Many people do not realise what a burden not forgiving is until they finally let go. Holding onto a major grudge can lead to a range of emotional, mental and physical health problems. One particular emotion that is often suppressed when holding onto a long-standing grudge, resentment, or lack of forgiveness is anger. This suppressed anger can lead to low-grade, underlying and often subconscious chronic stress in your life, which in turn can lead to significant health consequences.
Some of these health consequences may include stress ulcers, heart disease, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. In addition, author of The Forgiveness Project, Dr Michael Barry, has proposed from research that the emotions created by long-term unforgiveness supress the cancer-fighting cells in the body. In essence his discovery suggests that unforgiveness may be one of the predisposing factors leading to cancer development. Lending weight to this is the finding that over 60 per cent of cancer patients have trouble forgiving.
With this things in mind it is important that we first identify in our lives whether not forgiving someone in a specific situation may be affecting our physical and mental health. This can sometimes be difficult to identify as we may have held a particular grudge unknowingly for many years before it comes to surface.
I remember a time in my adolescence when I was bullied by a group of girls at a new school I had attended. Their taunts wounded my feelings and self-confidence. What I did not realise is that these feelings led to some deep-seated anger and insecurity in general. This I carried around like a hidden sore point and was surprised to feel the exact same level of intense emotion come to surface when I happened to bump into one of these bullies many years later. Not wanting to be ruled by old emotional scars and not wanting to give my power over to someone else I made a decision to forgive those girls who were now women. The sense of lightness I felt was amazing. But in order to forgive, first I had to understand what forgiveness truly is and what it is not.
So What Exactly Is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is difficult to define and may look different for everyone. The American Psychological Association describes forgiveness generally as, ‘… a process or the result of a process that involves a change in emotion and attitude regarding an offender.’ This process is considered intentional and voluntary and driven by a deliberate decision to forgive. The end result of forgiveness is a decrease in motivation to retaliate towards others or maintain your distance from those you have held unforgiveness towards despite their actions. It requires letting go of negative emotions towards them and may involve replacing those negative emotions with feelings of compassion and wanting to do a kind act towards that person/s.
Forgiveness may involve reconciliation or restoration of a relationship with that person who hurt you, or it may occur independent to this. Forgiveness can be one-sided and does not necessarily involve the other person accepting fault or offering you their forgiveness if they feel wronged by you as well.
Forgiveness, however, is not:
- Condoning – failing to see the action as wrong and in need of forgiveness;
- Excusing – not holding the person or group responsible for the action;
- Pardoning – stopping the pursuit of justice for wrong actions; or
- Forgetting – removing awareness of the offence from consciousness i.e. to forgive is more than just not thinking about the offence
There is a process to forgiveness and once a decision is made that you are going to forgive someone and not allow resentment towards them steal your joy, peace and health then you are ready to start along the pathway to forgiveness.
So Why Should We Forgive?
There are some real benefits to forgiveness, which have nothing to do with the other person you are forgiving. There may be some secondary sense of relief and restoration of relationship for the other person who has hurt you, but the reason you forgive is not because you owe them but, rather, forgiveness is in your best interests. So what are some benefits to forgiveness?
A summary research paper collated by the American Psychological Association on forgiveness states that forgiving someone has the following benefits:
- Aids psychological healing through positive changes in affect
- Improves physical and mental health
- Restores a forgiver’s sense of personal power
- Helps bring about reconciliation between the offended and offender
- Promotes hope for future relationships and situations.
Dr Cris Beer
Holistic Medical Doctor