was affected? How did I wrong them?
3. Affirm your values and make amends by writing a letter or making a phone call to the person you have wronged, or share what happened with another trusted person.
4. Pay attention to your thoughts. What do you tell yourself when you are reminded of the offense?
5. Write down a few positive things about yourself, and use those positive thoughts to replace the negative thoughts on which you ruminate. This will help rebuild self-acceptance.