The Why and How of Forgiveness with Dr. Worthington and Dr. Toussaint

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DR. MIKE MORENO: Welcome back to Wellness Inc. I’m Dr. Mike Moreno taking a deep dive into all things wellness after over 25 years of practicing medicine, I’m fascinated with anything and everything that can help you feel better, live healthier and become the best you possible. I’ll be interviewing the most cutting-edge experts in the field of wellness and exploring new innovative technologies to help you live your best life. At the end of each episode, I’ll give you my weekly asks my top tips for you to use right away. Remember to subscribe for free, rate and review my podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Well, listen, I don’t know about you guys, but we could all use a little forgiveness in our hearts, in our minds. I will tell you these next two gentlemen that we are fortunate enough to have are going to talk about something everybody listening has had experience with. In talking about the science of forgiveness and how it relates to our mental and physical health, Dr. Everett Worthington has defined, established, and led the field of investigation into the psychology of forgiveness for over 40 years. He’s a clinical psychologist, and author of over 40 books, mostly on the topic of forgiveness, marriage, and family topics.

Not only is Dr. Worthington the academic expert on the topic of forgiveness, he has an incredible personal story. He’ll share that shows how he’s taken this work to heart in his own life.

Dr. Lawrence Hussain is a professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa. He directs the laboratory for the investigation of mind, body, and spirit, the studies virtues, especially forgiveness, and how these constructs are related to health and well-being. He encourages everyday forgiveness to build resilience and minimize stress in families, schools, health care, workplaces, and communities. He is co-editor along with Dr. Worthington of the book “Forgiveness and Health: Scientific Evidence in Theories relating Forgiveness to Better Health”.

Without further ado, I want to thank you gentlemen for joining me because I feel very honored, and I have a ton of questions for you guys.

DR. LOREN TOUSSAINT: Thanks, it’s great to be here.

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: Yeah, looking forward to it, Dr Mike.

DR. MIKE MORENO: So, Dr Worthington, we’re going to get to your story in a second. I’m going to start with you, Dr. Toussaint. What is forgiveness? Let’s just define it. We probably throw that term around all day long, but what is it?

DR. LOREN TOUSSAINT: Well, that’s a really good question, and I’m really happy that we can start there because understanding what unforgiveness is, and what forgiveness is absolutely key to what we do and thanks to the work of Dr. Worthington and many of his colleagues, we have a much better understanding of these two constructs than we did even just maybe 10 or 20 years ago.

The really interesting thing is that unforgiveness is kind of a collection of really nasty, caustic emotions that we feel when we when we’ve been hurt by someone. These would be things like just simply being hurt or feeling betrayed, maybe holding resentment for someone, or feeling immense anger or hatred toward someone who has hurt us. And of course, forgiveness is thought of as an ability to let go of those things and hopefully replace them with more positive emotions, things like love or compassion or empathy.

DR. MIKE MORENO: So fair to say, easier said than done.

DR. LOREN TOUSSAINT: Yeah, I think that’s a safe assumption, yes.

DR. MIKE MORENO: I mean, this is a stressful process for people. Again, I’m speaking from my own personal experiences and I think back of a story between my family, I’m one of seven my brother who I’m very, very close with, he’s also a physician. We got into it 20 plus years ago over a family thing, and I can’t even believe I’m going to say this, but I didn’t talk to him for a couple of years. Now this is someone who I communicate with multiple times a week, and I think back when I was given this opportunity to be able to talk to you guys, wow, that was the first thing that came back to my mind was, man, I had this thing with my brother. So I guess it’s fair to say that the sticks in our head and even though we think, you know, just let it roll off or don’t let it bug you, that’s not how it’s going to happen. I mean, how does this really affect and maybe talk a little bit about the stress behind forgiveness?

DR. LOREN TOUSSAINT: Yeah, I think what you identify here is something that we can all relate to. We all have, as you say, Dr. Mike, one of those things and some of us have multiple of those things. They’re really hard to get past and it takes a lot of effort, frankly, to forgive. In the meantime, while you’re still holding on to forgiveness, you end up experiencing more stress than you would otherwise. Many people know about stress is kind of the experience of the fight or flight response, and it turns out it’s actually more than that. There is that aspect to it. There is a sympathetic nervous system response kind of revs you up, increases your heart rate and your respiration rate, and does things like that to you.

But there are other longer acting systems that that mediate the stress response, and these things operate through what we would call a psycho endocrine system where what you understand in the world through your brain gets translated into the hormonal system in the body, and a primary mediator of the stress response in that regard is the hormone cortisol. In both cases, forgiveness or lack thereof have been connected to both the sympathetic nervous system arousing our organs, as well as increased levels of these stress hormones. So, the bad news is here that the longer you stay in that unforgiving state, the longer you’re going to experience higher levels of stress. These stress responses physiologically in particular, have really negative effects on our overall health and well-being.

DR. MIKE MORENO: You know, it’s funny because you bring up not funny, but it’s interesting because you bring up the adrenal gland and the production of cortisol in the body. I tell my patients all the time, you know, there are few things that affect your blood sugars when I’m speaking to my diabetics. Exercise, diet, hydration and stress. Stress increases cortisol. Cortisol can cause spikes in glucose. You hear this all the time.

You’ve heard it for years. Stress can kill you. Well, stress can kill you. It’s not like it’s, you know, something that happens, but I think the chronicity of stress, when you carry it, and it drives me nuts. I’m stressed out now, but it drives me nuts. When you see these people who are just kind of they seem unaffected by it. I almost don’t believe it. when you hear about people that tell you these stories and you’re like, really? Because I would be like crawling out of my skin half the time. So, for me, I think it’s a big mental toll. I think everybody’s different, but maybe comment a little bit about the individual in terms of the mental impact, the physical impact and perhaps even a combination of the two.

DR. LOREN TOUSSAINT: Yeah, those are really good points. I think you’re right, everybody is different. It’s hard to predict who’s going to respond in a particular situation and show a real strong stress response and who’s going to be able to cope really well. That’s one of the interesting things about this area, of course, is that not all people respond in similar ways and because of that, we are really interested in understanding how things like forgiveness might be involved here because it may be the case that people who are more forgiving, maybe they don’t struggle quite as much with the ramifications of stress.

In fact, that’s one of the things that we studied just a few years ago. We looked at a broad array of stressors. In fact, it’s known as a life stress inventory, so it really covers a lot of ground and the territory that that it encompasses is really meant to, you know, take in your entire life’s stressors. What we found is that very reliably, stress is related to increased symptoms of depression, and that is no great surprise. We were expecting this. It has probably been demonstrated in, you know, if not dozens, probably hundreds or maybe thousands of studies by this point in time.

That is just a very, very common finding that stress has a really negative impact on your overall mental well-being. The thing that we were unprepared to find was that that was true, but it was only for people who had low levels of the trait forgiveness that got a little bit better for people who had moderate levels of the trait forgiveness and people who had high levels of forgiveness showed no statistical relationship between stress and depressive symptoms.

And to me, that seemed like a magic eraser. It kind of stunned me. I was not ready to see that. I thought that there might be some benefit of forgiveness and a forgiving kind of disposition in one’s life, and I thought there would be some benefits to that. I was not prepared to see it go in the direction that it did, and that was that the highest people with highest characteristics of forgiveness, they were entirely protected from the effects of stress on their mental health.

DR. MIKE MORENO: Well, it’s interesting because when you talk about studies, one of the things was that the number of studies that are being done over the last 20 years, the numbers, I mean, the numbers were in the late 90s. They were like 60 studies available. Then in 2005, there were a little over a thousand. Now fast forward to 2020, there are 2,500 studies.

So clearly, like anything else, things that become more relevant and present in our lives are studied and looked at more. So clearly, this is on the forefront for good reason. Let me ask you a question. This is going to seem very just trivial and simplistic, but I want to nugget and I want my listeners to be able to they’re out there just trying to take all this in, I’m sure.

Where would you say someone starts? Let’s say someone out there is listening and they’re like, god, I got into this fight with my brother a year ago, and I’m still boiling about it. Where would you say if you could give a simple sort of starting point, jump off point? Where would you say you would go?

DR. LOREN TOUSSAINT: Dr. Mike, if you were asking me, I would send anyone who was looking for a good starting point to my friend and colleague and longtime mentor who is on the screen with me right now. This guy is single handedly just defined and developed and nurtured so many researchers. I owe so much to him and I know that he is the guy that has a lot of the available resources to help people and I refer people to his materials all the time.

There are ample books and resources on his website, so that to me is an important thing because as a psychologist and somebody who’s interested in studying science and understanding these things from a scientific perspective, I trust the work of Everett Worthington and my colleagues. So that’s the direction I would go. I would point them toward the reach model and encourage them to read up on it and practice it regularly.

DR. MIKE MORENO: Well, let’s get into it because Dr. Worthington has been waiting patiently and I got to reiterate that these two gentlemen that we’re fortunate enough to have today collectively collaborated on the book “Forgiveness and Health: Scientific Evidence in Theories relating Forgiveness to Better Health”. Like who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t need that?

Dr. Worthington, first of all, thank you and thank you both for being with us. At the beginning of the show, we talked a little bit about this with all due respect. This is quite a story that that you have, and I am excited for you to hear this version. You know, I can read things on paper, but I cannot wait to hear. And for you to share this, this amazing story with our listeners. So welcome and thank you for being here.

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: Well, thanks, Dr. Mike, and I’m really glad to be here with you and with Loren, and this is just an honor, hopefully this will help some folks.

DR. MIKE MORENO: So, Loren said when I asked him the very important question, give me that nugget, that golden nugget. He basically pointed to you, so I’m going right to it. We’re getting some like right from the source information. So, let’s start with your story and then I really want to get into what I think, and Loren mentioned it as the reach model of forgiveness because we’ve got to get some information out of this, but I really want you to share that story, if you could, with all due respect. Then we can sort of walk through this reach model and let us get something out of this thing for everybody.

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: Sure, it was back in 1996 that this started, and I had been studying forgiveness at that point for about 7 years scientifically and had been practicing it in a part time clinical practice for probably about 15 years before that. So, one New Year’s morning, my brother called me from Knoxville, Tennessee, and said something terrible has happened. Mom’s been murdered and you’ve got to come down. So, my sister and I, she lives in Richmond, Virginia, where I do. We drove down and got in the midst of this ongoing murder investigation. They took us over to the house. It was a really terrible scene. The house that I’d grown up in was just torn apart and, of course, evidence of the bludgeoning of my mom was all over the place. Well, you know, by the night we were in my brother Mike’s back room and we were kind of sharing what we had learned from the police. It looked like from their point of view that it was a young man or two, perhaps that had broken into the house thinking no one’s home because it’s New Year’s Eve night and the house was dark, no car because my mom didn’t drive. He had been interrupted as he tried to steal things and he was holding a crowbar. He had used to break the window and he bludgeoned her with it.

I remember getting so angry. I just I pointed to a baseball bat against the wall and said, I wish he were here. I would take that baseball bat. I would hit him in the head until he died.

DR. MIKE MORENO: I think that’s a natural response that most people would have.

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: Well, it felt very natural to me that time, in fact, my brother, my sister and I were all just really upset. I said he wouldn’t last 30 minutes if I got a hold of him, and my brother said he wouldn’t last 10 if I got a hold him. My sister said I’d make him last an hour.

Anyway, that night after, I was up at my aunt’s house and I was just pacing and just full of rage. I was just replaying this again and again in my mind. I realized at about 3:00 a.m. that I needed to do something a little more productive. I sat down to try to reflect on my mom’s life and write a eulogy. I kind of flashback to earlier that night and I thought, Wow, that was not a great reaction on my part. I’ve been writing about I’ve been practicing forgiveness for years, and yet I have not even allowed the f word, forgiveness, to enter my mind up until that point.

So, I started thinking through that reach forgiveness model. In the first part is to recall the hurt and so I tried to put myself in the position of this young man out in the cold on New Year’s Eve night, tried to empathize with what it might be like for a young man with poor impulse control, thinking he’s going to get rich quick breaking into this house and then suddenly getting confronted by this older woman that comes out of her bedroom behind him. He probably thought she’s spoiling my perfect crime. He’s angry. She’s thinking, she’s looking me right in the face. I’m going to go to jail. He’s anxious and afraid and he doesn’t have much impulse control anyway. He’s breaking into houses. He reaches out and he strikes her.

As I thought through that, from his point of view, I suddenly flash back to earlier that night and saw myself pointing at that baseball bat. Now here I was a mature at that point, like forty-eight-year-old man, a Christian, a person who studies forgiveness, who writes forgiveness, who teaches other how to forgive and yet I won’t even allow the word forgiveness to enter my mind.

DR. MIKE MORENO: Right, right.

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: I had to confront myself and I said, whose heart is darker here? This this kid with the poor impulse control, who is afraid, who is angry at me? I came to uncomfortable conclusion that my heart was darker than he is. I thought, but I can be forgiving of this, and if I can be forgiving of the darkness of my heart, then who am I to hold this against this young man? I was able to give him at that point an altruistic gift, an unselfish gift, he did not deserve, but I could give that gift to him. Then later commit to the forgiveness that I experienced and hold on when I ever. I doubted so. So that actually is just the practice of reach, recalled hurt, empathize, give an altruistic gift, commitment and then hold on.

DR. MIKE MORENO: So, I have a couple of questions. First of all, amazing story, I can’t imagine you being in the car with your sister driving to that horrific scene. I can’t even begin to imagine. This whole idea of this of the reach model of forgiveness of the. So, we talked about recall, empathize, altruistic, commitment, and holding. R-E-A-C-H. Out of each of these 5, is there one that you think is the most challenging?

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: Well, there is, and it’s the most important, and it’s to try to empathize with the person who’s hurt you. And it’s not just empathy, because sometimes somebody does things so horrendous I just can’t get into their shoes. So really, I can also sympathize. I feel sorry that they got to the place that they did. I could feel compassion for them. I feel sorry for them. I’d like to be able to help them in some way. Or I could, even in some really unusual cases, perhaps feel love for the person. Or if it’s a partner that I have, I could feel love much more easily.

So that the second step of empathy, which is also an emotional replacement of the negative, just like Loren said, replacing those negative, nasty emotions with positive, other oriented emotions, that’s really the key right there.

DR. MIKE MORENO: Yeah, I think a lot of people would be listening and thinking. What I always hope is that when we, were fortunate enough to have guests on the show to give their experiences and shed their work to our listeners, People have to go back and think of their story, right? What in their life has maybe had an impact now? I hope there aren’t a lot of people, although I know that there are who have experienced this unfortunate, traumatizing experience that you did, But I would think people have to say to themselves, there’s no way that I am going to feel this empathetic, this this sort of, you know, altruistic feeling or be able to empathize with someone.

I mean, where do you how do you get someone started? I mean, listen, your partner throw you under the bus and said, this is the guy you go to. I’m just blaming this on Loren. So, I’m coming to you and I say, you know, Dr. Worthington, how? How do I start to empathize? Where do I start to do this?

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: Yeah. One of the things that we get people to do in the groups that that help people go through this reach forgiveness model or do it yourself workbook with this kind of paradoxical things we start people on is remembering a time when they successfully forgave something really hard.

You know, almost everybody can come up with something where they’ve succeeded at this. If they come up with a success, that helps them kind of get started, but still, this empathy is the key. As you said early on, it’s easier said than done. It takes very little time to name the 5 steps to reach forgiveness, but you know, people don’t start out saying, Oh, I need to empathize. Ok, well, I feel really good toward this person… No no no. Not at all. They are having to work for 2, sometimes 3 hours.

One of the little exercises that is very effective. I’m sure many people are familiar with, it’s an empty chair exercise where they imagine that the person who hurt them or offended them is in this chair right across from, they pour out their heart to that person and then they get in the other person’s chair and they talk back and then they get back in their own chair and they talk to them and they go back and forth with a conversation.

There has been a systematic study of this by Les Greenberg, who created a therapy called emotionally focused therapy and he has looked at just the effects of having these empty chair conversations, and people basically get one of two places with those. They either spontaneously come up with a want to forgive this person, and I understand them now or they come up with the idea of you know, I just don’t care.

DR. MIKE MORENO: It isn’t happening, right?

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: It’s not happening, but that’s OK. I can accept this and I can move on and still be authentic with my life. It splits about 50/50 with people just going through those conversations. Now, if they have gone through this whole process, they are much more likely to end up with the forgiveness end of things than the I don’t care about this, but nevertheless, that’s a good solution. There are many ways to deal with injustice.

DR. MIKE MORENO: It seems it’s just an ongoing process, like you said, it’s probably not an easy process to succeed at initially. It’s not like you can go back and say, he meant, well, whatever it was, I give our minds, don’t work like that. It would be nice if we could. I think for a lot of people out there who are probably spinning their wheels right now, thinking of something that may have happened to them or situation with an individual in their lives. It’s an ongoing thing, and I almost feel as though you’re just always having to go back to one thing or another. Is that how it works? Or is it kind of like, OK, I recalled, I emphasize, Yes, I’m committed. It can’t be that easy. So, it’s an ongoing process, I assume.

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: It is. We have created materials that are absolutely free for people on my website and they are either downloadable do it yourself workbooks or their group participation manuals and leader manuals. These are totally free. So, people can, you know, can work through those materials. If they do it very carefully, it takes maybe 6 hours. Science has shown- and when I say science, I’m talking about 90 studies have shown that the more time people try to forgive, the more forgiveness they will experience. The less depression they have, the less anxiety they have and the more hope that they have.

But like you said, it’s an ongoing process. So, a person going through this for six hours doesn’t necessarily get 100 percent, I’m totally there. So, we have a 2-hour version that people can kind of go back and do a refresher, but without going through the whole 6 hours of thinking through this again. We do a little exercise of having people write a little word like I would. I was betrayed and they write that on their hand and then they wash it off and sometimes it goes away completely, but sometimes you can still see it.


DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: So, we go, well, how do you get rid of it and go wash my hands again? There you go. You can go through this. You can do the big clean cleansing the first time and then you go back and do the quick cleansing and get it. Get rid of it.

DR. MIKE MORENO: So, what we’re learning is that Dr. Toussaint was correct in his referral of me and my question to you, because it’s outlined very well from everything you just expressed.

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: Of course, I was going to deflect and take it back to the Loren and put him on the spot.

DR. MIKE MORENO: Let’s go with that for a second.


DR. MIKE MORENO: You’ve expressed a story. Now Loren, you guys have collaborated together for years on this subject. Is there something in your mind that stands out when you, without going to detail with my family, my brother from 20 years ago and to this day when people say, you know, has this ever happened? I’m like, Yep, I don’t even think twice. I assume with Dr. Worthington very similar. So what about you, Loren? Is there something that just stands out in your head, your go-to, your I’m still working on this.

DR. LOREN TOUSSAINT: Yeah, I mean, I think you hit kind of an important issue here, and that’s that some people may be listening to this and thinking, you know, I’ve never really had any kind of problems like this, and I don’t know, this really necessarily applies to me. I don’t know how useful this might be. I was kind of like that for a long time early in my relationship with Everett. In the work that we did, I guess, more interested out of kind of a religious and academic perspective, but as we all know, these sorts of issues in life, oftentimes you don’t avoid them completely forever. You might get lucky for it seems odd, but you might get lucky for a couple of decades and you might roll through early parts of your life very easily. Some people don’t, but some people do. I was one of the latter in which in my mid-twenties I thought this was really interesting stuff and I met Everett and we’ve been doing research on it, but over the last couple of years, yeah, there’s been some things that have been really, really difficult to handle.

And in particular, one of them is an issue that happened at work. The unfortunate thing about workplace transgressions is that in some spheres of life, if you have a really nasty falling out with someone, you can just walk away and never be part of that experience again. You don’t have to see that person, but in the workplace, especially in a place like a college or university where people tend to work their entire careers often you’re stuck with it. Things became awfully personal for me.

I think it’s one of the interesting things is that even if you don’t feel like you have any significant things in your life right now, I think it’s safe to say you will. It’s just a matter of time. I don’t think anyone gets off this or gets off this without paying their fair share of hurt and pain. It would be nice if you could take the ride of life and not encounter these kinds of obstacles, but I don’t see many people able to do that.

DR. MIKE MORENO: Yeah, and I think you’re absolutely right. The information that we can get from you guys and it’s it seems like this is something that you’re just constantly trying to practice that. Gosh, I know this is going to make me reflect and I hope, you know, to the listeners out there, it also makes them reflect that there is hope there is a way to get past this.

When you hear Dr. Worthington’s story, if someone can get past that, then you can get past a lot of things in life. I thank you both for just your expertise and your knowledge. This has been extremely helpful to me. I hope to the listeners as well. Forgiving is not easier said than done, but if you have a systematic approach to doing it, which I think you guys have outlined very well, it may be a lot more approachable than we think.

So where can my listeners find you guys? You guys mentioned a lot of these materials, and a lot of these things can just let us know through social media outlets and anything we can do. Where can we find you guys?

DR. EVERETT WORTHINGTON: Well, I have a website, I should be fairly easy to remember. that’s got pretty much a massive amount of free material there. The only thing on it that’s not free is books, and that’s because the publishers won’t let me give them away.

DR. MIKE MORENO: Oh, really? How dare they! And Dr. Toussaint, where can we find you?

DR. LOREN TOUSSAINT: Yeah, I’m at Loren Toussaint on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I have a web page as well on the Luther College website, so those are probably the most convenient places for people to look.

DR. MIKE MORENO: Excellent. Gentlemen, I can’t thank you enough. This time just flew. This is stuff that we all need. You think about the world and you think about where we are and I mean, I could go on and on and on about why we need to forgive. It could be a friend. It could be an enemy, you know, as Dr. Toussaint commented, it could be a colleague that you got to see every day, and that could be a nightmare if you let it fester. So it’s work in progress constantly. Now for this week’s weekly RX, and the way I go about this in all transparency and honesty is just in listening.

I always have a plan and then like everything else, my plan, the wheels come off and I go a completely different direction. So, I jot down these notes. I’m like, Well, this would be a good tip, and this would be good. I honestly, there’s so much stuff, but what I loved most that you guys expressed was start to remember success at doing this in your life, start to remember at a time when you succeeded in forgiving someone. I love that because I work with my patients every day who have lost weight or who have lowered their blood pressure or who have done a lot of these lifestyle changes. Been successful at quitting smoking, and they succeeded at one point in their life with something that they thought they could never succeed with.

So, I think my tip of the day for everybody is to have some faith in yourself, have some confidence in yourself that you’ve succeeded in many of the things that maybe you’re struggling with now in your life in the past, you’ve succeeded before and you will and can succeed again.

So, gentlemen, thank you so much for spending this time and shedding so many great tidbits here.

That’s it for today, everybody. Don’t forget to subscribe for free, download and listen to Wellness Inc. with me, Dr. Mike Moreno on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Follow me on social @The17DayDiet. Take care, guys. The Wellness, Inc. with Dr. Mike Moreno podcast is for informational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended as a replacement or substitution for any professional, medical, financial, legal, or other advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This podcast does not constitute the practice of medicine or any other professional service. The use of any information provided during this podcast is at the listeners own risk for medical or other advice appropriate to your specific situation, please consult a physician or other trained professional. Thank you.


About This Episode

On this episode of Wellness, Inc. Dr Mike Moreno interviews two of the country’s leading experts on forgiveness, psychologists and co-authors of the book Forgiveness and Health, Dr. Everett Worthington and Dr. Loren Toussaint.

Dr. Mike confesses his personal story of unforgiveness and explores how it made him feel.

Dr. Worthington and Dr. Toussaint explain the science of forgiveness, the direct link between forgiveness and health, and the surprising new research findings on the topic.

Dr. Worthington shares the shocking personal story that informs his work and explains exactly what the REACH model of forgiveness is and how it can help you let go of resentment and improve both your physical and mental health!


Connect with Dr. Everett Worthington

Connect with Dr. Loren Touissaint