Our clients want more than a transaction; they are seeking transformation. Not the before-and-after photo type of transformation—though that may be a part of it—but an unlocking of what is possible when they stop looking to the outside for power and approval and connect to their own radiant uniqueness. People are fully integrated beings; the body affects the mind, which likewise affects the body.
Do you know that forgiving others can help your mind and your body? Forgiveness is universally accepted throughout the world’s religious and spiritual practices. Learn what the research says about forgiveness, how you can achieve it for yourself and how you can introduce the concept to clients.
If you have been wronged, why would you want to forgive the offending person? Above all, forgiveness cultivates self-awareness and the excavation of our best selves. Forgiveness is a paradox in that, as we forgive another person, we heal ourselves.
The idea of not forgiving and remaining resentful makes perfect sense, but it’s a mirage. A grudge acts like termites to your soul. From the outside you may look fine, but you are slowly being eaten away.
Moreover, in addition to the spiritual and emotional benefits of forgiveness, research reveals quantifiable therapeutic outcomes. Namely, forgiveness
- is associated with better physical health and predictive of fewer physical health symptoms (Lawler et al. 2005; Seawell, Toussaint & Cheadle 2014);
- leads to healthier cardiovascular responses to stress and lower rates of cardiovascular disease (Friedberg, Suchday & Shelov 2007; Waltman et al. 2009); and
- is linked with less risk of earlier death (Krause & Hayward 2013; Toussaint, Owen & Cheadle 2012).
What Does Forgiveness Look Like?
“Forgiveness is what happens when [you] seek to understand with a compassionate heart,” says Susan Macey, PhD, a psychotherapist and author who works with clients who have experienced trauma and may be wrestling with disordered/emotional eating, anxiety and depression.
“To forgive is to let go of personalizing the actions of others,” she explains. “It frees the mind of judgment and the soul of resentment, giving flight to compassion, understanding and love. You can’t have true forgiveness without compassion. When people are open to understanding from another perspective, they become free to forgive. Once they do, they no longer continue to want the other person to be different. They free their mind from the past hurt and open it to possibilities of the future. They can be more in the here and now and stop living in the past.”
Forgiveness and Behavior Change
If you are a certified health coach or have studied behavior change principles, then including forgiveness in your practice likely sounds familiar. Miller and Rollnick, the founders of motivational interviewing, include acceptance as one of their four pillars. The heart of acceptance involves prizing the inherent worth and potential of every human being (Miller & Rollnick 2013). All evidence-supported health coaching and behavior change models include some version of accepting, valuing and respecting people as fundamental to the process of coaching. Embracing the forgiveness factor in your life will cultivate your ability to accept others and elevate your skillset.
Ryan Vivar, an ACE-certified medical specialist, personal trainer, health coach and studio owner, shares an example of how he chose forgiveness. “From the time I was young, I struggled with a challenging relationship with my father,” he says. “As I became an adult, our relationship seemed broken beyond repair, and I was justifiably resentful for how his choices adversely impacted me and other family members. In 2014, my father asked for forgiveness for the misery he had caused. I [forgave him]. While it wasn’t easy, it was one of the best choices of my life. I saw him transform and become the type of father and grandfather we all want. I was able to draw strength from his principles around work ethic, which helps me as I serve people [in] my studio in Oklahoma City. Most of all, I was able to be fully present years later when he got cancer, and [I could] walk with him for 2 years, until the end. I am grateful for the time we were able to have together. I am proud of him for his courage to change and of me for my willingness to forgive. Had I chosen the path of justifiable resentment, it would have only meant more loss, rather than what I gained: a dad.”
Forgiveness and Health
Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, associate professor of psychology and best-selling author of several books on forgiveness, says, “No long-term relationship can survive without lots of forgiveness. People who forgive end up with deep and enduring relationships. Those who can’t often miss out on the profound benefits of long-term intimate connection.”
A large research review determined that participants with stronger social relationships had a 50% higher likelihood of survival than those with “poor or insufficient” social relationships (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton 2010)! Thus, choosing forgiveness—which can increase connection—is a courageous act in support of your own health and well-being.
How to Forgive Someone
Ready to try forgiveness? Use this 9-step process from Dr. Luskin:
- Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what part of the situation is not okay. Then tell a couple of trusted people about your experience.
- Commit (to yourself) to doing what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you, not for anyone else.
- Be clear that forgiveness does not necessarily mean you reconcile with the people who hurt you or that you condone their actions. What you want is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the peace and understanding that come from blaming another person less for what has hurt you, taking the life experience less personally and changing your grievance story.
- Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you 2 minutes—or 10 years—ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.
- Practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s fight-or-flight response the moment you feel upset. One of the most effective techniques is “box breathing.” Exhale slowly out of your mouth, clearing the air from your lungs to start. Begin by inhaling through your nose for a count of 4, then hold your breath for 4, then exhale out of your mouth for 4 and hold your breath for 4. Repeat the sequence two or three times (Divine & Machate 2013).
- Give up expecting things from other people that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” you have for your health or for how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace and prosperity and work hard to get them.
- Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met rather than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt, seek new ways to get what you want.
- Remember that a life well lived is your best response. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings and thereby letting the person who caused you pain have power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal strength.
- Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.
Source: Adapted with permission from Learningtoforgive.com.
Introducing the Idea of Forgiveness to Clients
How can you use information about forgiveness to best serve your clients? It starts with you. As you apply these practices in your life, you become a beacon for the freedom they provide. Clients are often inspired out of their comfort zone by what they see in you. Forgiveness outcomes can’t be taped, timed or measured, but your clients—and others—will see them shining through.
In addition to being a living example of forgiveness, how do you introduce this topic with clients in a positive way? The most effective path we have discovered is to include it as part of the pillars of health and wellness we review with each client during our initial session(s). Simply listing it will evoke a response from those who are in need of it or are curious about the benefits. If clients pursue information about this path, you can then facilitate their discovery journey with the evidence and the 9-step process (page 54).
Listing forgiveness as a health and wellness pillar may seem odd, but consider what we are suggesting through the lens of how sleep is now understood in the realm of health and wellness. Fifteen years ago, sleep was rarely considered by physicians, and much less, if ever, by fitness professionals. Now it is a main concern and is commonly listed as a pillar. Whole people are in need of whole solutions, so position your practice to move beyond transactions and into transformations by committing to serve the whole person.
Your Future: Forgiveness?
There’s a classic story of two former prisoners of war who meet after many years. The first man asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” and the second man answers, “No, never.” “Well then,” the first man replies, “they still have you in prison” (Kornfield 2009). Will you choose to be a prisoner of your past or a pioneer of your future?
Divine, M., & Machate, A.E. 2013. The Way of the SEAL: Think like an elite warrior to lead and succeed. Reader’s Digest: White Plains, NY.
Friedberg, J.P., Suchday, S., & Shelov, D.V. 2007. The impact of forgiveness on cardiovascular reactivity and recovery. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 65 (2), 87–94.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., & Layton, J.B. 2010. Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLOS Medicine, 7 (7), e1000316.
Kornfield, J. 2009. The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. Bantam: New York City.
Krause, N., & Hayward, R.D. 2013. Self-forgiveness and mortality in late life. Social Indicators Research, 111 (1), 361–73.
Lawler, K.A., et al. 2005. The unique effects of forgiveness on health: An exploration of pathways. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 28 (2), 157–67.
Learningtoforgive.com. 2018. 9 steps. Accessed Sep. 20, 2019: learningto
Miller, W.R., & Rollnick, S. 2013. Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change. The Guilford Press: New York City.
Seawell, A.H., Toussaint, L.L., & Cheadle,
A.C.D. 2014. Prospective associations between unforgiveness and physical health and positive mediating mechanisms in a nationally representative sample of older adults. Psychology & Health, 29 (4), 375–89.
Toussaint, L.L., Owen, A.D., & Cheadle, A. 2012. Forgive to live: Forgiveness, health, and longevity. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 35 (4), 375–86.
Waltman, M.A., et al. 2009. The effects of a forgiveness intervention on patients with coronary artery disease. Psychology & Health, 24 (1), 11–27.
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