Genuine forgiveness is one of the most beautiful gifts we can give to another person. Being forgiven is an amazing relief for the individual and allows the relationship to forge ahead without any debilitating emotional baggage.
However, people often disregard the life-altering benefits that come with being someone who is able to practice forgiveness.
The ability to completely let go of resentment isn't just great for us psychologically. Our bodies and minds are so interconnected that being able to forgive has physical benefits as well.
What happens when we don't forgive?
"There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed," Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital says.
Living with deep-seated anger puts us in fight-or-flight mode that affects one's heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response. These negative physical states can, in turn, lead to diabetes, heart disease, PTSD, and depression.
This constant state of arousal takes its toll on the body. A Hope College study found that holding onto a grudge leads to higher physiological activity — facial muscle tension, heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating — compared with having forgiven.
So there is a lot of truth to the saying that "resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."
via Felix Koutchinski / Unsplash
Learn more about the science behind forgiveness from David Pruder's "Psychiatry and Psychotherapy" podcast.
What happens to us when we are able to forgive?
In addition to relinquishing the debilitating resentment, research shows that those who are able to forgive others are also more likely to forgive themselves.
"One barrier people face in forgiving themselves is that they feel they deserve to feel bad. Our study found that making amends gives us permission to let go," study researcher Thomas Carpenter, of Baylor University's College of Arts & Sciences, said in a statement.
Being in a constant state of anger with oneself takes a huge physical and psychological toll.
"It weakens you emotionally and makes your body more vulnerable to sickness and disease by compromising your immune system," Dr. John H. Sklare writes at Everyday Health.
There's a wealth of evidence that shows cultivating an attitude of forgiveness is a powerful way to become healthier mentally, physically, and spiritually. But that can only happen when our forgiveness is genuine.
via Gus Moretta / Unsplash
Practicing true forgiveness
Andrea Brandt Ph.D. believes that true forgiveness begins with being "willing" to forgive. Then, after rigorously accessing the incident we can begin to accept our feelings and reactions.
"Acknowledge the growth you experienced as a result of what happened. What did it make you learn about yourself, or about your needs and boundaries?" she writes in Psychology Today.
Next, consider the needs of the person we're willing to forgive: "What do you think this need was and why did the person go about it in such a hurtful way?" she asks.
The final step is to decide whether or not to tell them they're forgiven.
Swartz says we all have the power to forgive, we just have to make the choice to do so.
"It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not," Swartz says. Once we begin to release our anger, hostility, and resentment, feelings of empathy and compassion will begin to take root.
However, Brandt says it's just as important to realize what forgiveness doesn't mean. It's not a pardon or excusing another's actions. It doesn't mean you shouldn't have any more feelings about the situation or that the relationship is miraculously healed.
"By forgiving, you are accepting the reality of what happened and finding a way to live in a state of resolution with it," Brandt wrote in Psychology Today.
So now the big question remains: Who are you willing to forgive?
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