Health Benefits of Forgiveness
Have you ever had something happen to you at the hands of another person, and not been able to let it go? Even now as you think about it, it still disturbs you – with fear, anger, confusion or sadness? Chances are that you have not fully processed this event and have not been able to truly forgive the other person for doing the perceived wrong. In this article, I would like to suggest that you forgive the person not for their benefit, but for yours. You can improve your emotional, physical and spiritual well-being by forgiving past wrongs, and truly letting them go so you can live more fully in the present.
What is forgiveness?
Let us first begin with a definition of forgiveness: “An unjustly hurt person deliberately giving up resentment toward an offender while fostering the undeserved qualities of beneficence and compassion toward that offender” (Freedman, 2000). This might be hard to accept, especially if you harbor resentment and anger toward your offender. Many people say they have forgiven their offenders, but have not done so on a deeper level. You can have decisional forgiveness without emotional forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is a more rational, cognitive choice but, as Worthington and Scherer (2004) point out, you can still unwittingly hold onto bitterness, resentment and hostility. Emotional forgiveness is more thorough and beneficial because you’ve truly let go of what happened and processed it.
I want to emphasize that forgiveness is NOT the same as condoning or excusing what happened or any wrong that was done (Scott, 2009). Many people fear that if they don’t hold onto the resentment and anger, that they will be vulnerable to being hurt again. But it is boundaries that protect us, not resentment and grudges. A boundary would be telling the offender not to call or visit you; this actually protects you from that person’s influence. Or setting a boundary within yourself can help: when you think about the offender, you choose to think about someone who has been kind to you instead and focus on that. You don’t have to hold onto grudges to protect yourself!
I also acknowledge that there is a range of severity of the transgression and the damage it does to each of us. A more severe transgression will naturally be hard to let go. It depends to a large extent on how we perceive the offense. If we believe that they intended to hurt us and that they knew they were hurting us, it is much harder to understand and empathize with than if the offender was unaware or not in control of what they were doing when they harmed us.
How can I possibly forgive him/her?
The relationship to the offender makes a difference as well. If it was someone close and dear to us, it can be harder to let go because we have chosen to let down our guard and defenses around this person. By contrast, if we were hurt by someone who didn’t know us or know our particular vulnerabilities, we might feel more impersonal and detached about the offense. When I work with couples where one person has “cheated” on the other (in the context of a monogamous relationship), the closeness of the relationship is often a barrier, ironically, to being able to let go of the past indiscretions.
Interestingly, one study suggests that men are less likely to forgive a sexual infidelity in a committed relationship than women. The same study says that men are more likely to break up as a result of infidelity in their partners, which may be related to a lack of empathy with the offender (Shackelford, Buss & Bennett, 2002).Whether we’re male or female, this issue alerts us to the need to be careful with the feelings of those dearest and closest to us, so we don’t hurt them intentionally or unintentionally.
Holding on hurts
Whether the offender is close to us or not, the longer we hold onto the grudge or hurt, the more we are hurting ourselves. Sometimes people say that they can’t move on until they get an apology from the other person. There is a difference of opinion about whether true forgiveness requires the transgressor to be repentant or apologetic. Fred Luskin, PhD says that forgiveness is something we do for ourselves to feel better physically and emotionally; it doesn’t require anything from the offender other than removal from danger of recurrence.
On the other hand, Janis Abram Spring says that meaningful forgiveness (of infidelity in particular) is “predicated upon the offender earning his or her forgiveness from the offended” (Habben, 2006; also Freedman, 2000). Sometimes people seek revenge in order to feel better by doing the same offense to their offender.
However, it should be noted that revenge doesn’t help us heal. It keeps us involved in the problem by thinking, plotting, and ruminating in it . I think that it is wise to remove oneself from the offending situation before you try to forgive. Take your time. Don’t let people rush you into forgiving prematurely, but don’t keep being angry and hurt after you are safe or it can lead to resentment and negative physical and emotional health consequences.
Stress from unforgiveness
You may not be convinced that hanging onto past hurts, hurts us. However, there is evidence that not forgiving people places stress on the body, which has numerous negative health consequences. Hanging onto fear, anger and resentment tends to increase blood pressure and the increased stress perpetuates the fight or flight mechanism in your body. The fight or flight mechanism, which is regulated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, was not meant for long-term use but rather to get us out of dangerous situations (being attacked or intruded upon). These hormones are necessary to remove us from danger or defend ourselves from real threats, but are harmful to us in large doses and over extended time periods!
The stress reaction bathes our bodies in hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that exert pressure on our cardiovascular system, impair proper digestion, disturb our sleep, and can actually decrease the size of our brains over time (Sapolsky, 2004).
By contrast, there are many benefits to forgiveness, which are physical, emotional, and spiritual.
The physical health benefits of forgiveness include:
· Lower heart rate and blood pressure
· Indirect: forgiving people might have more social support, less stressful marriages, and relationship skills that ward off stress and isolation (Worthington & Scherer, 2004)
· Improved sleep quality; decreased fatigue
· Decreased physical complaints like aches and pains
Some of the psychological and spiritual benefits of forgiveness are:
· Greater stress relief (Luskin)
· Allows you to live in the present, which is where REALITY occurs
· Increased levels of optimism (Luskin)
· Reduced depressive symptoms
· Freedom from pain from the past
· Better conflict management (not encumbered by the past)
· Improved relationships (not just w/offending party but others too)
· Increased purposeful, altruistic behaviors (e.g., volunteerism, donation to charity).
You may be recognizing yourself in some of these descriptions and thinking that you’d like to let go of the anger, resentment, bitterness, or other negative feelings that come from holding onto past hurts. You might wonder, what can be done if you need to “let go”? Here are some suggestions.
Express your hurts
The first step is to express and release the negative thoughts and feelings (Freedman, 2000). You can do this with close and trusted friends, members of a spiritual community like clergy, close family members, or with the help of a professional mental health counselor. It is important that in the process of releasing these negative feelings, that you come to a newer and healthier understanding and experience of what happened. This will let you realize that we can’t change the past, but we can change our feelings and thoughts about it.
Understand the others
It can also be helpful to understand how people act, make decisions, and make mistakes (this helps us forgive ourselves too). With greater understanding we have increased objectivity and this helps us to grasp what happened to us.
Going one step further, it can be helpful to think about the benefits of what happened to you (Scott, 2011).How did the painful event change you for the better? This will be hard to think about until you have released the negative feelings but it can be liberating to recognize that you are not permanently damaged and that there can be strengths that emerge from tragedy. There is research that journaling about the benefits of what happened (Scott, 2008) reduces stress and helps you see the ways your experience has benefited you.
Psychotherapy techniques like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helps people have more objectivity and empathy for yourself and others. This is a type of therapy that helps resolve traumatic events in a relatively brief amount of time through an experiential process involving thoughts, feelings, and body sensations coupled with bilateral stimulation.
When we have greater empathy for ourselves and others, then it is more possible to have compassion for the perpetrator or offender (Freedman, 2000). It is possible to have compassion or understanding for the violator without having contact with them or letting that person back into your heart. It is mostly to release the pain of holding a grudge and allowing your heart to soften a little when you think of them. As mentioned before, you can still have your opinions of them, and the boundaries that will keep you safe. Yet the angst is not worth holding onto.
Hopefully you have seen that there are many benefits to letting go of past hurts and forgiving others; without allowing yourself to be hurt again, you can still have emotional forgiveness and all the health and wellness that go along with it. Lisa Larsen, PsyD can provide psychotherapy and Glen Larsen can work with you energetically to remove the stuck energy patterns that come with resentment. Please call me today to learn more at 661-575-7135.
Freedman, S. (2000). Creating an expanded view: How therapists can help their clients forgive. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 11(1), 87-92.
Habben, C. (2006). Reviews: Spring, J. A. (2004). How can I forgive you: The courage to forgive, the freedom not to. New York: HarperCollins, 254 pp., $13.95. In Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 32(3), 399-403.
Karremans, J.C., Van Lange, P.A. & Holland, R.W. (2005). Forgiveness and its associations with prosocial thinking, feeling and doing beyond the relationship with the offender. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Lawler, K.A., Younger, J.W., Piferi, R.L., Billington, E., Jobe, R., Edmonson, K., and Jones, W.H. (2003). A change of heart: Cardiovascular correlates of forgiveness in response to interpersonal conflict. Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
Lawler, K.A., Younger, J.W., Piferi, R.L., Jobe, Edmonson, K., and Jones, W.H.(2005). The unique effects of forgiveness on health: An exploration of pathways. Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
Luskin, F. (2002). Forgive for Good. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing.
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, 4th Edition. New York, NY: Holt Publishing.
Scott, E. (2008). Stress Management. http://stress.about.com/b/2008/02/28/todays-challenge-play-the-game.htm.
Scott, E. (2009). The benefits of forgiveness. http://stress.about.com/od/relationships/a/forgiveness.htm.
Scott, E. (2011). How to forgive. http://stress.about.com/od/relationships/a/how_to_forgive.htm.
Shackleford, T.K., Buss, D., & Bennett, K. (2002). Forgiveness or breakup: Sex differences in response to a partner’s infidelity. Cognition and Emotion, 16(2), 299-307.
Worthington, E.L & Scherer, M. (2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: theory, review and hypotheses. Psychology and Health, 19(3), 385-405.