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The Healing Power of Forgiveness

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.

Why 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, PhD, 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 Hot Field in
Clinical Psychology

With more than 1,200 published studies—up from 58 as recently as 1997—forgiveness research is a relatively new and exciting field that, along with other mind-body research, is encouraging a fundamental shift away from treatment of disease to focusing on the positive aspects of human nature as a basis for healing.

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 overconnection 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. “I wouldn’t . . . encourage anyone to be buddies with those who have hurt them severely,” says Michael E. McCullough, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychology and religious studies at the University of Miami and author of To Forgive Is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past (InterVarsity Press 1997). “But offended persons needn’t be eaten up by their own resentments.” 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

To make forgiveness part of your life, follow these expert guidelines:

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, nature’s beauty, favorite music, and so on. Try to recognize goodness, niceness and kindness, and thank people often.

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. For example, for one person this might mean getting past anger at a parent for an abusive childhood to instead concentrating on personal goals of becoming fitter and learning to be a better parent oneself.

6. Start with small things. Work on forgiving traffic miscreants, cell-phone screamers, rude clients and the many people or things that push our buttons but don’t really matter. 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. According to Luskin, grievance stories for long-past offenses too often become roadblocks that stop us from moving forward. The most important people to forgive are those close to us.

10. Practice first. You might not be ready to forgive someone today, but if you were, what would it sound like? 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.

12. Continue focusing on what’s in it for you. Remind yourself that “winning” is not always about who is right. Forgiving can free you to move on with your life. After all, living well is the best revenge.

A final note: Always remember that forgiveness is a process, not a moment, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, says Edward M. Hallowell, MD, psychiatrist and author of Dare to Forgive: The Power of Letting Go and Moving On (Health Communications 2004). However you diffuse your anger, forgiveness can be a powerful tool to a happier, healthier future.

what forgiveness is

Forgiveness is . . .

  • making yourself responsible for how you feel.
  • about your healing, not about the people in your life who have hurt you.
  • learning to take wrongs less personally.
  • becoming a hero instead of a victim in the story.
  • a trainable skill, just like learning to throw a baseball.
  • a choice.
    what forgiveness
    is not

    Forgiveness is not . . .

    • forgetting that something
      painful happened.
    • excusing or condoning the
      poor behavior.
    • an otherworldly or religious
    • denying or minimizing your hurt.
    • necessarily reconciling with
      the offender.
    • waiving the right to justice or compensation.
    • hanging the offender’s behavior; even if you change, the other
      person might not.
    • always easy.

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