Forgiveness: A Proven Elixir for Health & Well-being
Updated: May 13
“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” – Malachy McCourt
If you’re gunning for revenge, don’t feel too bad.
According to UC San Diego psychologist and author Michael McCullough, vengeance and the want to retaliate against those who’ve hurt us, comes built-in to humankind.
But while natural, resentment and grudge-holding are also heavy weight we carry around. Sometimes we can get really comfortable in our anger and once it moves in, it can hang around for years.
The offender may be long gone but here we are, still bitter towards the person we married, the company we worked for, or whom or whatever.
Forgiveness is about setting that heavy weight down.
“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” – Anne Lamott
What forgiveness is and isn’t
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), forgiveness is a voluntary choice to deliberately release resentment towards someone who has wronged you.
It means surrendering feelings of resentment and anger towards those who’ve hurt us, resulting in less of a want to retaliate or seek revenge. Easier said than done for sure. Ego, pride and pain are potent and can help keep us stuck.
What’s helpful is to be clear on what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is separate from a lot of things: It’s not condoning an act, or minimizing or excusing an act. Forgiveness also isn’t forgetting anything or restoring anything. It doesn’t mean reconciliation or communication.
“Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.” - Rev. Don Felt
Forgiving begins with acceptance. Whatever it is - it is what it is. Ruminating and being angry doesn’t change anything.
Acceptance alters how we perceive what is occurring, and in doing so, can tip the scales in our favor for a change.
“Separate the pain that is inevitable from the suffering that is optional.” – Dr. Shauna Shapiro
Compassion and forgiveness
McCullough et al. (1997) found that in close relationships, having empathy for an offender increased the likelihood of forgiving. Even beyond those closest to us, compassion is what leads to all true forgiveness.
Long-time forgiveness researcher and psychologist Dr. Robert Enright, says to really forgive, we must replace resentment with understanding and feelings of compassion and empathy for those who have harmed us.
What helps, according to Enright (2006) is to separate the person from the hurtful act.
Pain caused by others can often stem from their own hurt, and may be less about who they lash out at. Compassion can help us acknowledge unrelated sources from which cruel actions can stem. In that way, Enright says “we move from the role of the victim and see beyond.”
Taking responsibility for our lives
Taking responsibility for our lives starts with taking accountability for how we feel now and from this moment on.
In owning our own feelings, thoughts and behavior, we take back control of our life. Forgiveness is about getting unstuck, moving forward and making room for something new.
It’s a choice we make for ourselves, alone.
“...forgiving is for the truly serious wounds of life…” – Lewis B. Smedes, The Art of Forgiving
It’ not about them
The worse the act, the more pain that was inflicted, the less the perpetrator cares, the less the odds of remorse or apology – the harder it can be to forgive.
Releasing resentment is something you do for yourself and no one else, least of all the person who may have caused the pain.
Forgiveness can happen with or without an apology, justice or notification.
“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed.” – Karen Swartz, M.D.
Health effects of hostility, anger
Holding onto long-term hostility takes a big physical toll.
Ruminating and rehashing resentments have been linked to anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem and has been shown to damage our physical health.
On the other hand, research has found that the process of forgiveness has a long list of upsides.
Benefits of forgiveness
Dr. Frederic Luskin, director of Stanford’s Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good (2003), has found training in forgiveness benefits mental and physical health.
His team found it helped reduce anger, stress, depression; as well as heart disease, pain and physical symptoms – while boosting one’s immune system and mortality rates.
Find a pill that’s going to do all that.
Lots of other studies have for decades, confirmed the mental and physical benefits associated with forgiving our transgressors.
“Forgiveness is about feeling better as a person.” – Dr. Loren Toussaint
Forgiveness, stress and well-being
Professor of psychology at Luther College, Dr. Loren Toussaint and colleagues (2016) connected increases in forgiveness to reduced stress levels.
In another study, Toussaint et al. (2016) found that, like the right vaccine, forgiveness was powerful enough to actively protect us against future stress and anxiety - even depression - despite high, ongoing stress levels.
From pain to something empowering
Forgiveness has shown to grow self-confidence and restore self-esteem. Dr. Bob Enright says the process of forgiveness and developing compassion, can change how we think and feel about ourselves.
Luskin (2003) links learning to forgive with becoming stronger emotionally, better mood, increased optimism, hope and happiness.
With less negative emotion to compete with, there’s room for something positive and more productive.
It seems some of us are more wired towards forgiveness than others.
According to forgiveness expert, Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University, people more likely to forgive tend to be more compassionate, agreeable and less neurotic.
McCullough et al. (2020) found that people predisposed to forgive are also tend to be more emotionally stable, and possibly more spiritual or religious.
But there’s still good news for those of us not wired for forgiveness. With time and practice, Dr. Toussaint says that we all can learn to be more forgiving.
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Lewis B. Smedes