Being hurt or let down by others is a part of any relationship. With our parents, children, partners, friends and colleagues, we are likely to experience at least some form of disappointment. Sadly, a significant number of people will also experience acts of abuse and violence at the hands of others. Being hurt by others, in any form, can lead to a range of emotions, including anger, hostility, bitterness, hatred, and resentment. These feelings can disrupt our relationships and leave us mentally trapped in the past. A large body of evidence shows that harbouring chronic anger can have a significant long-term impact on our mental and physical health. These impacts include a greater risk of depression, anxiety, heart disease, and even earlier mortality.
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent to throw it at someone—you are the one getting burned.”
The Health Benefits of Forgiveness
Over the last 20 years, researchers have become increasingly interested in the health benefits of forgiveness.
Research has shown that forgiveness is associated with:
Lower levels of anger, anxiety, depression, and suicidal behaviour.
Higher satisfaction with life and increased meaning in life.
Higher levels of optimism, self-esteem, and more positive emotions.
Fewer physical health symptoms, including healthier functioning of the cardiovascular system.
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness: The decision to let go of negative resentment-based emotions, cognitions, and behaviours and develop positive regard for an offender, be it compassion, sympathy, or pity.
Forgiveness is not simply “letting go” or “moving on”. It requires something positive: empathy, compassion, or understanding, towards the person who hurt you.
Does not involve condoning, tolerating, or excusing hurtful behaviour.
Does not mean exonerating a person who hurt you.
Does not necessarily require reconciliation.
Forgiveness can be an intrapersonal process that a person goes through in dealing with their feelings towards an offender. That is, forgiveness can be something that happens within your own skin. In that way, it is entirely possible to forgive someone while still not re-establishing an active relationship with them. A person who has been abused should not reconcile with an abuser who remains potentially harmful. However, this person can still come to a place of empathy and understanding.
As with any human trait, some people are naturally more forgiving than others. For example, having a higher level of the personality trait agreeableness and a lower level of neuroticism supports the forgiveness process. Individuals who are more religious tend to be more forgiving, while people who have a tendency to ruminate are generally less quick to forgive.
Even if you are a person who holds onto grudges or hurt, research shows that, with practice, most anyone can learn to forgive. In forgiveness interventions, Psychologists work with people to address their negative feelings about an offence and find empathy and understanding for the person who hurt them. A 2018 systematic review & meta-analysis examined the efficacy of forgiveness interventions among people who had experienced a range of interpersonal hurts, including civil war, sexual abuse, domestic violence, crime, emotional or verbal abuse, and unfair treatment in the workplace.
The review found that forgiveness interventions were effective in improving both state forgiveness (forgiveness of a specific offence and offender) and trait forgivingness (a general disposition to forgive). In addition, forgiveness interventions were effective in reducing depression, anger, hostility, stress, and distress, and in promoting positive emotions such as hopefulness, confidence, gratitude, and life satisfaction.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Often we don’t want to forgive the people who have hurt us; we would prefer to demonize them. Forgiveness can be particularly hard when the offender is unaware of the hurt they have caused, denies responsibility, refuses to apologise, or even continues to offend.
According to Psychologist & forgiveness expert Robert Enright, to practice forgiveness, it helps if you start slowly. Professor Enright suggests starting by making a commitment to do no harm – to make a conscious effort to not talk disparagingly about those who have hurt you. You don’t have to say good things; but, if you refrain from talking negatively it will help the forgiveness process.
The Importance of Empathy
Forgiveness interventions share this in common: the importance of empathy towards those who acted unjustly. To empathise with a person who hurt you is to take the other’s perspective in considering reasons for their actions.
To do this, try and explain the hurtful act from the offender’s perspective. Ask yourself:
Why did that person do what he or she did? What were they experiencing when they hurt you? Were they responding to fear, stress, hurt, or pain in their life?
What was that person’s life like before they hurt you? What was their history? Has someone hurt them in their past?
Are there any reasons to feel sorry for the person?
The purpose of this process is not to arrive at the most accurate explanation of the wrongdoer's actions, but to find a plausible reason with which you can live. Even if you can’t empathise, you might feel more sympathy or compassion, which may help you feel better.
There is much more to forgiveness interventions than empathy. Forgiveness therapy starts with a period of acknowledging pain, anger, and sadness. These emotions are not ignored and they can take significant time to confront, examine, and accept. There is also a strong dose-response relationship between the amount of time people spend trying to forgive and the amount of forgiveness they're successful at experiencing. So, if you want to try to forgive for your own wellbeing, it is important to persevere.
Remember, you don't have to be the world's most forgiving person. But, working on coming to a place of empathy and understanding of the behaviour of someone who hurt you may ultimately help you feel better.
If you eventually decide to try to forgive, remember: Forgiveness does not excuse another person’s hurtful behaviour. It does not make it right or okay. It does not minimize their wrongful actions, or invalidate the hurt your feel. But the sometimes painful process of developing empathy and forgiving is important for your own health and to ensure that person does not cause you any more harm.
If you would like additional help, please contact these services.
“When a deep injury is done to us, we never heal until we forgive.”
– Nelson Mandela
Have you practiced forgiveness?