The Relationship Between Forgiveness and Healing
Studies show that being an object of transgression can be a significant cause for developing depression and that practicing forgiveness can alleviate feelings of anger, avoidance and vengeful-ness that lead to negative consequences in one’s emotional and physical health as well as relationships (Brown, 2003; McCullough et al., 1998).
Depression is merely anger without enthusiasm.
Cultivating forgiveness as a means for neutralizing anger and resentment can be a form of coping strategy, while deliberate replacement of negative feelings with positive emotions can become a form of personal transformation that can lead to emotional healing.
Interventions such as perspective taking, benefit finding, connecting to the greater good, cultivating empathy, and neutralizing hostility can help one in overcoming anger and resentment (Witvliet et al., 2001; Worthington & Scherer, 2004).
Forgiving responses like developing feelings of empathy and granting forgiveness can reduce arousal, negative emotions, and stress responses.
One study found that letting go and adopting a merciful attitude toward the offender contributed to fewer cardiovascular and immune system problems (Witvliet et al., 2001).
Other studies found forgiveness to be positively associated with five measures of health:
- physical symptoms,
- medications used,
- sleep quality,
- fatigue, and
- somatic complaints (McCullough, Sandage, & Worthington, 1997; McCullough & Worthington, 1994; Thoresen, Harris, & Luskin, 2000).
According to the Mayo Clinic, deliberate letting go of negative emotions, particularly those that are strong and have been linked to forgiveness brings with it plenty of health benefits, including improved relationships, decreased anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure, a lowered risk of depression, and stronger immune and heart health.
Letting go of negative emotions can often have a remarkable impact on the body.
Self-Forgiveness and the Value of Forgiving Yourself
Self-forgiveness is an important aspect of one’s ability to forgive others, in the same way as self-compassion is crucial to one’s predisposition to be compassionate toward other human beings.
Being kind to yourself and forgiving of your own shortcomings can give us much needed perspective on suffering and imperfections of others.
It allows us to connect to others on the level of common humanity and can often be a humbling experience when evaluating what motivates other people’s behavior.
Studies in conflict resolution show that we tend to invent intentions for others when in most situations we know only our half of the story.
Self-forgiveness has been defined as “a willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself” (Enright, 1996, p. 116).
Wenzel, Woodyatt, and Hedrick (2012) argued that self-forgiveness is best understood as a process by which we sever the negative link between taking responsibility and positive self-regard, which is a process that Holmgren (1998) referred to as genuine self-forgiveness.
The scope of psychological research on self-forgiveness to date has examined it across a range of contexts. Self-forgiveness has been related to:
- drug and alcohol addiction or use (Gueta, 2013; McGaffin, Lyons, & Deane, 2013),
- mothering (Gueta, 2013),
- smoking (Wohl & Thompson, 2011),
- gambling (Squires, Sztainert, Gillen, Caouette, & Wohl, 2012), and
- disordered eating (Peterson et al., 2017).
Although the impact of self-forgiveness in different contexts have varied from study to study, forgiveness has been studied in population groups including:
- cancer patients (Toussaint, Barry, Bornfriend, & Markman, 2014),
- people living with HIV/AIDS (Mudgal & Tiwari, 2015),
- military service members (Bryan, Theriault, & Bryan, 2015),
- hypersexual disorder patients (Hook et al., 2015), and
- complex trauma survivors (Worthington & Langberg, 2012).
According to Enright and Fitzgibbons (2015), self-forgiveness entails releasing negative emotions directed at oneself and involves a meaningful interpretation and successful resolution of negative emotions or attitudes directed at oneself.
Self-forgiveness also entails fostering of positive emotions directed toward oneself; and the definition of self-forgiveness not only included the abandoning of self-directed negative emotion, but also the increase in positive or benevolent emotion like compassion, generosity, and love toward the self (Enright & Fitzgibbons 2015).
We can examine self-forgiveness in its many facets as:
- a response to guilt and shame,
- a step toward processing transgressions,
- a means of reducing anxiety, and
- an essential component of, or under some circumstances a barrier to, psychotherapeutic intervention.
Self-forgiveness as an applied discipline relates to diverse psychosocial contexts such as:
- addiction and recovery,
- couples and families,
- healthy aging,
- the workplace, and
- the military.
Although productive self-criticism is crucial to personal improvement after moral or another failure, it is important to understand the emotions of shame, humiliation, and guilt frequently associated with it.
These self-conscious emotions relate to either competitive or caring motivational systems and understanding these suggests that self-forgiveness will operate very differently depending on the emotions and motivations to which it relates.
The table below shows distinctions between shame, humiliation, and guilt.
|Inwardly directed attention on damage to self and reputation
|Externally directed attention is to the threat or damage done to the self by the other
|Externally directed attention on hurt caused with empathy for the other, allied with a focus on one’s behavior
|Feelings are of anxiety, paralysis, heart sink, confusion, emptiness, self-directed anger
|Feelings are of anger, injustice, and vengeance
|Feelings are of sorrow, sadness, and remorse
|Thoughts focused on negative judgments of the ‘whole self’ such as being bad, inadequate
|Thoughts focused on unfairness of any negative judgments or behaviors by others
|Thoughts focused on the ‘harm to the other’, sympathy and empathy
|Behaviors focused on submissive closing down and moving away, avoidant displacement, denial, self-harm; self-recovery
|Behaviors focused on vengeance and silencing the other – having power over the other, belittling and humiliating back.
|Behaviors focused on trying to repair harm, offer genuine apologies, make amends for the benefit of others
Adapted from P. Gilbert (2010) Compassion Focused Therapy
- Focuses on the desire to condemn and punish
- Punishes past errors and is often backward looking
- Is given with anger, frustration, contempt, disappointment
- Concentrates on deficits and fear of exposure
- Focuses on self as a global sense of self
- Focuses on the desire to improve
- Emphasizes growth and enhancement
- Is forward-looking
- Is given with encouragement, support, kindness
- Builds on positives (e.g. seeing what you did well and then considering learning points)
|For a transgression:
- Shame, avoidance, fear
- Heartsink, lowered mood
|For a transgression:
- Guilt, engage
- Sorrow, remorse
|Consider an example of a critical teacher with a child who is struggling
|Consider an example of encouraging supportive teacher with a child who is struggling
Adapted from P. Gilbert (2009) The Compassionate Mind
Self-forgiveness has significant implications for relationships and couple and family therapy, particularly when going through the challenges of a rupture due to an offense.
Self-forgiveness is an integrative process within a person in which the self that committed the wrongdoing is acknowledged, accepted, and provided the opportunity to move forward.
The theoretical concepts of attachment, differentiation of self (DoS), and intersubjectivity must be considered to create an integrative relational process of self-forgiveness where we can anticipate the common barriers to the process.
Why Forgiving Others is the Best Thing You Can do for Yourself
Loren Toussaint, an associate professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa, discovered that if people were highly forgiving of both themselves and others, that characteristic alone virtually eliminated the connection between stress and mental illness.
Toussaint reminds us that without forgiveness we don’t have a buffer against stress and often will feel its raw effects. Even something as seemingly insignificant as a short prayer or a brief meditation on forgiveness can help people take the edge off (Toussaint, Kamble, Marschall, & Duggi, 2016).
Worthington and Scherer (2004) found that unforgiveness, when considered as a negative emotional and cognitive construct, causes stress.
Inability to forgive was also linked to anger and hostility, and those negative tendencies have proven to have a negative health effect, especially with regard to cardiovascular conditions.
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Although dwelling on injustice, holding onto grudges and exacting vengeance are tempting options, study after study shows that forgiving those who have harmed us can systematically reduce distress and increase satisfaction with life.
Several studies linked forgiveness to more positive emotions and fewer symptoms of physical illness. One study found that forgiving on one day resulted in participants reporting higher levels of happiness on the next day (Witvliet et al., 2001; Worthington & Scherer, 2004).
Forgiving was also found to be an effective emotion-focused coping strategy that could contribute to overall health and was also linked to more frequent experiences of positive emotions of empathy and compassion.
Positive emotions, in turn, have been linked to well-being as in Barbara Frederickson’s broaden-and-build theory that suggests that increase in positive emotion improves cognitive abilities and relational skills, and had long term health effect measured through longevity studies (2004).