What we get from forgiveness

Dateline: Portland, Oregon. Forgiveness is a skill worth cultivating. Do you have a grudge, past hurt or an ax to grind? Consider the following.

Why are the words “I am sorry” for some, the three most difficult words in the English language? Today I am thinking about the role of forgiveness, and why forgiving can be equally as difficult, and every bit as important as apologizing. Here are some common questions about holding a grudge or past hurt.

Is forgiving telling someone what they did is okay with me? Forgiveness ideally comes when the person who has hurt you acknowledges the impact of their behavior and the pain they have caused you. It is not telling them what they did was okay and hoping for the best, rather it is an opportunity to acknowledge pain and reset expectations.

What happens if I need to let go of something when the person who has hurt me has not or cannot apologize? I walk through this process again and again in my practice. People carry the burden of anger and disappointment, often for years. They struggle with how to let go when people have gone from their lives—the deceased parent, the high school bully who somehow still holds power, the former spouse.

And it can be more difficult when the transgressor is present and unwilling or unable to acknowledge their behavior. This can set up a pattern of hurtful behavior followed by apology followed by more hurtful behavior—a kind of Groundhog Day scenario some people are all too familiar with. Therapy can help dislodge maladaptive patterns in a couple or family, or can help an individual examine their approach to difficult relationships.

Some people think of therapy as an archaeological dig focused on finding who to blame for what. But that is not the goal. The true goal of treatment is to learn our strengths, develop new skills and figure out what ails us. Then we use our strengths and skills to find solutions to those things. Blame is not a solution. Blame can sometimes stick us firmly to a difficult past.

When you think about forgiveness and blame, it is important to consider whether choosing not to forgive might be your way of hanging on to the past. And returning to those with whom you share a cycle of anger and blame may be a sign of many things, including the belief that this is what you deserve out of life. If you are caught in a cycle of anger and blame with someone who is important to you, it is worth considering the implications of anger, blame and resentment on your emotional and physical health.  It can help to remember you have plenty to gain from letting go. In other words, there are health advantages to finding your way to forgiveness.

What are the health implications associated with holding a grudge? Allowing negative experiences to overshadow more positive life events is not uncommon, in fact we are biologically predisposed to focus on the negative, a survival skill brought to us by our pre-ancestors. But doing so may short change us in a variety of ways, and may be implicated in many ailments including depression and hypertension. For example, vanOyen Witvliet found that ruminating on those who have wronged us causes elevated blood pressure and a variety of physical markers of stress, while actively trying to think of empathy toward a transgressor reduces these markers. And Luskin (2002) writes that active hope and gratitude, educating the self, and thinking about the future can redirect you toward forgiveness.

There is good evidence to suggest we can change ourselves by forgiving others—in fact, it helps many people forgive when they know the goal is not to change the other person, but to improve the quality of their own life.

Luskin, F. (2002) Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. Harper Collins.