Definition: Forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to let go of anger and the desire for vengeance toward those who have harmed us, regardless of whether or not we believe they actually deserve it.
It is really three practices: forgiving others who have caused me suffering; being open to, or seeking out, forgiveness from those I have caused to suffer; and forgiving myself for the ways in which I have caused myself to suffer. In what follows, I will focus primarily on the first type.
It Isn’t a duty: Can forgiveness ever be an obligation? Many abuse survivors seem to believe that their suffering confers on them a duty to forgive their perpetrators, but I don’t personally see how victims can have any obligations toward their perpetrators beyond not succumbing to the temptations of destructive vengefulness. That said, while it is true that forgiveness can be a great gift to the one who is forgiven, there are also benefits to practicing forgiveness for the one who forgives.
Benefits of Forgiving: In more than 1,200 published studies, results consistently show that people who are forgiving tend to have not only less stress but also better relationships, fewer general health problems and lower incidences of the most serious illnesses—including depression, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Why? It seems that forgiveness works, in part, by reducing the caustic effects of being unforgiving – that painful mixture of anger, bitterness, hatred, resentment and fear of being hurt again. The harmful effects of these negative emotions include increased blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol levels, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease, immune suppression and, possibly, impaired neurological function and memory.
A second way forgiveness works is more subtle. Studies show that people with strong social networks tend to be healthier than loners. People who are angry and remember every slight are likely to lose relationships during the course of a lifetime, while those who are forgiving are more likely to attract and keep a strong social support system, which has multiple health benefits.
Obstacles to Forgiveness: There are also some important misconceptions as to what forgiveness is, which can stand in the way of doing it. Here are four of the most important of these misconceptions:
1. Holding onto resentments punishes others. Many people won’t forgive a wrong that was done to them years ago because “it would be letting her/him off the hook.” There is a great deal of magical thinking in this idea, as if someone we haven’t seen in years is somehow living “on a hook” if we continue to hold a grudge against them, but would feel undeservedly better if we stopped.
2. Forgiveness means condoning bad behavior. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or denying that real offenses were committed. It is a deliberate decision to let go of the past, and to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward those who have harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. None of this involves excusing or minimizing bad behavior. We forgive actors, not actions.
3. If I forgive you I have to let you back in my life. Forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t the same thing. It is usually a lot easier to forgive a wrong if the perpetrator apologizes, but letting go of resentment and vengefulness is still something we can do completely on our own, without the other person even knowing we’ve done it, because the essence of Forgiveness means letting go of the past, but reconciliation is about committing to a future. It means returning to some degree of friendliness, and for that to happen, trust has to be reestablished. We may choose to forgive someone who has abused us, but still recognize that the person might still be dangerous to us if we re-open the relationship. Forgiving doesn’t require being naïve about the character or intentions of others.
4. Holding on to anger keeps me in control. Anger is an intense energy, and feeling it can make us feel safe and in control. But the bottomless, self-righteous rage of those who feel mired in victimization feels anything but powerful. Those who are caught in that mind-state invariably feel impotent and imprisoned in their own inner hells. Going through life carrying resentments is like trying to run a marathon while carrying a bowling ball.
Finally, forgiving requires the maturity to accept some uncomfortable truths: that the past can’t be changed; that another person’s hurtful actions can never be undone; and that the people who wronged us may never see the error of their ways. As Jack Kornfield puts it, we have to give up all hope of ever having a better past. It also helps to see the big picture. It’s easy to form solid identities around our suffering – to take on the role of Victim with a capital V. It is remarkable how loyal we can be to our own suffering. But every life includes experiences of hurt and betrayal. It’s the inevitable price of being alive. In this sense, your pain is not just yours, it is the pain of humanity. When you see it this way, your pain no longer separates you, but connects you to others through your capacity for compassion. The practice of forgiveness can reveal a tremendously important truth: that in the end no one else has to change in order for us to be at peace.
A Five-Stage Process for Practicing Forgiveness:
1. Sense the weight of the corrosive anger that you keep alive by refusing to forgive, and realize that it’s not in your best interest. Imagine what it would feel like to feel the peace of mind that you’d have if you were free of this burden. See forgiveness as an act of self-compassion.
2. Set a conscious intention to forgive. Decide that you’re no longer willing to be a victim by continuing to allow your thoughts and memories of your offender to torment you and deprive you of happiness. By setting a clear intention, you also set the compass of your heart. When you know where you’re going you’ll recognize what supports you on your journey and what doesn’t.
3. See the big picture. Every life includes experiences of hurt and betrayal. It’s the inevitable price of being alive. In this sense, your pain is not just yours, it is the pain of humanity. When you see it this way, your pain no longer separates you, but connects you to everyone through your capacity for compassion.
4. Focus on the specific person who harmed you, and instead of seeing this person from the outside as an evil “other,” feel into his or her humanity. Try to understand the causes and conditions in their life that led them to act in the way that they did, not to make excuses for them, but to find compassion for the blindness and suffering in them that made them act toward you the way they did.
5. Finally, in your mind’s eye, imagine your offender in front of you. Speak to this person as if he or she is actually present and offer them forgiveness. You may say something like “For whatever you have done, intentionally or unintentionally, that caused me pain, I now, to the best of my ability, offer you forgiveness.” Feel the relief that follows when you let go, even for a moment, of your grudge against them. The first time you do this, you may not feel forgiving. In fact, you may feel intense resistance or an upwelling of anger. If that happens, focus your attention on yourself, breathe deeply, and offer yourself acceptance. If you are feeling self-critical, offer yourself forgiveness for being harsh toward yourself. Then, later, when you are calm, you can begin the process again.
Enright, Robert D., Forgiveness is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Dr. Robert Enright from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and is considered the initiator of forgiveness studies. This book details his 20-Step Process Model of Forgiveness.
Enright, Robert D, and Fitzgibbons, Richard P. Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, Clinically-focused book discussing forgiveness therapy in depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders. It also has chapters on forgiveness work with children and adolescents, and forgiveness work in marriage and family relationships.
Kornfield, Jack The Beginner’s Guide to Forgiveness, soundstrue.com. CD with guided meditations for forgiveness practice from a Buddhist perspective.
Luskin, Dr. Fred, Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. Based on his research at Stanford University, the author describes a 9-stage process for practicing forgiveness, and documents its emotional and physical health benefits.