There is no doubt that you have been faced with the challenge of whether or not to forgive someone who has hurt you. Forgiveness means to stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone or some event. Forgiveness does not equate to condoning bad behavior. You can forgive someone and still desire and/or provide consequences for harmful behavior (i.e.: a person can remove themselves from an abusive relationship, file a police report and choose to forgive their partner). Forgiveness is about honoring your feelings in order to let them go, reclaiming your personal power, and learning to look for the opportunities in every situation.
All the major religions proclaim the spiritual importance of forgiveness and psychologists are now showing the psychological and physiological benefits of forgiveness. However, understanding the benefits and power of forgiveness is easier than following through and actually practicing forgiveness. A Gallup poll indicated that 94% of Americans believe that it is important to forgive; yet only 48% said that they usually try to forgive. Practicing forgiveness takes time, effort and practice – it does not happen overnight.
Whether it is the person who cut you off in traffic, a loved one who mistreated you, a person who assaulted you, or a group of people who have committed atrocities, holding a grudge can have numerous detrimental effects on your life – including your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Holding on to a grudge or a state of unforgiveness is associated with feelings of anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness, and hostility. Research (conducted by Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet at Hope College in Michigan) suggests that ruminating about grudges is stressful and can increase heart rate and blood pressure. There is also evidence to indicate that unforgiveness can compromise immune function and may increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
According to Fred Luskin, Ph.D., one of the leading researchers on the topic of forgiveness, practicing forgiveness can reduce stress, anger, depression and blood pressure. In addition, it can increase hope, optimism, compassion, and physical vitality. Forgiveness allows you to move past the painful emotions associated with holding a grudge and toward happiness and well-being. Forgiveness is linked to higher self-esteem, better moods, and happier relationships.
The first step in forgiving others is to allow yourself to feel your feelings fully. Whatever has happened, it is important to honor your feelings. When you allow yourself the freedom to feel, your emotions will build to a peak and then dissipate again. Unfortunately, many people are afraid of the intensity of emotions and tend to block the flow. Blocking emotions in this way keeps the emotional energy trapped. Over time this creates stress because you have to work to keep all of this pent up emotional energy under control – like trying to keep a lid on a pressure cooker. Contrary to what many people believe, letting your emotions flow is the best way to let go of them and to move forward. If you believe that your emotions may be too much for you to handle on your own, you may want to seek professional guidance as you learn to feel your emotions.
Allowing your emotions to flow naturally helps you begin to accept full responsibility for your emotions. Forgiveness requires that you own your emotions and recognize that only you can change the way you feel about something. If you believe that you will only feel better and be able to let go of your grudge once someone has apologized or been punished for their wrong-doing, you place the responsibility for your emotions outside of yourself. Since you cannot control whether the person will apologize or whether justice is served, you risk feeling out of control and miserable. Once you realize that you are responsible for changing how you feel and that you can choose to forgive (regardless of what happens with the other person), you reclaim your authentic personal power.
The next step in forgiving is to be able to see the hurtful words and/or actions in a different way – to reframe the situation in a more helpful way. Changing your view of the situation requires the ability to broaden your perspective and use applied faith. This means being able to recognize that everything that happens to you holds a seed for opportunity and growth. All of your life experiences provide an opportunity to learn and grow – emotionally and spiritually. Successful reframing of a painful event or action leads to the ability to say (perhaps only silently) “thank you for giving me this experience and opportunity to learn and grow.” It is possible to reach this place of forgiveness whether you were a victim of a horrible crime or simply upset at your best friend for forgetting your birthday.
As a psychologist I understand the power of forgiveness. As a victim of a crime, I understand how difficult it can be to forgive. At age 16, I was forced into the back seat of a car and raped by a young man. This traumatic assault left me feeling angry, resentful, afraid, and bitter for several years. I finally recognized that holding on to these feelings and staying in a state of unforgiveness was only hurting me and was having no impact on this man. Holding on to my anger and hostility was interfering with my ability to be happy and have healthy relationships. I decided to forgive this man so that I could set myself free, reclaim my personal power, and move on with my life. I can now appreciate the valuable lessons that this traumatic experience gave me. I am grateful for the strength and resiliency that I uncovered during my healing process. By forgiving the man who raped me, I was able to see that I always have the choice to forgive.
Originally published in 2009