The Strength of Forgiveness
We recently looked at anger, so this week’s topic of forgiveness is a natural next step. When we get angry, it’s usually joined and even fueled by at least one of its partners, blame or shame. As I covered in the anger podcast, there’s also usually a good dose of injustice or unfairness involved as well. Hopefully, you can resolve your issues with the other person and move on. But what happens if the angry encounter is left unresolved?
You could get really stubborn, declaring that you won’t talk to that person until they apologize. Some of our worst hurts happen when we are children, though, so how long are you really willing to wait for that apology that may never come? Sometimes the people that hurt us aren’t even here anymore. Then what?
I’ve had people warn me about others as 'the type that holds a grudge.' I’ve even heard people proclaim that other people better not do them wrong because they never forget and they are quite proud of their ability to hold a grudge. Then, of course, there are those who want vengeance for every slight encountered. They see the world through a tit for tat lens and aren’t satisfied until they’ve won their revenge.
But who really wins in these cases? Isn’t this why conflict escalates all over the world? Worse, all of these folks don’t seem to realize the very real, physical and emotional harm they are causing themselves.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, whether it’s a simple argument with a loved one or life-long resentment toward a family member or friend, unresolved conflict can affect our physical and mental health.
“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Karen Swartz, M.D. , director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. She goes on to say, “Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.”
Studies on forgiveness have been conducted for the past 30 years. These studies consistently indicate that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for our health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. Research also indicates an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as we age.”
So what is forgiveness? In psychology, it is generally defined as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.
It is equally important however to understand what forgiveness is not. When you forgive, you do not dismiss or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you. It doesn’t even require that you tell the other party that you’ve forgiven them.
Instead, forgiveness brings us peace of mind and frees us from corrosive anger. It involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. It empowers us to recognize the pain we suffered without letting that pain define us, enabling us to heal and move on with our lives. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, it is certainly worth pursuing if possible, but it’s not required.
Forgiveness can’t be rushed. It takes time and can be a very painful process. We want justice. We want fairness. Sometimes we want revenge. Those are all normal human feelings. But so is forgiveness. Researchers have found that we possess both the ability to feel vengeance and the ability to forgive. We have to make a choice in each occurrence.
Why would we consider forgiveness instead of vengeance? The main reason is that holding a grudge creates negative energy in our minds and bodies. Think about someone you’re angry with. Do you feel a pit in your stomach, a clenching of the jaw, anxiety, depression? What about your mood? Do you ruminate over the offending incident, replaying it over and over in your mind? Not only is all of this detrimental to our own health, but it is solely harming us. The offender is moving on with his or her life, not feeling any of the symptoms of our anger and vengeance.
According to Loren Toussaint, a psychology professor at Luther College who studies forgiveness, “It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m going to take my life back because I’m getting swallowed up by hatred.’ It’s an act of transformative empowerment… that allows someone to move forward.”
I held onto very deep, resentful feelings about my stepfather for a very long time. He caused me much pain and suffering as a child and the last time I saw him I was in my early 20’s and vowed never to allow him into my life again. Anytime I even heard his name, I felt anxiety and the accompanying physical effects. For about 25 more years! He was just fine. Probably rarely gave me a thought. Yet I was carrying him and his behaviors with me every minute of the day, every day. I had terrible thoughts about him, wishing him harm and telling myself he would get what was coming to him, which then made me feel guilty, which of course only increased my resentment of him. Then I came across a quote by Buddha:
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
It hit me that I was causing my own suffering and that it served no purpose at all, other than to hurt me. It certainly wasn’t hurting him. And so I began my shift from vengefulness to forgiveness.
While seeking revenge can feel better after we’ve been hurt, whether physically or emotionally, the benefits are very short-term. Studies show that revenge does not lead to long term health benefits, whereas forgiveness does. But again, forgiveness is much more difficult to achieve. According to Dr. Swartz, forgiveness is not just about saying the words. “It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not. As you release the anger, resentment and hostility, you begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged you.”
I did not really believe this was possible when I first began. Every thought I had about that man was not just negative, but evoked strong feelings of fear and resentment. But I kept at it. I tried to find anything positive about my experiences with him. Although not the way I would have chosen to achieve it, I am a very strong person who has excellent instincts. I could give him some credit for bringing that out in me. It may have been to survive at the time, but it has served me well over the years. And we traveled a lot due to his job, so I developed an adventurous nature that allows me to enjoy new experiences without fear. I also tried to see him from a different perspective. I couldn’t exactly achieve compassion or empathy at first, but I could see that it must be terrible to be so weak or to have such low self-esteem that force is the only way to get what you want in life.
Bear in mind, I wasn’t making excuses for him. I still think he was a deeply disturbed man and would still never have wanted him back in my life. But by practicing more objectivity and recognizing that no one is purely evil, I was able to make a little space for a little empathy to sneak in. My anxiety dissipated. I could hear his name and have no emotional response. I mentally tested my progress with visualizations of having lunch with him or saying hello from the car as I dropped someone off. No fear took hold. I had let go of my hot coal. When he passed away a few years ago, I didn’t feel happy or relieved, but neither did I feel sadness. It was just a non-event. He held no sway over me one way or another.
Studies have found that some people are naturally more forgiving and tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to have less depression, anxiety, stress, anger and hostility. People who hang on to grudges, however, are more likely to experience severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health conditions. If you’re in that latter group, don’t worry, you’re not alone. 62% of American adults say they need more forgiveness in their personal lives, according to a survey by the nonprofit Fetzer Institute. And you can take steps to learn to be healthier through forgiveness.
The first step is to reflect and remember, including the events themselves, and also how you reacted, how you felt, and how the anger and hurt have affected you since.
Next, try for empathy. If that’s too far of a reach, see if you can find sympathy. Sympathy is actually a negative emotion, implying that the other person is a victim, but sometimes that can open the door for empathy.
See if you can achieve forgiving feelings: Can you see that no one is perfect or that you’ve made mistakes in the past, too? Or that we’re all doing the best we can, even if that may not be good enough in the moment that caused pain? If you can’t, yet, that’s okay. You can focus on your intention of forgiving and keep working on it. You can tell yourself that you intend to forgive, some day.
Let go of any expectations that the other person will apologize or make amends. Forgiveness isn’t about the other person. It’s personal. You’re choosing to let go of the negative feelings and move on with your life.
If you don’t want to talk to the offending party about it, simply write about forgiving the person. Journaling is an excellent practice in anchoring our thoughts and feelings.
Finally, check in to see if you need to forgive yourself for anything. Are there any feelings of guilt or shame? If so, you can forgive yourself for any thoughts or actions you feel badly about or you can forgive yourself for judging yourself harshly. Self-compassion is important as you work through this frequently painful process.
Buddha said, “Rise above your anger through forgiveness and compassion, for yourself, and others.” He also said, “Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.”
As a matter of fact, all major religions encourage forgiveness. Some studies indicate that if your religion requires forgiveness, practicing it just to stay in alignment with your faith may provide relief.
In the Christian bible, Luke 6:37, “The first to apologize is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest.”
And from the Quran 15:85: “Overlook any human faults with gracious forgiveness.”
A key principle in Hinduism includes from the Mahabharata, "There is only one defect in forgiving persons, and not another; that defect is that people take a forgiving person to be weak. That defect, however, should not be taken into consideration, for forgiveness is a great power. Forgiveness is a virtue of the weak, and an ornament of the strong…”
It may be difficult, but choose forgiveness for your own well-being. Enjoy the freedom of lightness that transpires once you drop those heavy stones of anger and resentment from your bag. If you’re struggling with it, ask for help. There are professionals and programs available that have been proven effective. You deserve to enjoy well-being.
For a guided meditation on the subject, listen here.