Why Forgiving Others and Yourself Are The Keys To A Peaceful Life
Updated: May 30, 2020
Before you skip over this because you're afraid it's fluff, consider your health. Want to reduce your chances of cardiovascular issues by lowering your blood pressure and heart rate? Wish you were a little better at letting go of anger? Think you are already pretty good at forgiving but want validation? Read on!
You can't forgive without loving. And I don't mean sentimentality. I don't mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, 'I forgive. I'm finished with it.' - Maya Angelou
Forgiveness is traditionally defined as ceasing to feel anger or resentment against an offender or not casting revenge on someone for wrongdoing (Marks et al., 2013). However, we know this has more depth to it based on decades of research. Forgiveness also creates positive feelings and alleviates psychological pain. Less forgiving people have a higher sympathetic nervous system response (more feelings of stress, becoming tense or trembling, digestive problems, flushed skin, increase blood pressure and heart rate) than those who are more forgiving (Witvliet et al., 2001). Your health depends on this!
Forgiveness has a great impact on mood as well. If you are feeling down but you forgive someone, your mood tends to lift. On the other hand, if you are in a good mood but decide not to forgive someone, you begin to feel negative (Marks et al., 2013).
For some, this information may not surprise you. Forgiving people typically have less depression and anxiety, are less ruminative, less narcissistic, and more empathetic. The more forgiving a person is, the less hostility and anger they internalize as well. Reasons to forgive can range widely, but benefits don't. Reasons to forgive range from excusing someone who cut you off in traffic to forgiving the betrayal of a friend or spouse. Research shows that forgiveness facilitates a reestablishment of a relationship and confidence after their wrongdoing (McCullough & Witvliet, 2001). When you forgive, you repair a relationship (friendship or romantic) and can pick up where you left off.
Self forgiveness might be the most difficult skill for some. When we achieve this, we reduce the chances of depression, aggression, and feeling inadequate. If you can forgive yourself, acknowledge the mistake, and think of it as a learning experience, you give yourself a better chance of becoming a more forgiving person in the future (resulting in a more compassionate, empathetic nature).
A fascinating study in 2001 tested responses of college students as they imagined responding to a real-life offender in unforgiving and forgiving ways. The unforgiving group mentally rehearsed the hurtful offense and nursed a grudge, while the forgiving group empathized with the offender and granted forgiveness.
After many imaging trials, the unforgiving group showed an increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as an increase in anger and sadness. Conversely, the forgiving group showed a decrease in stress and negative emotion and an increased perception of control. What does this mean? When we choose not to forgive, we risk reeking havoc on our body. However, when we choose to forgive, we actually receive at least short term positive benefits (McCullough & Witvliet, 2001).
Imagine that you are having a great day. The sun is shining and you are on your way home from work. Your favorite song just came on the radio, and you are humming along.
Suddenly a car swerves into your lane without using a blinker, causing you to hit the brakes. Your heart quickens as your seat belt yanks you back into place after you slow. "HEY!!!" you might yell, shaking a fist at the car. You grumble some swear words under your breath and complain about (insert your city)'s drivers. You realize the car came at you so fast you didn't even get a moment to honk at them. Once you get home, you complain to your spouse/friend about the crappy driver and promise to honk as loud as you can at the next offender.
Now, take a moment to observe and notice any changes in your breathing, tenseness in your jaw or brow, etc.
Let's look at the situation from a different perspective.
This time, when the car swerves into your lane, you still hit the brakes, you still get yanked by your seat belt, and you still feel startled. You start to feel anger build up after you realize that you're okay. "That was scary!" you think. You wonder why the person was in such a hurry. "Maybe they just lost their job, or went through a bad break up," you muse. "In fact, maybe their wife is about to have a baby and they're rushing to the hospital so they don't miss it!" The anger diffuses.
This is one of my most common musings when a driver upsets me. I usually laugh at myself when I think of them racing to the hospital, because I know how ridiculous it sounds. BUT, it reminds me of the humanity in us all. If that were me driving like a maniac after a terrible day, I would hope someone gives me the benefit of the doubt. Even though the above retort might seem laughable to some, the science speaks for itself... when we forgive (even strangers), we reduce our blood pressure and heart rate, allowing the body to relax. We don't dwell on that situation for the rest of the day. We don't let it ruin our mood when we get home to loved ones, and in fact, the whole experience just kind of...dissolves.
Disclaimer: I'm not saying you shouldn't honk at a car if they put you in danger... my husband will be quick to point that out (haha!). BUT the point of this story is that YOU get to choose how much that incident impacts your life. Which reaction do you choose?
It might sound hard (or maybe it sounds easy!), but it gets easier and easier the more you practice. In fact, after awhile, it seems like overkill when someone gets so angry about a car cutting them off in traffic.
Sound easier said than done - especially for higher stakes? Suzanne Kane, author to Psych Central and inspirational motivator, breaks down how to forgive a friend.
1. Acknowledge the pain you feel from being wronged by your friend. Identify what words or actions hurt you. This part is very important!
2. Don't ignore or avoid the issue- if your friend doesn't know they've upset you, they won't know to stop this behavior in the future.
3. If you need time to pass before you can talk to your friend (because what they did still stings), allow yourself more time.
4. Text/call/email your friend and let them know you want to talk to them sometime in private. If you're worried for your safety or fear your friend may react poorly, arrange to meet in a public place (coffee shop, restaurant, etc.).
5. Let your friend know the specifics of how you felt wronged, including how it made you feel. "When I told you about X in confidence, it made me feel hurt and worthless when you told our friend group about it."
6. You can also lessen the confrontation of the conversation by telling the person how much you care about your friendship with them. "I care about our friendship, which is why I need to make sure we talk about this."
7. In a true friendship, the best way to move forward is to be forthright and proactive. Likely, your friend will apologize and seek forgiveness, and you can move on. In my experience, relationships that experience tough conversations like these can grow to be even stronger and more rewarding afterwards.
For more information on forgiveness, read an article from Psychology Today; A how-to guide on the science behind learning to forgive.
Was there a time when you surprised yourself when you were able to forgive someone? Have other thoughts about forgiveness? I would love to hear about it! Comment below!
Marks, M. J., Trafimow, D., Busche, L. K., & Oates, K. N. (2013). A Function of Forgiveness.SAGE Open,3(4), 215824401350726. doi: 10.1177/2158244013507267.
McCullough, M & Witvliet, C. (2001). The Psychology of Forgiveness. Retreived at http://local.psy.miami.edu/faculty/mmccullough/Papers/CV%20Papers/PsychologyForgiveness_HPP_Ox_2001.pdf