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Scientific Research on the Six Steps of Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past

You might be wondering if Dr. Everett Worthington just sat in his armchair and created these six steps to self-forgiveness and then wrote a book about them. Not surprisingly, it took a lot longer than that, and the ideas were subjected to the rigors of psychological science and clinical science.

  • First, Ev lived the experience and struggled with it himself from 2005 onward. He tells the story throughout the book, Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past.
  • Second, since 2005, he has presented it in over 30 public talks to professional counselors, to researchers, and to Christian and secular audiences. He has listened to the feedback people gave him about their experiences and incorporated that into the six steps.
  • Third, he and his team distilled the six steps into a brief treatment manual of only 3 hours of group treatment. They tried it with people who were in-patients for alcohol abuse and addiction. It helped those people in detox forgive themselves more than people who did the detox treatment but did not do the brief self-forgiveness groups. The published article is:

Scherer, M., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Hook, J. N. & Campana, K.L. (2011). Forgiveness and the bottle: Promoting self-forgiveness in individuals who abuse alcohol. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 30(4), 382-395. doi: 10.1080/10550887.2011.609804

ABSTRACT. In the current article, the authors explore the efficacy of a 4-hour self-forgiveness intervention. Participants (n = 79) undergoing a routine alcohol treatment protocol were randomly assigned to an intervention or treatment as usual condition. Those in the intervention condition completed the self-forgiveness intervention. All participants completed measures of self-forgiveness, drinking refusal self-efficacy, and guilt and shame over an alcohol-related transgression. Participants in the intervention condition reported more positive gains on measures of self-forgiveness and drinking refusal efficacy, as well as guilt and shame over alcohol-related offenses. Implications of the self-forgiveness intervention for individuals who misuse alcohol are discussed. [See full article here.]
  • Fourth, a master’s student looked at the science of both forgiving others and self-forgiving in ended romantic relationships. The team wanted to be sure that the mechanisms of forgiving oneself were scientifically supported.

Cooke, K. L. (2006). Models of forgiveness and adult romantic attachment in ended relationships: Forgiveness over time. Unpublished master’s thesis, Virginia Commonwealth University. 

  • Fifth, encouraged by her research, as a doctoral student, she tried a very early version in a brief workbook with women who had self-condemnation over losing a romantic partner. It helped people forgive themselves and move on from failed relationships.

Campana, K. L. (previously Cooke, K. L.). (2010). Self-forgiveness interventions for women experiencing a breakup. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Virginia Commonwealth University.

  • Sixth, based on the model that Ev introduced in Moving Forward, he and his team developed a workbook for people who desire to forgive themselves for a time when they harmed another person. The workbook was tested in a randomized controlled trial and shown to promote self-forgiveness as well as alleviate guilt and shame. If you are a counselor and are interested in field testing this workbook, please contact Ev at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The published article is:

Griffin, B. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Lavelock, C. R., Greer, C. L., Lin, Y., Davis, D. E., & Hook, J. N. (2015). Efficacy of a self-forgiveness workbook: A randomized controlled trial with interpersonal offenders. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 124-136.

ABSTRACT. The present study tested the efficacy of a 6-hr self-directed workbook intervention designed to increase self-forgiveness and reduce self-condemnation among perpetrators of interpersonal offenses. University students (N = 204) were randomly assigned to either an immediate treatment or wait-list control condition, and assessments were administered on 3 occasions. Treatment led to increases in self-forgiveness and decreases in self-condemnation. Stronger treatment effects were associated with (a) lower levels of dispositional self-forgivingness, (b) higher levels of transgression severity, and (c) higher dose of treatment. In summary, the workbook appeared to facilitate self-forgiveness among perpetrators of interpersonal wrongdoing, though replication trials are needed to build from these preliminary findings.
  • Seventh, Ev and psychotherapist colleague Diane Langberg of Jenkinstown, PA (close to Philadelphia) have written a professional article about self-condemnation and self-forgiveness in veterans who have experienced or seen moral injury--that is, soldiers who do wrong to others that psychologically injures the wrongdoer. They consider this increasingly widespread experience among soldiers who have served our country, and they recommend responsible self-forgiveness. Responsible self-forgiveness involves those six steps--(1) going to God for confession and repentance, (2) repairing social damage of wrongdoing or paying forward good, (3) dealing with the psychological fallout, (4) following the five steps to REACH self-forgiveness, (5) seeking to accept oneself as a flawed but still valuable person, and (6) seeking to live virtuously.

Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Langberg, D. (2012). Religious considerations and self-forgiveness in treating trauma in present and former soldiers. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 40(4). 274-288.

ABSTRACT. Being in the military, especially if deployed in combat or combat potential settings, can create opportunities for self-condemnation—occurring through moral injury or apart from and within the context of complex trauma. Moral injury is internal conflict due to doing or witnessing acts not in line with one’s morals. Complex trauma involves a prolonged history of subjection to totalitarian control and involves danger, stress, and inability to escape from the situation. Combat can be interpreted as fitting these criteria. We first examine how military deployment might lead to self-condemnation due to moral failures by wrongdoing or when soldiers let down their peers and themselves. We examine soldiers who develop complex trauma and explore its contributions to self-condemnation. Religious issues are likely to be involved. Active wrongdoing, moral failure, and failures of church- and culture-created religious expectations contribute. Soldiers need the skill of self-forgiveness through secular and religiously tailored programs delivered via psychoeducational groups, workbook, or online. [Original publication can be obtained here. Find the article also here.]
  • Eighth, in an article that quantitatively summarized the body of literature that investigates the association between self-forgiveness and health, Don E. Davis, Ph.D., Ev, and colleagues found that self-forgiveness was associated with an array of positive health outcomes. The published article is:

Davis, D. E., Ho, M. Y., Griffin, B. J., Bell, C., Hook, J. N., Van Tongeren, D. R., DeBlaere, C., Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Westbrook, C. (2015). Forgiving the self and physical and mental health correlates: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 329-335.

ABSTRACT. Self-forgiveness has been conceptualized as a coping strategy that may improve health and well-being. To better understand the functions of self-forgiveness, this meta-analysis examines the correlates of self-forgiveness associated with physical and mental health. For physical health, across 18 samples and 5,653 participants, the correlation was .32. For psychological well-being, across 65 samples and 17,939 participants, the correlation was .45. To augment this primary focus on physical and mental health correlates, we estimated the relationships between self-forgiveness and specific mental health constructs and relationship outcomes. Implications for future basic and applied research on self-forgiveness are discussed.

There is growing evidence that these six steps actually work to help people reduce their experiences of self-condemnation through forgiving themselves. Everett Worthington has lived it, studied it scientifically, and worked with people who have used the method. He commends it to you.