Being able to let go of past hurt can help heal the mind and body.

Most of us, at some time or another, have had to deal with the slings and arrows of common misfortunes – unfaithfulness, lies, betrayal and insults. But what do we do with our rage and desire for revenge? Could old-fashioned forgiveness be the key?

Researchers and academics may have the answer. In recent years ‘forgiveness laboratories’ have sprung up across the US – taking forgiveness out of the pulpit and converting it into research findings.

Description: The research suggests forgiveness enhances our health by reducing the physiological burden created by unresolved stressful experiences

The research suggests forgiveness enhances our health by reducing the physiological burden created by unresolved stressful experiences

Researchers at Hope College in Michigan found the cardiovascular systems of subjects labored when they recalled people who had hurt them. Their stress was significantly greater when they thought about revenge rather than forgiveness. They reported feeling more in control when they tried to empathise with their offenders, and enjoyed a greater sense of power, wellbeing and resolution when they were able to let go of hurt.

University of Tennessee studies suggest that harbouring feelings of betrayal may be linked to high blood pressure, which can ultimately lead to stroke, kidney and heart failure, or even death.

Results showed the ‘high forgivers’ – those who are able to forgive easily – had a lower resting blood pressure and smaller increases in blood pressure rate than ‘low forgivers’ or the bigger grudge bearers. High forgivers also reported fewer GP visits. The research suggests forgiveness enhances our health by reducing the physiological burden created by unresolved stressful experiences.

Good relationships

We all have the ability to forgive, and some evolutionary psychologists see it as an adaptive trait. Throughout evolution, groups able to cooperate and stay together – instead of splitting up – had a better chance of survival.

Current research indicates that forgiveness requires good social skills. High forgivers are more empathetic and friendly, able to express more positive emotions towards others – including those who have hurt them. It could be that some people have better skills at maintaining a relationship, and one of those skills is the ability to forgive.

Good for you

From a psychological perspective forgiveness has huge benefits. More and more mental healthcare professionals are now discovering the strength of forgiveness as a psychotherapeutic tool, saying there is nothing like it for dispelling anger, fixing marriages and banishing depression.

Description: The forgivers get their emotional health back

The forgivers get their emotional health back

“In a nutshell, the forgivers get their emotional health back,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison educational psychologist Robert Enright. In numerous studies, people who had not resolved their anger towards a wrongdoer all improved when therapists helped them learn to forgive.

Enright’s forgiveness program is a process involving four distinct phases. The first phase involves the victim becoming aware of the emotional pain caused by an unjust injury. Anger and other negative emotions are brought out into the open and healing can begin. Phase two, the decision phase, is when the victim realizes that focusing on the injury and wrongdoer will continue to cause further suffering. Here the victim entertains the idea of forgiveness as a healing strategy and lets go of thoughts of revenge. Phase three, the work phase, is when the victim thinks about the perpetrator in a new way. It’s not about excusing them, but about trying to understand them better. The final phase is when the victim realizes they are experiencing emotional relief.

Do it for yourself

Like many things, forgiveness is easier said than done and depends on the person and the level of offence. You might think it’s perfectly normal to hold a grudge but before you decide forgiveness is for wimps, try this experience.

Description: Forgiveness means releasing this cycle of emotional turmoil.

Forgiveness means releasing this cycle of emotional turmoil.

Think of a person against whom you’re holding a grudge. Picture them and hold onto your unwillingness to forgive. Now, observe what emotions are there: anger, resentment, sadness? Notice how you are holding your body. Is it tense or feeling heavy? Is your brow furrowed? Now bring awareness to your thoughts. Are they hateful, spiteful, angry thoughts?

Most people who do this experiment are disturbed by the tension and anger that thoughts of ill will towards another person can illicit. Bear in mind these negative emotions are permanently stirring around inside you, and costing you in terms of your health and wellbeing. Forgiveness means releasing this cycle of emotional turmoil.

It is possible to forgive someone who has deeply wronged us. The following are a series of steps based on the book Forgive for Good (HaperCollins, $23.95) by Dr Fred Luskin.

Steps to forgiveness

  • Acknowledge how wrong the person was to hurt you.

If you can, articulate the pain that betrayal generates rather than avoiding it. If this is particularly difficult, you may find it helpful talking about it to a very close friend you trust or a counselor. Practicing a stress management technique like deep breathing or meditating to soothe your body’s fight-or-flight response can help during the forgiveness process.

  • Think about what forgiveness means to you.

This is an individual experience and can mean many things to many people. Some believe forgiveness means ‘to untie’, others view it as a letting go and no longer being responsible for another person’s accountability. Most agree it involves a ‘giving up’ of something, whether it be anger, hate or the right to vengeance.

Description: Think about what forgiveness means to you

Think about what forgiveness means to you

  • Find a definition that is relevant to you.

Be careful often people make the mistake of confusing forgiveness with forgetting or condoning. Forgiveness is for the person who was hurt, not the perpetrator. It is saying I have already been offended and I’m making the decision to let go so I don’t continue to be burdened by the offence.

  • Think about how the wrong you have suffered is affecting your emotional and physical wellbeing.

Do you find you’re preoccupied with thoughts of pain, anger and hate? Do you feel drained and depressed because of the wrongs suffered? By remaining unforgiving you remain joined to the wrongdoing.

  • Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better.

Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.

  • Try to replace negative and angry thoughts, feelings and behaviour

with more positive ones, regardless of whether the offender is sorry for their behaviour. Put yourself in the wrongdoer’s shoes to better understand what motivated their actions and to build empathy skills.

  • Empathy for someone who has hurt you can be hard to achieve,

But it may help if you try to understand what it was like for them when they were growing up. Were they a victim of conflict and abuse? What was happening in the person’s life when they hurt you? Remember, you are in control because you are choosing to relinquish resentment. You choose to be healed by your forgiveness.

Empathy for someone who has hurt you can be hard to achieve,

Empathy for someone who has hurt you can be hard to achieve

  • Remember, you can forgive and not necessarily re-establish a relationship.

While it takes only one person to forgive, it takes two to reconcile. And, in some cases, the best course of action is never to see the offender again.

  • Let go of expecting things from other people they do not choose to give you.

Put your energy into looking for another way to get your goals met. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt, seek out new ways to get what you want. Remind yourself you can have health, love, peace and prosperity.

  • Hatred, no matter how justified, harms you and not the wrongdoer.

As long as you continue to wallow in hatred and blame, you remain a victim of the injustice that occurred. By letting go and taking responsibility for your own emotional and physical wellbeing, which can include forgiveness, you finally untie the knot that has kept you bound to the offender.

  • Remember, a life well lived is the best revenge.

Instead of focusing on your emotional wounds and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for love, beauty and kindness. Forgiveness is about choice and personal power.


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