Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D.
This week, we’re excited to feature a blog series by Dr. Ev Worthington, Jr. of the soon to be released title, Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past. Whether you work in a clinical, pastoral, or lay care-giving setting, Dr. Worthington’s insights about forgiveness and emotional healing have both personal and professional application.
Let’s get really practical. You have an understanding of self-condemnation with its feelings of remorse, regret, guilt, shame, failure, self-blame, self-recriminations, and suffering. You know how self-condemnation can rise up seemingly out of nothing, but usually triggered by events or thoughts similar to the ones that started or signified failures or wrongdoing. You also have a sense of the six steps that a person can move through to beat self-condemnation through forgiving himself or her self. Now it is time to think about what you can do to help others—as a counselor, a friend or a family member.
Help the Person Go to God
The first step in helping the other person is the hardest—admitting fault. If the person has already told you that he or she is self-condemning, a large part of the battle is won. The so-called “self-conscious emotions” are already out in the open. Confession to God is essential, but you can simply encourage the person. The person already knows in his or her head (and perhaps heart) that confessing promotes healing. Often, the problem is that the person has confessed repeatedly and still does not feel that God has, or will, or is able to forgive the person. You cannot force the person to feel less guilt and shame by anything you say, so the experience of God’s forgiveness, and the release it creates, must often be lived into. Don’t fight a battle you cannot win—trying to make the person “feel” forgiven.
Help the Person Make Amends
If the person has wronged someone and the wrong can be addressed by talking about it, you can coach the person to give a good account of his or her behavior. A good account (see Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope; InterVarsity Press) follows roughly along the contours of an acrostic, CONFESS.
- C=Confess without excuse. (Example: “I did wrong.”)
- O=Offer an apology. (Example: “I’m sorry. I feel horrible that I [did x].”)
- N=Note the other person’s pain. (Example: “I see that I have hurt you very much, and that you are depressed and often cry.”)
- F=Forever value the person. (Love is valuing the other person and not devaluing the person. So, a good account describes how valuable the person is to you. (Example: You are a precious friend to me, and I don’t want to do anything that will spoil our friendship. And I’m willing to do anything to repair the damage I did when I hurt you.”)
- E=Equalize. This is offering to make up for hurts and failings. Sometimes it isn’t possible to make amends completely. So, the offender can offer something that might benefit others. (Example: “I’d like to make up for betraying your trust, but I know there might be nothing that I could do to make it up to you. What if I try to regain your trust by tackling that obnoxious job that always falls to you each year? You can see whether I’m being trustworthy in a very concrete way.”)
- S=Say never again. (Example: “I’m going to try never, ever to forget our anniversary again. I pledge myself to this.”)
- S=Say, “Can you forgive me?” For some reason, some people can go through all the other steps but can’t seem to make themselves say, “Can you forgive me?” You can make it easier to do by letting the person rehearse to you.
A big problem can happen when an offender goes through the CONFESS steps and the other person does not respond positively. As a helper, prepare the person for this likelihood. The one who confesses has usually been thinking about the wrongdoing for a while and planned the confession, but the one who was wronged had the confession sprung on him or her. It takes at least as much time to process as it took to prepare to confess.
Help the Person Reduce Rumination and Modify Unrealistic or Impossible-to-Meet Standards and Expectations
Help identify triggers that set off rumination, and when possible, try to avoid the triggers. Those triggers might be contact with others, lonely nights, similar situations, or many other things. Talk through the situations and the triggers. Then plan alternatives with the person you are helping. Cognitive behavioral therapies have been developed to deal specifically with faulty expectations or standards that are artificially too high. People are usually taught the cognitive paradigm (i.e., what you think determines your emotions and behavior; emotions don’t just happen). Then people are taught ways to confront expectations, interrogate themselves about whether those are reasonable and can reasonably be expected to be dealt with.
Help the Person REACH Emotional Self-Forgiveness
In yesterday’s blog entry, I showed one way I worked through the REACH Emotional Self-Forgiveness steps. The key is the emotional replacement of negative emotions toward the self with positive emotions. This can often be facilitated by promoting empathy for the self, though challenging the person to give himself or herself the same mercy that he or she would give an offender.
Help the Person Accept Himself or Herself as Precious but Flawed
Christians usually know the Christian doctrine that God forgives them because Jesus died for them and that Jesus would have died for them had they been the only person in the world. Yet, knowing this as doctrine and believing it with heartfelt attachment and then, even more, believing it could apply to them are not the same. Sometimes it helps to encourage people to seek whether they can see any benefit in what they did. Without trying to justify what they did, they can often see the hand of God working in the event to bring about some good. Benefit finding has been found experimentally to increase forgiveness.
Help the Person Commit to More Virtuous Living
Battling self-condemnation takes a real toll on body and mind. Trying to control moods or negative thoughts literally uses up the glucose from the brain. There is a physical basis for lowered self-control after one has exerted a lot of willpower. People should not go from battling self-condemnation directly to striving with all their might to be ultra-virtuous. People need recovery and a period of healing.
You Can Help
If you understand the six steps to forgiving oneself, you can be a good helper.
Six Steps to Self-Forgiveness
Step 1: Receive God’s Forgiveness
Step 2: Repent and Repair Relationships
Step 3: Reduce Rumination
Step 4: REACH Emotional Self-forgiveness
Step 5: Realize Self-Acceptance
Step 6: Resolve to Live Virtuously
Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2013). Moving forward: Six steps to self-forgiveness and breaking free from the past. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Multnomah.
Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in the APA-accredited doctoral program in Counseling Psychology. He is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Virginia, a Professor for 35 years and a researcher who studies clinical interventions to promote forgiveness, self-forgiveness, humility, better couple relationships, and better mental health through Christian accommodated interventions. His most recent book is Moving Forward: Six Steps to Self-Forgiveness and Breaking Free from the Past (WaterBrook Multnomah).