How forgiving can help you mentally, spiritually, and even physically
By Wendy DuBow, PhD
As most of us are well aware, the world's faith traditions have advocated forgiveness for millennia. Touted as the "right" thing to do, forgiving is supposed to make you feel good after you do it. But is it actually the best response to abuse, betrayal, or disappointment? And when you forgive, have you resolved your negative emotions or simply suppressed them?
Since the mid-1980s, researchers in psychology, education, theology, neurology, and behavioral medicine have sought answers to these and a host of related questions. In fact, academicians have completed about 60 scientific studies on the topic. Approximately three dozen additional studies are currently underway, investigating the effects of forgiveness in contexts as varied as human rights tribunals, marital therapy, terminal illness, and even primate relationships. Perhaps most interesting in this burgeoning field of research is the focus on the connection between forgiveness and physical health. "We've found evidence of a clear relationship between certain health factors and people who are more forgiving," says Carl Thoresen, PhD, principal investigator with the Stanford Forgiveness Project at Stanford University. Current physiological studies are exploring the effects of forgiving on the body's immune system, as well as on a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, on the hormone testosterone, and on the neurotransmitter serotonin. Could forgiving, long known as an effective psychological coping mechanism that helps a person deal with the suffering that accompanies emotional hurt, actually make you healthier and possibly happier? Numerous studies and researchers indicate that the answer is yes.
For more details on the latest forgiveness studies, visit the Campaign for Forgiveness Research website at www.forgiving.org. Why A Grudge Is Unhealthy
So perhaps your significant other forgot your birthday, made a joking yet hurtful comment about your weight, or worse, cheated on you. It may be hard to swallow the idea that forgiving your partner could help improve your health when you're fantasizing about doing him or her bodily harm. Yet several studies suggest that in the long run, forgiving does actually benefit you. One study reveals that forgiving can decrease levels of anger and hostility, increase feelings of love, and improve physical and mental health (Psychotherapy, 1986, vol. 23, no. 4). Another shows that forgiving can be a learned technique that reduces stress and thereby improves immune system and cardiovascular functioning (Psychosomatic Medicine, 1993, vol. 55, no. 4). In a recent study at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, researchers asked individuals to recall hurtful moments from the past in which they held grudges, as well as hurtful moments from the past in which they forgave their offenders. While recalling the "unforgiven" incidents, participants measured stronger physiological stress responses—including increased facial muscle tension, blood pressure, and heart rate—than when they recalled the "forgiven" incidents, leading researchers to believe that a chronic lack of forgiveness may indeed be bad for your health (Psychological Science, 2001, vol. 12, no. 2).
The link between forgiveness and improved health may be cortisol, a stress-related hormone released in response to tension, fear, sadness, and other negative emotions. When we forgive, the level of cortisol in our bodies decreases (Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2001, vol. 48, no. 4). And for years, researchers have known that stress is a strong risk factor for disease.
Saying "I forgive you" may also be good for your mind and spirit. "Forgiveness opens the door for people to let go of the negativity of the past," says Thoresen, and therefore allows them to experience positive emotions. And positive emotions are known to have tremendous motivating potential, stimulating people to be creative and open-minded (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, vol. 74, no. 6). Not surprisingly, negative emotions, such as anger, bitterness, and resentment, largely have the opposite impact.
Steps To Forgiveness
Experts agree that whether to forgive or not is a choice. And although choosing forgiveness is difficult, according to Thoresen, it's well worth taking the plunge. "Harboring resentments and animosities is imprisoning," he says, "but fortunately we can all break free and learn how to forgive." Central to Thoresen's model of forgiveness is the idea that when people hurt or offend you, most of the time it is not their intent to cause pain. His study participants are led through a reexamination of their own life rules. "If you're a perfectionist about how others treat you, then you'll get hurt a lot," says Thoresen. "So one major step of the training is for people to examine their expectations and beliefs of how others should deal with them." Because ultimately, you can't control what others do or say to you, but you can control how you respond to their actions.
At the International Forgiveness Institute in Madison, Wisconsin, director Robert Enright, PhD, maps out a path to forgiveness, based on 18 years of research. Enright details some 20 steps to forgiveness in his book Forgiveness Is a Choice (APA LifeTools, 2001). First, he says, you need to uncover your anger by describing the source of your pain and its implications for your life. If, for example, your older sister humiliated you in front of your extended family at the last reunion, don't suppress your negative feelings. Instead, think about why her actions made you mad. If you're avoiding your sister or dreading family reunions, then her actions have altered your life—something you want to address.
Next, Enright says, potential forgivers need to determine how effectively they've coped with pain or disappointment. Ask yourself, "What have I done in response to this betrayal? Has it worked?" To move on, it helps to recognize that in all likelihood neither holding a grudge nor avoiding your anger has worked well. Simply put, stewing over your sister's indiscretion and complaining about her to your mother and brother are not the best responses. "The crucial aspect of forgiving is that you have made a commitment to absorb the pain—sponge it up—and not pass it on to others," says Dave Fulton, PhD, a researcher at the International Forgiveness Institute.
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Your next step is to work toward forgiveness logically. Try to understand the offender's situation and the context in which the hurt occurred. At the institute, participants are advised to separate the offender from what he or she has done and to try and see the person as someone capable of both good and ill. So if, for example, your husband forgets your anniversary and your birthday, rather than ruminate over it and reprimand him for it again and again, consider why he may have been so distracted. Has he been under a lot of pressure at work lately? Is money tight? Then recall his past kindnesses—the morning he brought you breakfast in bed for no reason and the surprise party he planned for you on your 40th—rather than harbor feelings of resentment and anger. "This is definitely the hardest phase of forgiveness," acknowledges Fulton, who recommends that people practice forgiveness with the help of a partner, a friend, or a journal for support. If the process seems daunting, that's because it is. Recognize that for some people and in some instances, true forgiveness does not come for months or even years. So give yourself time if you need it.
The crucial aspect of forgiving is that you have made a commitment to absorb the pain and not pass it on to others.
Finally, perform an act of kindness toward the offender—even if it is just sincerely wishing that person well. Because this can be a monumental achievement, many who learn to forgive also experience a beneficial boost in self-esteem. At the end of all this mental and spiritual soul-searching, experts say, you should feel an emotional release and experience the freedom of forgiveness. Indeed, many people find themselves changed spiritually and emotionally after letting go of a grudge they've held for some time.
In the end, whether you forgive for the health of your body, peace in your mind, or the growth of a relationship, this opening of your heart can lead you on a path toward a fuller life. And remember, when you choose to forgive someone, you've really got nothing to lose—except, of course, a grudge.