What do you say to someone who offends you? What do you think of yourself when you hurt someone else? How long do negative feelings last? We face insults, injuries, and annoyances often: sometimes daily. How we handle these difficult and often unpleasant situations may appear to be secondary in importance, but our reactions may actually have greater and lasting effects in our lives and the lives of others. Several studies have been conducted in an attempt to assess how forgiveness affects individuals physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.
What does it mean when someone says “I forgive you”? While the simple word “forgive” doesn’t undo a wrong committed or rewind time, it can defrost a cold, hurting heart. How is this possible? Forgiveness has been loosely defined as “a cognitive, emotional, and behavioral response to interpersonal conflict” (Lawler). More specifically, it is the ability and willingness to let go of negative feelings toward someone else or yourself and replace them with positivity. One definition of forgiveness is “a freely made choice to give up revenge, resentment, or harsh judgments toward a person who caused hurt, and to strive to respond with generosity, compassion, and kindness toward that person” (Toussaint 375). Merriam-Webster defines the action forgive as “to stop feeling anger,” “to stop blaming,” and “to give up resentment” among other definitions. The negative responses (such as anger, hurt, resentment, accusation, etc) that come from conflict and holding grudges can affect a person not only mentally or emotionally, but also physically, causing stress, tension, and health problems. It is natural to believe that letting go of these negative emotions and consequences would free up the brain, body, and soul for more peaceable feelings and healthy reactions inside. However, forgiveness can appear slightly more complex when considering what it is not.
“Condoning, excusing, denying, minimizing, or forgetting” does not necessarily constitute forgiveness (Toussaint 375). It is a choice to forgive someone, a deliberate action that requires an alert willingness. Not only this, forgiveness can require daily choices or actions such as choosing to respond kindly, choosing to speak, choosing to disregard negative thoughts, choosing to serve—especially when the person you’re forgiving is someone you see often. What, then, makes this so hard for so many people? Forgiveness is a battle of will and emotions. Memories of hurt, embarrassment, or disappointment can be easy to remember. How can we deal with them? It is surprising how fast something can trigger the mind to remember past experiences. Sometimes you have to fight to forgive.
There have been numerous studies on how forgiveness can affect mortality. Research from a study published in the 2012 Journal of Behavioral Science on the topic has found that physical health seemed to be the sole link between forgiveness and mortality, thereby tying forgiveness to physical health. The researchers reason that “forgiveness may offer much hope in ameliorating human suffering through reducing depression, hopelessness, and stress, but it may be its ability to build resistance and modulate psychophysiological homeostasis that offers protection against mortality” (Toussaint 383). Thus, stress, sadness, or anger can negatively affect the physical health of the body and mind. It is also believed that when an individual goes through an emotionally stressful experience (especially during key developmental periods of childhood) that stress can become a chronic “biological burden” that in essence poisons the body. This can lead to potential chronic stress and/or even a chronic disease (Elliott 241–42). Forgiveness, on the other hand, can lower the heart rate and blood pressure and increase the heart’s ability to recover (Elliott 244). Ridding oneself of negative emotions about or towards an individual (or even self) can both calm and strengthen the body, improving its natural functions and preventing possible health dangers in the future!
It was also found that conditional and unconditional forgiveness affected people differently because they were different types of forgiveness. When a person forgives only conditionally, it leaves the door open for long periods of holding grudges, of waiting to forgive. For example, one may feel he or she can only forgive if the offender apologizes. Or, one may be unable to forgive because the offender is deceased, gone, or unwilling to apologize to make wrongs right. On the other hand, being able to forgive unconditionally allows the injured person to choose to forgive whenever they want to (Toussaint 383). Unconditional forgiveness empowers people as agents in control of their own lives and actions. It can readily present healing and a sense of freedom available for everyone involved.
Research has also shown that forgiveness may be a key factor in forgetting negative memories. Researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have conducted a study to see if forgetting actually does follow forgiving. Several participants were presented with hypothetical situations in which someone hurt or offended them in some way and were asked if they’d forgive the offender. Through pairing the scenarios with color-coded cue words and asking participants to remember only certain cue word scenarios, the researchers found that the participants actually “showed more forgetting when they had been instructed to forget the scenario” after already deciding they’d forgive the offender. On the other hand, participants remembered scenarios they had not “forgiven” more, even when researchers attempted to train them to forget. This is a powerful benefit of forgiveness because, as lead author Saima Noreen explains, “The ability to forget upsetting memories may provide an effective coping strategy that enables people to move on with their lives” ("Forgiving a Wrong May Actually Make It Easier to Forget"). We can see that there is definitely merit in the saying “forgive and forget.” The saying holds true! Forgiving someone really can help you forget the negative memories and accompanying emotions.
Forgiveness itself is therapeutic because it heals hearts in more ways than one. Consequently, forgiveness seems to be a key component of therapy in general because of its ties to emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Forgiveness therapy is actually a large focus for many clinical researchers, psychologists, therapists, and clerical counselors. Its purpose is two-fold in that it helps clients rid themselves of negative feelings and actions and then have an increase of positive feelings and actions (Elliott 242). This occurs over a period of time and several meetings with a counselor. Because of its deeply personal and internal nature, it is difficult to place exact statistics on numbers of people who forgive and are healed or made healthier. However, ponder the power behind the concept of forgiveness therapy—a world with more peaceable, healthier, and less stressed individuals! Wow. With the research that has come out about the basic facts of health and stress, we can assume with a fair amount of certainty the potential powerful effects forgiveness can have on a being’s mind, brain, and body. And it all branches out from there. The soul of one individual influences his or her community in some way or another, and therefore the world. What if some of the world’s most bitter and angry people were able to forgive? How different life might be.
If someone wanted to play basketball or learn to paint, he or she would need to take opportunities to practice. It takes visualization, hard work, persistence, mental focus, and diligence. Like any talent or skill, forgiveness doesn’t always come easy. Being able to forgive takes practice and active diligent effort, and it requires the parties involved to make choices based on their own morals and judgments. It can also require a complete change in judgment, which is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of forgiveness—but it IS possible. Try challenging yourself next time someone offends you in some way to forgive quicker than you normally would. Remember that forgiveness is not pretending to forget or justifying the offense. It is a full realization of the offense and an active choice to replace negative feelings or resulting actions with healing positive ones toward the offender. It may be difficult or daunting, possibly painful, but it could save relationships; it could even save your life!
Elliott, Barbara. “Forgiveness Therapy: A Clinical Intervention for Chronic Disease.” Journal of Religion and Health 50.2 (2011): 240-247. Web. 23 June 2014.
"Forgiving a Wrong May Actually Make It Easier to Forget." Association for Psychological Science. Association for Psychological Science, 13 May 2014. Web. 16 June 2014. <http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/forgiving-a-wrong-may-actually-make-it-easier-to-forget.html>.
Lawler, Kathleen Younger, Jarred Piferi, Rachel Jobe, Rebecca Edmondson, Kimberley Jones, Warren. "The Unique Effects Of Forgiveness On Health: An Exploration Of Pathways." Journal Of Behavioral Medicine 28.2 (2005): 157-167. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 16 June 2014.
Toussaint, Loren Owen, Amy Cheadle, Alyssa. "Forgive To Live: Forgiveness, Health, And Longevity." Journal Of Behavioral Medicine 35.4 (2012): 375-386. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 16 June 2014.