Take It As It Is
Despite its benefits, many of us won’t even consider forgiveness an option. That, Witvliet says, is a big mistake: “Hanging on to a resentment for months or years means making a commitment to remain angry.”
Take Catherine O’Brien. After her 1992 divorce, the Pacifica, California, video producer spent years hating her ex-husband. She was angry about how the split ruined her future.
“Suddenly, I was a single parent with a 12-year-old daughter. It was exhausting and disappointing not to have someone to share the carpools, the doctors’ visits and the joys of having a child, when I thought we’d raise a family together.”
The anger took a toll. “I was tense and uptight all the time, constantly got colds, and was always tired,” says O’Brien.
Even more upsetting was how other people saw her. “At a party, someone introduced me to a woman, saying, ‘Her husband left her too.’ I was shocked that I’d become identified as an embittered ex-wife.”
Then she heard an audiotape of Fred Luskin speaking. “It was like a light bulb going on: I realized the only person I was hurting was myself.” She told her ex-husband she was moving on and felt a profound relief. “A weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I started feeling much healthier.”
Luskin says resolving such resentment “replaces hostile feelings with positive ones that make your body feel calm and relaxed, which enhances health.” In one of his studies, 17 adults from Northern Ireland who lost a relative to terrorist violence got a week of forgiveness training. Their mental distress dropped by about 40 percent, and they saw a 35 percent dip in headaches, back pain and insomnia.
O’Brien and others may balk at forgiveness because they misunderstand what it is, explains Luskin. “It in no way means the offense was okay, or that you should let yourself be treated unfairly.”
Even if forgiveness isn’t the answer, you can find peace. Julie Catalano, 51, of San Antonio, did — despite what she calls the “incomprehensible cruelty” of a veterinarian she says let her 19-year-old cat, Suki, die. She says the cat was lethargic when she sought help. Tests showed anemia and a kidney disorder. Instead of doing all he could to save Suki, Catalano claims, the vet performed unnecessary dental surgery and underprescribed medications. (The vet denied it; a state inquiry cleared him of wrongdoing.)
“I made a conscious decision not to forgive — and feel absolutely no guilt about it,” Catalano says. Nevertheless, her outrage has a constructive side: It led her to found an animal advocacy group. “Fighting to protect other pets is what’s given me spiritual healing.”
New York City psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving, says even basic reconciliation isn’t the answer for some people. But if you’re not stewing or plotting revenge, she says, you’ve found peace. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to crimes of the heart.”
However you defuse your anger, forgiveness can be powerful. And while you can’t alter the past, confronting unresolved issues and the people behind them can lead you to a happier, healthier future.