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Understanding forgiveness

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Understanding forgiveness

What is forgiveness? How does forgiving another help us? And how can we cultivate forgiveness in our lives?

The body of research on forgiveness has grown in the last two decades from nearly nonexistent to hundreds of studies and dozens of books. Researchers are finding a powerful connection between forgiving others and our own well-being.

What is forgiveness?

Researchers who study forgiveness and its effects on our well-being and happiness are very specific about how they define forgiveness.

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky calls forgiveness “a shift in thinking” toward someone who has wronged you, “such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good (or to benefit your relationship) has increased.” Forgiveness, at a minimum, is a decision to let go of the desire for revenge and ill-will toward the person who wronged you. It may also include feelings of goodwill toward the other person. Forgiveness is also a natural resolution of the grief process, which is the necessary acknowledgment of pain and loss.

Researchers are very clear about what forgiveness is not:

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.
 Forgiveness is one person’s inner response to another’s perceived injustice. Reconciliation is two people coming together in mutual respect. Reconciliation requires both parties working together. Forgiveness is something that is entirely up to you. Although reconciliation may follow forgiveness, it is possible to forgive without re-establishing or continuing the relationship. The person you forgive may be deceased or no longer part of your life. You may also choose not to reconcile, perhaps because you have no reason to believe that a relationship with the other person is healthy for you.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. “Forgive and forget” seem to go together. However, the process of forgiving involves acknowledging to yourself the wrong that was done to you, reflecting on it, and deciding how you want to think about it. Focusing on forgetting a wrong might lead to denying or suppressing feelings about it, which is not the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness has taken place when you can remember the wrong that was done without feeling resentment or a desire to pursue revenge. Sometimes, after we get to this point, we may forget about some of the wrongs people have done to us. But we don’t have to forget in order to forgive.

Forgiveness is not condoning or excusing. Forgiveness does not minimize, justify, or excuse the wrong that was done. Forgiveness also does not mean denying the harm and the feelings that the injustice produced. And forgiveness does not mean putting yourself in a position to be harmed again. You can forgive someone and still take healthy steps to protect yourself, including choosing not to reconcile.

Forgiveness is not justice. It is certainly easier to forgive someone who sincerely apologizes and makes amends. However, justice—which may include acknowledgment of the wrong, apologies, punishment, restitution, or compensation—is separate from forgiveness. You may pursue your rights for justice with or without forgiving someone. And if justice is denied, you can still choose whether or not to forgive.

Forgiveness is a powerful choice you can make when it’s right for you that can lead to greater well-being and better relationships.

The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky

Benefits of forgiveness

There are three typical responses to being wronged: reciprocating with equal harm, avoiding the person, or seeking revenge. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a conscious decision to offer generosity and mercy that a person’s actions do not deserve. And, paradoxically, by forgiving another, we benefit ourselves.

The growing body of research on forgiveness is finding that people who forgive are more likely than the general population to have:

  • Fewer episodes of depression
  • Higher self-esteem
  • More friends
  • Longer marriages
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Closer relationships
  • Fewer stress-related health issues
  • Better immune system function
  • Lower rates of heart disease

And they are more likely to be happy, serene, empathetic, hopeful, and agreeable.

Researchers have been able to demonstrate how holding a grudge affects our cardiovascular and nervous systems. They did this by asking people to think about a wrong they experienced and measuring their heart rates, blood pressure, and muscle tension. All increased. The participants also said they felt less in control.

But can forgiveness reverse the effects of holdig a grudge? Research is finding that it can. Researchers have studied whether training in forgiveness results in improved well-being. They are finding as they follow up with people that the benefits listed above are significant, and that they last long after the training. This seems to be the case whether the person learned about forgiveness in group workshops or one-on-one.

The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Learning to Forgive May Improve Well-Being, Mayo Clinic

Journeys of forgiveness

Amy Biehl, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate working on women’s rights in South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, was pulled from her car and murdered by a mob during a riot.

This was two days before she was due to return home and see her family and longtime boyfriend. She never knew that he was planning to propose marriage when she got home. Four men were convicted and sentenced to prison. Years later, Amy’s parents returned to South Africa to testify at the young men’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing. They supported amnesty for the young men, who were released. The Biehls established the Amy Biehl Foundation and returned to South Africa to continue Amy’s work. And they continued to get to know the young men and their families. Two of them work with the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust providing educational programs to children in townships outside Cape Town. One of the men, Ntobeko Peni, says: "One has to find peace within in order to live. It's odd, but sometimes people who offer forgiveness are so disappointed when the people they forgive cannot forgive themselves. This foundation helped me forgive myself."

Dr. Everett Worthington, a clinical psychologist and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, specializes in forgiveness research and was just finishing his book To Forgive Is Human when he got a horrifying call from his brother.

“Something terrible has happened. Mama’s been murdered. There was blood on the carpet, the walls….” Dr. Worthington tells his story and his struggle to forgive the two young men who broke into his mother’s house in the opening of his book Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. His five-step REACH process for forgiveness has been proven effective in research studies to help people forgive and feel less anger and more hope.

Common misconceptions

Forgiveness is a religious and spiritual experience.
All of the major faith traditions include forgiveness as a central value. However, forgiveness is so universal to our human experience that it plays a large role across faith traditions as well as among people who do not practice a religion.

First a person needs to apologize; then the person who was wronged can forgive him.

Forgiving is something we choose to do for our own well-being, and is not dependent on an apology from another. If we wait for apologies, we run the risk of suffering longer than necessary. It may be much easier to forgive someone who has apologized, but you can still choose to let go of thoughts of revenge and other negative feelings and move on, even if the person who hurt you is not sorry.

People who haven’t forgotten about a wrongdoing haven’t really forgiven the other person.

It is not necessary to “forgive and forget.” In fact, the process of forgiveness involves acknowledging to yourself what happened and how you feel about it. “Forgetting” about an injustice could be denying, suppressing or excusing it—which is not forgiveness. It is enough to be able to remember a wrong that was done to you and not wish harm on the person who hurt you.

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