Updated: May 16
What is the definition of forgiveness?
Bob Enright, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who pioneered the study of forgiveness three decades ago, defines true forgiveness as offering something positive, empathy, compassion, understanding, toward the person who hurt you.
What are some myths that people hold on to that hold them back from forgiving?
There are several myths people hold on to that keep them from forgiving others. Here are two examples.
Myth #1: Forgiveness means letting the person who hurt you get away with what they’ve done.
Truth: Forgiveness has absolutely nothing to do with the person who caused you hurt. It has everything to do with improving your well-being. As Worthington states, “Forgiveness happens inside my skin.”
Myth #2: Forgiving someone is a sign of weakness.
Truth: For many, forgiveness is a tremendously hard ordeal. Research shows that people who tend to ruminate are generally less quick to forgive since they are more likely to hold onto grudges or hurt feelings. While some people are naturally more forgiving than others, it is not an easy thing to do when the hurt is deep. Nevertheless, once you forgive, you become a much stronger and better person for having done it. To the person that believes forgives is a sign of weakness, Worthington reply “To that I say, well, the person must not have tried it.”
What are some of the benefits of forgiveness?
When someone hurts you, you can develop much bitterness and anger. Prolonged anger and resentment creates toxic stress in your body and impacts your immune system. Thus, stress relief is essential. Forgiveness has the power to relieve the body of toxic stress. Enright, the author of Forgiveness Therapy, states that forgiveness works wonders in the human body. He says, “There’s nothing wrong with healthy anger, but when anger is intense and long-lasting, it can do a number on us systemically.” He continues, “When you get rid of anger, your muscles relax, you’re less anxious, you have more energy, your immune system can strengthen.” Similarly, Dr. Chida’s research concluded that anger and hostility are linked to a higher risk of heart disease and poorer outcomes for people with existing heart disease (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2009).
What are some additional reasons why we should forgive?
In a meta-analysis of 54 forgiveness studies, researchers found that forgiveness significantly improves mental health (Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2014). In another study, researcher Toussaint followed participants for five weeks and measured how their forgiveness levels declined and flowed. He found that when forgiveness rose, levels of stress went down. Reduced stress, in turn, led to a decrease in mental health symptoms (Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2016). Subsequently, people who had greater levels of accumulated lifetime stress exhibited worse mental health outcomes.
Can we learn to forgive?
With practice, almost anyone can learn to be more forgiving. “You don’t have to be the world’s most forgiving person,” Toussaint says. “If you work at it, it takes the edge off the stress, and ultimately that helps you feel better.” When Toussaint and his colleagues studied Americans and Indians, representing Christian, Hindu, and Muslim backgrounds, they found that prayer boosts their ability to forgive (International Journal of Psychology, 2015). People who have religious faith seem to have the upper hand in forgiving. Worthington reports, “All of the major religions value forgiveness.”
What are the steps to forgiveness?
1- Choose to forgive – You can choose to live with the hurt and betrayal ruminating over and over, or you can choose to address the hurt feeling safe enough to move on with forgiveness. The pain may be so deep that you have not even considered that as a choice. But it is an option. Deciding to forgive will help you be aware that forgiveness is the best gift you can give yourself. You may also find that prayer will strengthen your choice to forgive.
2- Learn empathy – You can learn to turn evil thoughts for good in your mind with compassion. Developing empathy is an excellent place to start. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Perhaps there are things in their lives that influenced their malicious actions. Having this thought does not excuse their behavior, but will help you understand that evil exists in this world.
3- Replace negative thoughts - Through cognitive exercises, as stated by Enright, you can “begin to see the other person as a wounded human being, as opposed to stereotyping them and defining them by their hurtful actions.”
4- Keep trying, even when it’s hard. There are beautiful Biblical text and quote you can read when you find it hard to forgive. God will give you the strength to overcome the bitterness and anger.
5- Live your life with this new-found freedom – Forgiveness helps eliminate “toxic stress”. Once it’s done, nothing can hold you back from enjoying your life.
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Chida, Y., & Steptoe, A. (2009). The Association of Anger and Hostility With Future Coronary
Heart Disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 53(11), 936–946. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2008.11.044
Toussaint LL, Shields GS, Slavich GM. Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic
Parallel Process Study. Ann Behav Med. 2016 Oct;50(5):727-735. doi: 10.1007/s12160-016-9796-6. PMID: 27068160; PMCID: PMC5055412.
Toussaint, L., Kamble, S., Marschall, J. C., & Duggi, D. B. (2015). The effects of brief prayer on
the experience of forgiveness: An American and Indian comparison. International Journal of Psychology, 51(4), 288–295. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12139
Wade, N. G., Hoyt, W. T., Kidwell, J. E. M., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2014). Efficacy of
psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82(1), 154–170. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035268
Weir, K. (2017, January). Forgiveness can improve mental and physical health. Monitor on
Psychology, 48(1). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/01/ce-corner
PhD, R. E. D., & Md, R. F. P. (2014). Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (Second ed.). American Psychological Association.
Toussaint, L., Worthington, E., & Williams, D. R. (2016). Forgiveness and Health: Scientific Evidence and Theories Relating Forgiveness to Better Health (Softcover reprint of the original 1st ed. 2015 ed.). Springer.
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