Everett Worthington, PhD, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, had been studying forgiveness when he was faced with an unspeakable tragedy—his mother was murdered during a home invasion. Dr. Worthington was able to forgive the perpetrator eventually but only because of his research and understanding of how to forgive, which he details in a recent article in the Monitor on Psychology.
Of course, this is an extreme case of forgiveness, as most of us won’t have to tackle the complex set of emotions triggered by a loved one’s murder. But in everyday life, we still feel wronged in various ways, and it’s in our best interest to forgive, as it can significantly improve our psychological well-being and physical health.
“When it comes to forgiveness, there’s a true mind-body connection,” says Loren Toussaint, PhD, a professor of psychology at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa. Research has shown that forgiveness is linked to mental health outcomes such as reduced anxiety and reduced depression, and other psychological issues including stress. Stress relief is probably the chief factor connecting forgiveness and well-being. “We know chronic stress is bad for our health,” Dr. Toussaint says in the article. “Forgiveness allows you to let go of the chronic interpersonal stressors that cause us undue.”
A common misconception about forgiveness is that it’s about moving on and letting go of resentment. In Monitor on Psychology, Bob Enright, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has extensively studied forgiveness, says the concept of “true forgiveness” takes the matter a step further. He believes that you also need to offer something positive—empathy, compassion, or understanding—toward the person who hurt you, because it creates a personal stake in the act of forgiving. “That element makes forgiveness both a virtue and a powerful construct in positive psychology,” Dr. Enright says.
True forgiveness is a work in progress.
If you feel that you can’t truly forgive and move on, Dr. Toussaint says, you may have given up too soon. In the article, he recommends that people stay on the forgiveness path, even when it’s difficult. “A natural resurgence of unforgiving feelings is normal,” Dr. Toussaint says. “It’s like having a piece of cake during a diet. Just because you have a setback doesn’t mean you’re an unforgiving person.”
True forgiveness is a work in progress, and there are formal strategies to make it work, according to the article. Dr. Enright’s forgiveness therapy process model moves people through four phases: uncovering your negative feelings about the offense, deciding to forgive, working toward understanding the offending person, and discovering empathy and compassion for him or her. Dr. Worthington’s REACH Forgiveness model also “aims to find compassion for the offender, through a five-step process that helps people address their hurt, find empathy for the person who hurt them, reach forgiveness, and hold onto that forgiveness over time.” His model has been applied more often in group settings. “Despite the differences in the interventions, both help to promote forgiveness and the mental health benefits that go along with it,” the article says.
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For some people, the key to making forgiveness easier even when it seems hard is to understand that you’re the one who will ultimately benefit from releasing the grudge, says veteran holistic physician and international trainer Bradley Nelson, based in St. George, Utah. He calls forgiveness “the number one thing you can do to reduce stress in your life.” “When it comes to emotional baggage, the inability to forgive yourself or others is a major cause of sadness, depression, and loneliness,” says Dr. Nelson, who has trained more than 2,000 practitioners worldwide in the healing methods he outlines in his book The Emotion Code.
“If there’s someone who has hurt you or wronged you in some way, and you haven’t forgiven them, your stress level will inevitably be greater than it should be,” he says. “When we withhold forgiveness from someone who has hurt us, we may think that we are getting even or hurting that person, but nothing could be further from the truth. What we are really doing is we are hurting ourselves.” He adds, “Say someone has done something truly horrible that seems impossible for you to forgive. This is where you have power to do something meaningful that can be life changing, especially for yourself.”
Think of forgiveness as an emotional rescue. Here are more reasons to forgive.