In this article, we take a look at the value of forgiveness and its relationship with healing. We also explore why it is important to cultivate forgiveness both towards ourselves and others.
Scroll down to find out more on the importance of forgiveness and how it can neutralize anger and resentment.
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This article contains:
- Why is Forgiveness Important?
- How Can Forgiveness Free Us from Anger?
- The Relationship Between Forgiveness and Healing
- Self-Forgiveness and the Value of Forgiving Yourself
- Why Forgiving Others is the Best Thing You Can do for Yourself
- Forgiveness and Compassion
- Gratitude and Forgiveness
- A Take-Home Message
Why is Forgiveness Important?
Negative life events, if significant enough, can get encoded in memory and often cause us to have physical reactions to remembering the painful experience. From the perspective of psychological research holding a grudge is considered an “imagined emotional response” (Witvliet, Ludwig, & Laan, 2001).
This would suggest that one must fuel the negative emotions in order to sustain them over a long period of time. For example, vengeful thoughts that embellish and describe the event with contempt only intensify the emotional imagery and physiological experience.
There is research, however, that shows the desire for revenge to be in some instances stronger than empathic motivation, especially in men. Participants in a Singer and Lamm’s study did not respond with empathy toward a person that was suffering, especially when they felt the person deserved punishment (2009).
One moment of anger can wipe out a lifetime of merit.
Interventions such as perspective taking that result in empathetic compassion can help one in overcoming anger and resentment.
This cultivation of empathy involves connecting to the common humanity between oneself and the offender as well as trying to see the situation from the other person’s perspective and attempting to understand what might have contributed to the behavior that caused one harm (Witvliet et al., 2001).
Many argue that empathy should be cultivated early on through forgiveness education. When inner turmoil ensues in adulthood, it may be tough to find our way to forgiveness if we’ve never practiced it before.
It is very much like asking someone who has never worked out to run a marathon. Many believe that children and adolescents should begin learning at a young age what forgiveness is and how people go about forgiving.
Teaching forgiveness is especially important to help reduce anger in children who have suffered injustice sufficient enough to compromise their emotional health.
Forgiveness can also help students, now and later as adults, forge stable and meaningful relationships without anger causing discord and division.
Finally, forgiveness can play a big part in how communities thrive when people begin to see more deeply the inherent worth of others.
Cultivating forgiveness is important because there are senseless crimes committed in a fit of anger where one brief moment can alter the course of many lives. People whose lives are affected by these crimes may not have the ability to forgive, thereby contributing to more resentment and anger in the world.
The message of the Dalai Lama in his book Healing Anger sees human ability to inflict harm on oneself and others as part of human nature, where some individuals are more prone to it than others (1997).
He explains that some acts of violence are committed out of ignorance or carelessness. Yet others are prompted by circumstances. All of which are presented as outside of a person’s control when one’s mental, emotional or circumstantial conditions are concerned.
In light of this perspective, he suggests that it becomes pointless to hold it against those who hurt themselves or injure others.
How Can Forgiveness Free Us from Anger?
Forgiveness can neutralize anger and resentment. The Dalai Lama suggests that the best way to deal with continually getting angry after being wronged by another person is to see them from a different angle and see that perhaps they still have positive qualities.
He also suggests that the negative events can be a source of opportunities otherwise not possible, a form of re-framing toward the positive (Dalai Lama, 1997).
Generating universal compassion is another way of dealing with anger that aids in cultivating forgiveness and can be accomplished through reflecting on how we are all connected because we all share in the experience of pain and all wish to overcome suffering.
The Dalai Lama reminds us that cultivating “acceptance of harm and injuries inflicted by others” is a form of patience and tolerance and can be practiced alongside an appreciation of the complexity of human condition and nature of reality (Dalai Lama, 1997).
Buddhist approach to anger and resentment suggests that cultivating the virtue of forgiveness is closely tied to developing practices of patience and tolerance. These forms of practice encompass cultivation of mindfulness and wisdom, giving or generosity, as well as honesty and sincerity.
The English language has no equivalent in meaning to the word patience as an internal strength. Buddhist tradition, however, recognizes many different aspects of patience (sopa) and speaks to how these concepts relate to each other, namely:
- tolerance and
Buddhist tradition also distinguishes between different kinds of patience depending on the context: the patience of not retaliating, the patience of accepting hardship, and patience of accepting reality.
The Dalai Lama also encourages us to contemplate our impermanence which allows us to have more appreciation for the time we have. Reflecting on impermanence can give us a sense of perspective and urgency and allow us to see human potential and the value of our existence.
He reminds us that the tendency to rehearse after being hurt is common, but reliving the pain and suffering is optional. If we consider the explanation that resentment is considered “a commitment to remain angry (or to resume anger periodically)” holding a grudge seems to be an equivalent of cultivating anger (Dalai Lama, 1997).
The Dalai Lama proposes that instead we either develop a sense of indifference towards the aggressor or further develop compassion for those who are afflicted with such tendencies. He believes that practicing awareness of the nature of suffering can help one develop the ability to connect to other people’s pain.
The practice of loving-kindness and other positive states is one application of this wisdom to a difficult situation.
The Dalai Lama also suggests that with the help of humility and patience one can resist the urge to retaliate and counteract what he refers to as “deluded states of mind.” Finally, his Holiness suggests that we take it a step further by deliberately familiarizing ourselves with the nature of suffering so we can become more tolerant of it.
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.
|Rank Mentality||Rank Mentality||Care Mentality|
|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
|Shame-based self-attacking||Compassionate self-correction|
|For a transgression:
||For a transgression:
|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).
Forgiveness and Compassion
Social neuroscience found credible evidence that empathy, defined as being able to feel the pain of another in contrast to sympathy, compassion or emphatic concern, is in fact physiologically represented as automatic correlations in brain activity between the person suffering and one empathizing.
Singer and Lamm (2009, p. 81) tell us that “consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the ﬁrst-hand experience of that emotion. Part of the neural activation shared between self- and other-related experiences seems to be rather automatically activated.”
The empathizer’s response can be amplified or inhibited depending on the context and relationship of those involved, as well as the perspective of the one who empathizes (Singer & Lamm, 2009).
This tendency also has been referred to as “mirror neurons” and lands significant support to the Buddhist teachings that claim that love and compassion are grounded in “experience and in reality” (Dalai Lama, 1997).
The role of empathy and apology in the process of forgiveness as well as their link to each other were based on the hypotheses that “the relationship between receiving an apology from and forgiving one’s offender is a function of increased empathy for the offender” in a study done by McCullough and colleagues (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997).
Specifically, they presented a model of forgiveness based on the levels of empathy experienced by the victim toward the transgressor.
Interpersonal forgiveness in close relationships was defined as a motivational transformation where a person was less likely to retaliate and avoid and more inclined towards reconciliation and goodwill. Empathy toward the offending partner was found to be a key condition that facilitated forgiveness (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997).
These findings were also consistent and supported by Gottman’s research on the role of shared history and positive attachment in the wellbeing of a close relationship (Lisitsa, 2013).
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.
Scholars from contemplative traditions, however, have raised concern for science’s reduction of emotions and mental states to mere neural activities and argued against the methodology that relies heavily on the correlates of neural activities to determine nebulous concepts such as empathy and other mental states.
The Dalai Lama reminds us about the importance of patience and tolerance when cultivating a successful practice of love and compassion and that opportunities to combat anger should be welcomed as enhancement of one’s practice.
He even suggests that one should be grateful towards the one that hurt us, although many may find that to be an advanced example of the benefit finding approach to forgiveness.
The suggestions for cultivating patience and reframing experience into gratitude towards the offender would have to be a form of “extreme” positive psychology. It is hard to imagine a person to be capable of unconditional forgiveness without introducing some form of significant spiritual practice.
Gratitude and Forgiveness
Practicing gratitude has been consistently linked to greater wellbeing in a study done by Emmons and McCullough, where it was measured by mood, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms, and overall life satisfaction appraisals (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
Positive affect had the most significant results in terms of increase but only when gratitude was practiced with greater frequency. Gratitude was found to improve overall life satisfaction and increased feelings of optimism about the future, at least in the short term.
Gratitude contributed to fewer physical health complaints when gratitude was practiced once per week. When the gratitude practice was intensified to daily exercises, there was an increase in positive affect and pro-social behavior within the two-week study, and better sleep and better close relationships with the three-week intervention.
Emmons and McCullough speculated that emotional and interpersonal benefits may be a result of a conscious focus on blessings. Intense gratitude practice increased pro-social behavior and empathy as the subjects reported the instances of helping others (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
Since gratitude has been linked to empathy and empathy was found to have implications for forgiveness, there is potential that fostering gratitude could improve one’s capacity toward forgiveness.
Therapies like Naikan focus on recalling what we have received from others, which as reflective practice is a form of gratitude.
As gratitude can be other-focused, this would imply that it can enhance a sense of greater connectedness to others, which in turn can lead to compassion and empathy, and down the road can create a fertile ground for cultivating forgiveness.
Finally, Richard Moore’s talk on the importance of gratitude in the cultivation of forgiveness is centered on gratefulness being a better approach to life in general. He believed that focus on what one has versus on what is missing can make all the difference, both in appreciation of what is as well as a form of coping mechanism with what has happened.
A Take-Home Message
The value and benefits of cultivating forgiveness are evident and start with us. Self-forgiveness is an important aspect of one’s ability to forgive others and can be a gateway to living a more fulfilled and loving life.
For more information on the benefits of forgiveness be sure to check our other articles on the topic, such as Forgiveness Exercises.
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