Forgiveness: What it is and Why it Matters
Forgiveness is divine – and new research shows that it’s also good for your health! You’re boiling with rage. Even thinking about that witch of a co-worker is upsetting—and there she is, flaunting herself like a diva on American Idol. She’s been your nemesis from the moment she joined the staff, despite your best efforts to be cordial. Arrogant, unpleasant, underhanded—she’s lured away clients, and you know she’s the source of recent rumors about you. You find yourself daydreaming about ways to get even. Forgive her? Forget it!
How many of us are prepared to forgive a backstabbing colleague, an unfaithful partner, neglectful parents or even the rude jerk who hogged the treadmill this morning? Let’s face it: Persistent unforgiveness is part of human nature—but it also appears to work to the terrible detriment of our health. Learn why forgiveness helps your health and what you need to do in order to forgive.
Although popular opinion equates “forgiving” with “letting those no-good rotten #!%*s off the hook,” mounting evidence reveals that the people who can forgive are the ones who receive the real rewards. In fact, recent research shows that the physical and mental health benefits of forgiveness can be startling, regardless of age, gender or even the most unimaginable hurts, such as severe sexual abuse or a child’s murder.
In study after study, results indicate that people who are forgiving tend to have not only less stress but also better relationships, fewer general health problems and lower incidences of the most serious illnesses—including depression, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Why? “Because not forgiving—nursing a grudge—is so caustic,” says Fred Luskin, Ph.D., a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (HarperCollins 2002). “It raises your blood pressure, depletes immune function, makes you more depressed and causes enormous physical stress to the whole body.”
A Topic of Interest in the Field of Psychology
The latest research findings suggest that forgiveness works in several ways. One is by reducing the stress of unforgiveness—a toxic mixture of anger, bitterness, hatred, resentment, and fear (of being humiliated or hurt again). These negative emotions have specific physical consequences, including increased blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol levels, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease, immune suppression and, possibly, impaired neurological function and memory.
A second-way forgiveness works is more subtle, as shown in studies indicating that people with strong social networks—friends, neighbors, and family— tend to be healthier than loners. According to psychologists, someone who is angry and remembers every slight is likely to lose relationships during the course of a lifetime, while people who are forgiving are more likely to attract and keep a strong social support system—to the benefit of their own health.
How to Forgive
Okay, you say, you’re convinced. But how do you learn to forgive, when holding a grudge feels so right? The good news: You don’t have to be Gandhi to start the process of forgiving.
“The essence of forgiveness is accepting that something happened in opposition to your wishes and you can’t change it,” says Luskin. “The issue then is: What can you do to suffer less? One, you can decide to disentangle yourself from your over-connection to this person. And two, you can move past it and get a life.” If you don’t, you’re likely to remain stuck in a cycle of anger and bitterness.
For those who decide to forgive, researchers stress that it is important to begin by first acknowledging that you’ve been hurt and still feel upset about it. Then try to look beyond your personal experience and, ultimately, make the choice to let go of the weight and stress of your anger for your own benefit.
Universally, researchers agree that forgiveness does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting or denying an offense. It also does not have to involve reconciliation or putting yourself back into an abusive relationship. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean giving up the right to seek justice or compensation. If someone vandalizes your car, you can forgive the culprit—but you can also seek payment for the repair bill or pursue justice through the courts.
Steps to Forgiveness
1. Commit yourself. Decide to do whatever you have to do to feel better.
Forgiveness is for you, not for anyone else.
2. Get the frustration out. Tell your story to a few close friends. This
will help you explore your feelings and obtain a clearer sense of perspective.
3. Practice focusing on the good and positive things in your life: loving
family members, exhilarating workouts, kind acts by strangers, etc.
4. Develop the mind-body technique for deep, slow breathing. Use it
immediately to help calm and refocus yourself whenever a painful memory or the
sight of someone hurtful upsets you.
5. Learn to recognize your “grievance stories”—in which you blame offenders
for how you feel. Instead of mentally replaying the hurts over and over, focus
on your own positive goals.
6. Start with small things. Don’t start by trying to forgive the
person who’s wronged you the most in your life.
7. Focus on facts rather than emotions. Don’t condone hurtful behavior, but
attempt to understand what led to it.
8. Try not to take things personally. Many offenses were not deliberately
targeted to hurt you personally but were byproducts of other people’s own
selfish goals. It helps to recognize that, says Luskin.
9. Forgive those you love. The most important people to forgive are those
close to us.
10. Practice first. Practice saying it out loud to yourself when you are
alone. Then when you are ready to forgive, it is available to you.
11. Further, educate yourself about forgiveness. Check local colleges,
churches or hospitals for classes or workshops, plus libraries or the Internet
for further reading. Meet with a Counselor to assist with the process.
12. Continue focusing on what’s in it for you. Forgiving can free you to
move on with your life. After all, living well is the best revenge.