A Forgiveness Expert Forgives Himself

In 2005, Everett Worthington’s life turned upside down when his brother committed suicide. Though his brother suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression symptoms at the time, Worthington, professor in VCU’s Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, blamed himself. 

“My mother had been murdered by a home intruder in 1996, and my brother had discovered her body. He couldn’t get those scenes from his head,” Worthington said. “I tried to help him, but got diverted by getting swept up in my own adolescent family patterns. … I could not forgive myself.” 

It was an ironic turn for Worthington, one of the country’s foremost experts in the scientific study of forgiveness and reconciliation. 

“That intensified and personalized my search for a way to help people deal with self-forgiveness,” he said. “I was able to discover that six-step method and investigate it scientifically while also writing down my personal experiences.” 

Image courtesy of VCU.

Image courtesy of VCU.

That research and self-discovery culminated in his latest book, “Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past” (WaterBrook Multnomah). (For a “Moving Forward” excerpt, see www.forgiveself.com.) 

Worthington answered questions for VCU News about his book and the challenges of forgiving yourself. 

Why is forgiveness important in general? And why is it important to forgive ourselves?  Forgiveness of others has been found to be related to better physical health, mental health, relationships and spiritual health for the forgiver. It reduces rumination (which is stressful), and it reduces risk for cardiovascular problems, as well as improves immune system functioning. It can lower the basal cortisol (a neurohormone that elevated levels has been shown to be related to problems in about every physical system of the body, including affecting sexual performance and shrinking the size of the brain). 

In “Moving Forward,” I look at the physical, mental, relational and spiritual aspects of self-condemnation and its cure in self-forgiveness in a whole section of four chapters that I called, “Self-Forgiveness 101: A Quick Immersion Course.” Self-forgiveness differs from forgiveness of others because self-forgiveness is a response to our own self-condemnation due to harming someone else or not living up to our own standards or expectations. While the stresses produced by regret, remorse and self-blame are slightly different physically and significantly different psychologically than the stresses produced by anger, bitterness, resentment, hostility, hatred and anxiety that are experienced when we are harmed by or offended by others, they operate basically the same in terms of elevating our stress response. Self-forgiveness calms that stress and reduces the physical, mental, relational and spiritual fallout. 

You incorporate so much of your own personal experiences in “Moving Forward.” Is it difficult to relive your loss and grief? 
In a word, yes. I don’t think anyone enjoys replaying painful experiences in their past, so it did upset me when I was writing the book. But, it was different than earlier recollections prior to having learned I could forgive myself and still be responsible. So, while the feelings rose up, I could deal with them better. I hope that the same thing will occur with the readers of “Moving Forward.” I can’t promise that they won’t re-think the events that they’ve been bothered by in the past, but my hope is that after reading the book, they will be able to cope better and faster and thus break free from the chains of rumination and self-condemnation that might have bound them. 

Is forgiveness always permanent? Once you’ve forgiven someone — either yourself or others — do old grudges ever come back? 
Forgiveness for the specific event are permanent, but people keep interacting with us and often re-offend and that can reactivate the history of the relationship. When a person hurts or offends us (or, in the case of self-condemnation, when we hurt or disappoint ourselves), that is an objective fact. The fact that we experienced something doesn’t change. But our psychological experience can change. 

Repeated offenses are difficult because they say to us, “I can’t trust this person.” That is hard when we are self-condemning because we have failed again and again. We feel like we can’t trust ourselves. So, when a new disappointment occurs, we might think, “Here I go again.” Part of self-condemnation, though, is thinking that (1) I’m always going to be this way, (2) I am a bad person for failing once again. We have to learn that we are precious though flawed. We have to separate our “who” from our “do.” That is, we have to see that our mistakes don’t define us. When we see that, we can better treat our failures as events that we can try to repair and not as an indictment of ourselves as a person. 

Grudges can come back. But usually, we have to actively bring them back once we have been able to forgive the offense. Sometimes we think a grudge has returned, but it hasn’t really. For example, a common occurrence is for a person to forgive someone who offended him or her—such as a co-worker or boss. Then, when they see the person again, the anger, pain and memory floods back. “I must not really have forgiven,” they might conclude. Yet, this is a misinterpretation of what is going on in their bodies. Our bodies are designed to protect us, and when we are hurt in a situation, our bodies send alarms that we need to pay attention or we can get harmed again. For example, if I burn my hand on a stove, and a month later, I get my hand near a hot stove eye, I’ll react with anger, pain and anxiety. It isn’t that I didn’t forgive the stove eye. It’s that my body is saying to me, “Be careful.” The same thing is happening when a person forgives the boss or co-worker and then sees the person again. The person’s body will warn them to be careful and it will do so by a flood of emotions. 

It seems that forgiving yourself is more difficult than forgiving others. Why is that? 
There are a lot of reasons, but one is that I can never get away from myself, but I can get away from a person who harmed me—even if that person is a spouse or child or parent or co-worker. I live in my head 24-7, so I have a harder time getting away from self-condemnation than from condemning an offender. Another reason is that in self-forgiveness, I play the role at the same time of offender and victim. I have to suffer the remorse and regret of doing wrong, and also suffer the pain of forgiving. 

Why is it harder for some people to forgive themselves than it is for others to do so? Is it possible that some people forgive themselves too readily or too easily? 
A lot is about rumination. If we are prone to rumination—playing events over repeatedly in our minds—we keep coming up with self-blame. Another reason is that people whom we offend might not be all that offended, and yet we keep blaming ourselves—not just for doing wrong but because we might think we shouldn’t fail. We might feel that we can’t accept ourselves as being the type of person who would do a horrid wrong. For instance, if a man loses his temper and hits his child, he feels terrible, and he might really experience lots of self-condemnation. Even if the man can forgive himself for the act of losing his temper and striking his child, he has another part—he might not be able to accept himself as someone who is so bad he would lose his temper. He’s trying to deal with both self-forgiveness for the act and self-acceptance as a flawed person. The child just has to forgive the father for the act. 

How can someone recognize the need to forgive himself? What if he doesn’t realize it? 
Emotions are the usual alarm bells. When we feel regret, remorse, anxiety, anger at ourselves, anxiety and self-blame, those emotions cue us that we need to deal with self-condemnation.For other people, it is rumination and brooding self-blame that is the key. The person feels terrible in a funky, kind-of-depressed state, but he or she finds that rumination is present often. For some people, they have hurt or offended another, and they don’t recognize it until (or unless) the harmed person confronts them. That confrontation can trigger remorse and a desire to deal with the self-blame.  So, emotions, thoughts and interactions with others can all kick off the need to forgive oneself. 

There is something important, though, about self-forgiveness. I champion responsible self-forgiveness, not simply letting oneself off the hook. For responsible self-forgiveness there are six steps, which I talk people through in the book: 

Responsibility         
Step 1: Receive God’s Forgiveness
Step 2: Repent and Repair Relationships
Step 3: Reduce Rumination

REACHing Peace         
Step 4: REACH Emotional Self-forgiveness

Realistic Living 
Step 5: Realize Self-Acceptance 
Step 6: Resolve to Live Virtuously 

The first of the initial three steps—seeking to make things right spiritually—can involve a religious spirituality or a more secular spirituality (like making things right with the cosmos, with humanity, with things transcendent). The second step (repent and repair relationships) is about making amends for failures and wrongdoing. The third is about repairing the psychological damage we have done through our failure or wrongdoing. 

The second grouping (REACHing Peace)—which is step 4 (REACH Emotional Self-Forgiveness)—is helping people move through the same six steps we have taught in over 22 studies showing an effective way for people to forgive (see www.people.vcu.edu/~eworth or www.EvWorthington-forgiveness.com ). 

The third grouping (Realistic Living) involves the difficult work of accepting oneself as flawed by precious and of resolving not to continue to do the things that one blames oneself for, but instead doing virtuous and positive things. 

Before you got into this field, would you describe yourself as a forgiving person? 
Well, I was a Christian and I tried to practice forgiving others, but I had not thought much about forgiving ourselves. I knew that forgiving was important, but short of just gritting my teeth, I did not know how to forgive others. Studying this psychologically and digesting the wisdom of clients, just-folks who have shared their experience forgiving, reading the research from others, and continuing to read theological accounts of forgiveness, all have helped me digest that accumulated wisdom into five steps that seem to help people who want to forgive be able to do so successfully. I’ve used that REACH Forgiveness model in my own life many times, so I don’t have a greater (or less) sense of the importance of forgiving now than before I started studying it psychologically, but I have a lot better practice of doing so myself and being to help others do so. 

You are a man of faith, and write extensively about God’s forgiveness and understanding. But you also write that self-forgiveness is not limited to people of faith. How could, say, an atheist approach this book? 
Most but not all of our research to date has been with people who might not identify themselves as Christians. “Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past” is a Christian book because I organized it around my own personal experience and I’m a Christian. Inevitably, the Christian narrative will come thorough.  However, these days most people are skilled enough to be able to read such a personal narrative and extract out the common elements without getting triggered by the author’s personal religious orientation. So, having dealt with students at a large state university (Virginia Commonwealth University) for 35 years and with many speaking venues in both secular and explicitly Christian settings for a similar time, I have a lot of confidence in people’s abilities to benefit by the practical experience and factor out accounts of religious experiences that don’t apply directly to them.