When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge or embrace forgiveness and move forward.
Nearly everyone has been hurt by the actions or words of another. Your mother criticized your parenting skills. Your friend gossiped about you. Your partner had an affair. These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of anger, bitterness and even vengeance.
But when you don’t practice forgiveness, you may be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Here, Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., discusses forgiveness and how it can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
What is forgiveness?
There’s no one definition of forgiveness. But in general, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that bind you to the offense committed against you. This can reduce the power these feelings otherwise have over you, so that you can a live freer and happier life in the present. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.
Doesn’t forgiving someone mean you’re forgetting or condoning what happened?
Absolutely not! Forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting what happened to you. The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your life. But forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, positive parts of your life. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act.
What are the benefits of forgiving someone?
Researchers have recently become interested in studying the effects of being unforgiving and being forgiving. Evidence is mounting that holding on to grudges and bitterness results in long-term health problems. Forgiveness, on the other hand, offers numerous benefits, including:
- Lower blood pressure
- Stress reduction
- Less hostility
- Better anger management skills
- Lower heart rate
- Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
- Fewer depression symptoms
- Fewer anxiety symptoms
- Reduction in chronic pain
- More friendships
- Healthier relationships
- Greater religious or spiritual well-being
- Improved psychological well-being
Why do we hold grudges and become resentful and unforgiving?
The people most likely to hurt us are those closest to us — our partners, friends, siblings and parents. When we’re hurt by someone we love and trust — whether it’s a lie, betrayal, rejection, abuse or insult — it can be extremely difficult to overcome. And even minor offenses can turn into huge conflicts.
When you experience hurt or harm from someone’s actions or words, whether this is intended or not, you may begin experiencing negative feelings such as anger, confusion or sadness, especially when it’s someone close to you. These feelings may start out small. But if you don’t deal with them quickly, they can grow bigger and more powerful. They may even begin to crowd out positive feelings. Grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility take root when you dwell on hurtful events or situations, replaying them in your mind many times.
Soon, you may find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice. You may feel trapped and may not see a way out. It’s very hard to let go of grudges at this point and instead you may remain resentful and unforgiving.
How do I know it’s time to try to embrace forgiveness?
When we hold on to pain, old grudges, bitterness and even hatred, many areas of our lives can suffer. When we’re unforgiving, it’s we who pay the price over and over. We may bring our anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience. Our lives may be so wrapped up in the wrong that we can’t enjoy the present. Other signs that it may be time to consider forgiveness include:
- Dwelling on the events surrounding the offense
- Hearing from others that you have a chip on your shoulder or that you’re wallowing in self-pity
- Being avoided by family and friends because they don’t enjoy being around you
- Having angry outbursts at the smallest perceived slights
- Often feeling misunderstood
- Drinking excessively, smoking or using drugs to try to cope with your pain
- Having symptoms of depression or anxiety
- Being consumed by a desire for revenge or punishment
- Automatically thinking the worst about people or situations
- Regretting the loss of a valued relationship
- Feeling like your life lacks meaning or purpose
- Feeling at odds with your religious or spiritual beliefs
The bottom line is that you may often feel miserable in your current life.
How do I reach a state of forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. It can be difficult and it can take time. Everyone moves toward forgiveness a little differently. One step is to recognize the value of forgiveness and its importance in our lives at a given time. Another is to reflect on the facts of the situation, how we’ve reacted, and how this combination has affected our lives, our health and our well-being. Then, as we are ready, we can actively choose to forgive the one who has offended us. In this way, we move away from our role as a victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in our lives.
Forgiveness also means that we change old patterns of beliefs and actions that are driven by our bitterness. As we let go of grudges, we’ll no longer define our lives by how we’ve been hurt, and we may even find compassion and understanding.
What happens if I can’t forgive someone?
Forgiveness can be very challenging. It may be particularly hard to forgive someone who doesn’t admit wrong or doesn’t speak of their sorrow. Keep in mind that the key benefits of forgiveness are for you. If you find yourself stuck, it may be helpful to take some time to talk with a person you’ve found to be wise and compassionate, such as a spiritual leader, a mental health provider or an unbiased family member or friend.
It may also be helpful to reflect on times you’ve hurt others and on those who have forgiven you. As you recall how you felt, it may help you to understand the position of the person who hurt you. It can also be beneficial to pray, use guided meditation or journal. In any case, if the intention to forgive is present, forgiveness will come in its time.
Does forgiveness guarantee reconciliation?
Not always. In some cases, reconciliation may be impossible because the offender has died. In other cases, reconciliation may not be appropriate, especially if you were attacked or assaulted. But even in those cases, forgiveness is still possible, even if reconciliation isn’t.
On the other hand, if the hurtful event involved a family member or friend whose relationship you otherwise value, forgiveness may lead to reconciliation. This may not happen quickly, as you both may need time to re-establish trust. But in the end, your relationship may very well be one that is rich and fulfilling.
What if I have to interact with the person who hurt me but I don’t want to?
These situations are difficult. If the hurt involves a family member, it may not always be possible to avoid him or her entirely. You may be invited to the same family holiday gatherings, for instance. If you’ve reached a state of forgiveness, you may be able to enjoy these gatherings without bringing up the old hurts. If you haven’t reached forgiveness, these gatherings may be tense and stressful for everyone, particularly if other family members have chosen sides in the conflict.
So how do you handle this? First, remember that you do have a choice whether to attend or not attend family get-togethers. Respect yourself and do what seems best. If you choose to go, don’t be surprised by a certain amount of awkwardness and perhaps even more intense feelings. It’s important to keep an eye on those feelings. You don’t want them to lead you to be unjust or unkind in return for what was done to you.
Also, avoid drinking too much alcohol as a way to try to numb your feelings or feel better — it’ll likely backfire. And keep an open heart and mind. People do change, and perhaps the offender will want to apologize or make amends. You also may find that the gathering helps you to move forward with forgiveness.
How do I know when I’ve truly forgiven someone?
Forgiveness may result in sincerely spoken words such as “I forgive you” or tender actions that fit the relationship. But more than this, forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life. The offense is no longer front and center in your thoughts or feelings. Your hostility, resentment and misery have made way for compassion, kindness and peace.
Also, remember that forgiveness often isn’t a one-time thing. It begins with a decision, but because memories or another set of words or actions may trigger old feelings, you may need to recommit to forgiveness over and over again.
What if the person I’m forgiving doesn’t change?
Getting the other person to change their actions, behavior or words isn’t the point of forgiveness. In fact, the other person may never change or apologize for the offense. Think of forgiveness more about how it can change your life — by bringing you more peace, happiness, and emotional and spiritual healing.
Forgiveness takes away the power the other person continues to wield in your life. Through forgiveness, you choose to no longer define yourself as a victim. Forgiveness is done primarily for yourself, and less so for the person who wronged you.
What if I’m the one who needs forgiveness?
It may help to spend some time thinking about the offense you’ve committed and trying to determine the effect it has had on others. Unless it may cause more harm or distress, consider admitting the wrong you’ve done to those you’ve harmed, speaking of your sincere sorrow or regret, and specifically asking for forgiveness — without making excuses.
But if this seems unwise because it may further harm or distress, don’t do it — it’s not about making yourself feel better by apologizing. You don’t want to add salt to a painful wound. Also, keep in mind that you can’t force someone to forgive you. They will need to move to forgiveness in their own time.
In any case, we have to be willing to forgive ourselves. Holding on to resentment against yourself can be just as toxic as holding on to resentment against someone else. Recognize that poor behavior or mistakes don’t make you worthless or bad.
Accept the fact that you — like everyone else — aren’t perfect. Accept yourself despite your faults. Admit your mistakes. Commit to treating others with compassion, empathy and respect. And again, talking with a spiritual leader, mental health provider or trusted friend or relative may be helpful.
Forgiveness of yourself or someone else, though not easy, can transform your life. Instead of dwelling on the injustice and revenge, instead of being angry and bitter, you can move toward a life of peace, compassion, mercy, joy and kindness.