Is Forgiveness All It’s Cracked Up To Be?
We hear the term “forgiveness” often in popular culture, but what does it actually mean?
There is a lot of disagreement amongst researchers and psychologists on what exactly forgiveness is, but an example definition that many might agree with is: “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”
Most people see the value in forgiveness, its virtues are shared by religions, talk show hosts and probably the next person you bump into. Yet universally people find forgiveness difficult to put into practice.
That seems simple on the surface, but for anybody who has tried to forgive, it’s not always that easy. Being able to truly let go of something, irrespective of whether the recipient of the forgiveness deserves it or not, is incredibly difficult. It can at times feel like a contradiction to many of our most basic human emotions and desires, including anger, revenge and our sense of fairness. Yet being able to forgive is crucial in being able to move on.
One common mistake is that people assume that forgiveness means letting the person “off the hook”. This misconception can feel jarring if you’re looking for justice, retribution or “fairness”. Yet forgiveness is not the same as justice, nor does it require reconciliation; a victim of abuse shouldn't reconcile with the abuser. Yet, by holding onto the anger, that abuser still has some sort of power over the victim, preventing them from moving on to live a fulfilling and happy life. So perhaps the truest revenge is forgiveness…
Science of why forgiveness is important
So beyond making life a little easier, what benefits do we get by forgiving those that have wronged us?
Research has shown that forgiveness is linked to mental health outcomes such as reduced anxiety, depression and major psychiatric disorders, as well as with fewer physical health symptoms such as:
Lower mortality rates.
Lowering the risk of heart attack
improving cholesterol levels and sleep
So it’s not just that forgiveness can emotionally free you from the circumstance, but it can physically improve your health in both the long and the short run.
Types of Forgiveness
There are different ways to interpret forgiveness. The first differentiation is between the person that you are forgiving. We naturally tend to think of forgiving some other person for a wrongdoing, but it’s also common to need to forgive ourselves. Often this self-forgiveness can be even harder.
Forgiving yourself means letting go of the feelings and emotions associated with what went wrong. In order to do this, you first need to recognise and examine those feelings yourself. This is what can make this type of forgiveness particularly difficult, especially when we want to forget the situation. Addressing uncomfortable situations and emotions in ourselves is something we often avoid doing at all costs. Even if the result would ultimately make us happier in the long run. It’s only once you’ve exemplified those feelings that you can begin working on letting go of any resentment or anger.
The second differentiation of forgiveness is between making the decision to forgive and actually reaching emotional forgiveness. It can be much easier to decide you want to forgive somebody (or yourself). The reasons we’ve outlined earlier can help us get to that decision. Yet just deciding you want to do something isn’t enough. You then need to take steps to get there, and often the trickiest of these steps is reaching emotional forgiveness. It can feel like we get no choice over our emotions and that they control us in many ways, but it’s getting control of emotions by taking key steps to work towards forgiveness that is crucial.
Many researchers now recognise this difference between the decision and emotional forgiveness and so are no longer treating forgiveness as a generic process. A decision to forgive is primarily a decision to try to act differently toward the offender, to not seek payback and to stop their offense holding space in your mind and life going forwards. Whilst the decision might be a struggle to get to, once it’s made, it’s made. It’s like a switch. On the other hand, emotional forgiveness is the gradual replacement of negative emotions like resentment, bitterness, or anger with positive emotions like empathy or compassion. Emotional forgiveness means that unforgiveness gradually lessens until neutrality is reached. Then, with a valuable relationship, one might continue to generate more positive emotions until a net positive feeling is restored.
We all make mistakes, it’s a part of life and, in particular, learning. But holding onto negative feelings towards ourselves or others can impact on our happiness. Forgiveness allows us to let go, move on and resolve conflicts.
So why don’t you give it a try? Start with small things and then work up to trying larger situations. And watch out for a future blog on the steps to work through for forgiveness!
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR