The health benefits of forgiveness and how
to enjoy them whenever you need.
It’s common knowledge that there are some major
health benefits to forgiveness.
Studies show that holding onto anger or grudges can raise cortisol and blood pressure, and even decreases our ability to deal with pain, all of which can be avoided by not holding on to feelings of resentment and anger. But how many of us are actually able to “forgive and forget”, and what does that mean, anyway?
You’ve been wronged, by a coworker, friend, or even a family member. You may feel hurt, betrayed, sad and angry. But forgiveness isn’t just verbally accepting an apology, if one ever comes, it’s a state of mind that is free from any lingering negative feelings about the situation. There are thousands of books and articles about the power of forgiveness and being able to “Let it go”, but very little guidance on how to actually do just that. You can say you understand, you can say all is forgiven, and you can sing along to your child’s Frozen soundtrack for hours (that is a catchy song!) but unless your mind actually believes what your voice is saying, very little will happen on the inside.
There are countless tricks and techniques that people much smarter than I have proposed over the last years, things like writing a letter to the person who wronged you, physically purging yourself of anything that reminds you of that pain, chanting affirmations of love and forgiveness anytime you feel the flames of the past beginning to reignite, and those things are all fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a cleansing ritual, but I bet I can save you the cost of stationery and stamps on all those letters you might compose if I can help you see the one thing that actually makes all of those things work: the wizard behind the curtain.
1. The Great and Powerful Oz: Yourself.
Forgiveness is a state of mind that is always available to you. It is the eddies in the river of peace, contentment and love that is always running through you, and requires no steps to access it, no secret mantra to chant to unlock it. The compassion you feel can extend to any person, no matter how egregious their actions, and the only thing blocking that from playing the lead role in your head is the ego that demands justice and retribution. The sole job of the ego is to protect itself against harm, and when it senses a threat, all bets are off. That’s an evolutionary advantage, and it helped keep our ancestors alive so you could be here today. But the problem is your ego doesn’t know how to tell the difference between a physical threat and an emotional one, and reacts similarly to each. This is what sets off the burning need for retribution, makes us tense and unhappy around people we feel anger towards, and denies us the ability to wipe the slate clean. How many times have you been incredibly angry at someone, and later realized it wasn’t quite the huge deal it seemed at first? That was your ego at work, churning out the chemical transmitters to make sure you didn’t immediately get hurt again, and when it cooled down, your reasoning returned. Just the awareness of this system at work can be a huge advantage the next time you feel wronged.
2. Do I need to own all these tools?
After the initial rush of anger subsides, if you still harbor strands of resentment, you may turn to the “toolbox of forgiveness”. If it’s something you want to do, by all means, enjoy! Your mind doesn’t know how to take a joke, so if you think that the only way you can move on is to burn all of your ex-boyfriend’s favorite t-shirts, then it most likely will be. But here’s the crazy part: It isn’t the method you choose to get over a hurt that finally gives you the release you need—it’s the fact that you think it will work that actually makes it work. Even the medical field knows this, something they utilize with medications, bedside manner and even surgeries. It’s called the placebo effect, and it’s not just for sugar pills! If you think something will be cathartic and transformative in your life, chances are amazingly high that it will be a success. So how can you tap into this effect without having to build a bonfire? Be aware of where forgiveness actually comes from. It’s certainly not in a book, no matter how valuable the New York Times thinks it is. It isn’t found in a 4, 8 or even 12 step plan. It comes from you. Tools fail, break, and in my garage, get lost in the clutter, which makes it amazingly simple that you are the only “tool” you need.
3. Put away the calendar. Time heals all wounds…or does it?
Neither the clock or the calendar have anything to do with your heart. There’s no amount of time that you can count on to wipe away hurt feelings or anger, no date in the future that you can look forward to being healed and feeling whole. No matter how many days, weeks, or even months pass, if you are still holding feelings of anger and resentment close, reliving the moment of betrayal and rehashing old hurts, you are keeping them fresh in your mind as if no time has passed at all. That’s why it has very little to do with time passing, and quite a bit to do with the amount of mental space you put between you and that event. After the trauma has passed, replaying painful scenes over and over doesn’t actually change anything about what happened, it just makes you feel bad. If you’re doing something positive to improve your situation because of pain you experienced in the past, you’ve learned from the experience and are using it to grow. Dwelling on how you’ve been wronged may give you justification to wallow in pain and misery, but martyring yourself for the actions of others only hurts you, not them. Take a look at who you’re actually hurting when you subject yourself to all the wrongs of your past, and you may decide to close that chapter for good. This doesn’t mean it won’t ever come up again, but it’s realizing that when it does, you don’t have to be a victim to your own mental misery.
4. Understand that forgiveness is about YOU, not them. Wait, what?
The other person is the one who was wrong, so how could forgiving them be about me? It’s a sad fact that very often, the person you’ve been so focused on may be completely oblivious to the fact that you were even holding a grudge, or worse yet, may not care. This may feel like pouring salt in the wound, but the truth is every one of the 7 billion-plus people on the planet look at life through their own very unique set of glasses, and therefore see life just a little differently than you do. This is especially obvious when we react passionately to something that others greet with a “meh”. If you work through your heartache to work up the courage to forgive, it can feel devastating to realize they were completely unaffected by your emotional trials. The owner of the pain is the one with the most to gain from letting go of hurts and heartaches. Even if you don’t want to forgive them, even if you don’t think you can trust them again, having peace in your mind and heart is more rewarding than any satisfaction you may feel from holding on to grudges, anger, and hatred.
Forgiveness is not about being a doormat to everyone in your life. It certainly doesn’t mean allowing abuse to happen or assuming that you should be anyone’s emotional punching bag. There is nothing wrong with being your own advocate and gravitating towards people you enjoy and away from those you don’t, no matter what connection you have with them. Buddha once said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Forgiving those who have wronged you is being able to walk around unblemished by the burning flames of hate, anger, and hostility, greeting each day of your life feeling the cool calm breeze of peace, and able to smell the sweet soft perfume of unlimited possibilities.