What is forgiveness? And what does it have to do with our health? And what does it have to do with our relationships? EVERYTHING!
The psychological definition of forgiveness is giving up resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve forgiveness or not.
The Bible dictionary of forgiveness is pardoning a wrong committed.
Often, when major offenses occur (such as betrayal, infidelity, theft, etc.), forgiveness comes up. However, minor day-to-day offenses, such as being disrespectful, not being punctual, or forgetting important dates, do not get the same forgiveness consideration. In my experience, consistent failure to address these small offenses is a mistake. No matter how large or small the offense, forgiveness is crucial to our health, our mental health, and our relationships. My favorite analogy applies: that unforgiveness is like drinking rat poison and hoping the other person will suffer!
“Poison” is a good way to introduce the importance of forgiveness to our health. A study by The Mayo Clinic found that embracing forgiveness creates a sense of peace, hope, joy, and gratitude. To be clear, forgiveness is NOT about excusing the wrong; it is about letting go of our natural desire to punish the offending person or group.
After reviewing the literature, these are the specific health benefits found in those who practice forgiveness:
- Healthier relationships
- Improved mental health
- Less anxiety
- Less stress
- Less hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Improved cholesterol levels
- More restful, peaceful sleep
- Decreased risk of heart attack
- Pain reduction
- Overall improved health
- A stronger immune system
- Improved heart health
- Improved self esteem
Conversely, research reveals that the following mental health challenges are often present in those who do NOT choose to forgive:
- Anger and bitterness
- Bringing that anger and bitterness into every relationship
- Becoming so wrapped up in the wrong that you can’t enjoy the moment
- An overall sense of restlessness
- Losing a sense of purpose
- Inner confusion
- Loss of connection with those around us, including those who had nothing to do with the wrong
An additional study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine showed that a lack of forgiveness is associated with three things that are often misdiagnosed as auto immune diseases:
- Ongoing fatigue
- Lack of energy
- Poor sleep quality
Johns Hopkins Hospital has done significant research on the health challenges associated with the lack of forgiveness. They include:
- Heart disease
- Compromised immune function
Why forgive? If for no other reason, for the sake of our health, our mental health, and an improved quality of life. But perhaps more importantly, for the sake of our relationships. Lack of forgiveness does not just affect the relationship between the person offended and the offender. When the person who was offended does not forgive it carries over into all other relationships. Research has shown that couples who understand and practice forgiveness, both in the relationship as well as in other situations, have some of the strongest scores in relationship-fulfillment testing.
In a time when divorce rates are about one in every two marriages, it is important to note that couples who practice forgiveness have a 77% less risk of facing divorce. I encourage couples in my premarital classes to work hard at forgiveness. It is almost an insurance policy against divorce!
Research on couples who hold grudges rather that practice forgiveness contains some valuable information. First, when couples are irritated with one another, research indicates ongoing elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol. (You can read my article about the challenges of having these chemicals elevated in our systems by clicking here).
One of the reasons it is important to forgive as quickly as possible is that as time passes, our body memorizes that increased output of cortisol and adrenaline. This increased output continues to run in the background if we allow it to continue beyond an hour or two. When someone goes into a funk for an afternoon, a day, or days on end, that stream of cortisol and adrenaline runs nonstop. The result? Ongoing fatigue, lack of motivation, poor sleep quality, and a lack of energy. This makes us irritable and promotes a cycle of deterioration in our bodies, our health, and our relationships.
And another reason it is important to forgive as quickly as possible is that we are in a “funk” when we do not forgive. The “funk” punishes everyone around us, and rarely the offender. Let’s just admit it, being around someone in a “funk” is just NOT PLEASANT (and that’s stating it mildly!) I adopted a new policy for my life this past year. I will forgive you for being in a “funk” for whatever reason you are in one. But I will NOT spend time with OTHER’s “funks!” (And I have a zero tolerance for my own “funks.”)
I love the research that shows that couples that
have marital stability report one common denominator … forgiveness!
After reading the health and relationship benefits from forgiveness, and the health and relationship challenges from unforgiveness, the best path may seem like a no brainer. Yet unforgiveness is presented as socially acceptable in the media, and seems to have become the norm.
You may ask the question that if all of this is true and well known, why is forgiveness such a struggle? Great question! I work with many adults who experience sexual abuse as children, and I listen carefully when we get to the topic of forgiveness. I also listen carefully to couples who are struggling with forgiveness. These individuals provide great insight. Here are the reasons I think many of us struggle with it:
- We confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. When possible, we should strive to forgive AND reconcile, particularly when it comes to marriage. (Of course this does not apply to abusive relationships.) But forgiveness and reconciliation are two very different challenges. We forgive to push the poison of the offense out of our system. But we often need counsel to know whether the relationship is deserving of reconciliation.
- We have all heard the old saying “forgive and forget.” We think we cannot forgive because we do not have the ability to forget. Certainly when we forgive, the power of the offense is released, lessening our focus. But forgetting? That takes time. And the secret to forgetting is to stop devoting mental real estate to the offense. It is difficult to forgive if we rehearse the offense over and over.
- We equate weakness and forgiveness. The truth is … forgiveness is a sign of strength. If it was easy to do, everyone would do it! I believe it not only requires strength, but it earns great respect.
4. We forget that forgiveness is a journey, not an event. I often have people tell me, “I’ve tried and tried … but then it hits me again … it doesn’t work.” Forgiveness is a lot like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you cry!
5. We are concerned that if we forgive, the other person will not be punished or suffer. I totally understand how difficult this is. But the actual truth is that the sooner we let go of the situation, the sooner accountability can occur. I remember a Sunday school teacher I had when I was a little girl. She was teaching us about forgiveness, and she said something that made me laugh then, and helps me with forgiveness to this very day. She said, “When you forgive someone, you give up your desire to punish them, and place them in the hands of a loving God who will scoop them up and bop them on the head as needed!”
It is HARD to forgive some things. REALLY HARD! How do you forgive someone who abused you or assaulted you? How do you forgive someone who betrayed you and brought destruction into your life? Or as some people say to me, how do you forgive the “unforgiveable?”
At these critical moments, I know I’m looking into the eyes and heart of someone who has been deeply hurt and wounded. Here are a few things I share with people that find something/someone REALLY HARD to forgive:
- Remember that forgiveness is a gift you give yourself! You forgive to release the poison from your system; to ward off the health challenges, and reap the health benefits. After all, you’ve been hurt enough. Why allow them to continue to hurt you by surrendering your health to their offense?
- Consider what things you could spend your time and energy on, instead of devoting real estate in your mind to them? Make a list! Clean out your closet and deliver your gently used clothes to a women’s shelter. Take on a DIY project. Use your time and energy on something that would benefit you.
- Write a letter to them. DO NOT SEND IT! I have my clients write two letters. One that tells them about what they did, how it felt, and how you really feel as you harbor unforgiveness. Tell them that you are no longer willing to give your health, time, and energy to them. Tell it like it is. Get the words out of your gut and onto paper. Then write a second letter, one that is direct, but kind. Tell them that you forgive them. Not because they deserve it, but because you deserve to move on. Take the letter and drop it into a public trash receptacle. When it comes to your mind, have a silly song in mind to sing. At those moments I sing In my best country voice: “Don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart, I just don’t think it’d understand. Cause if you tell my heart, my achy breaky heart, it might blow up and kill this man!” C’mon … don’t tell me you never heard that song!
- Make a proclamation that you read daily until you are ready to forgive. Here is the format. Fill in the blanks. I choose to forgive (name) for (what happened?) because I refuse (list the health consequences from above that you struggle with or don’t want; example … I refuse to have heart problems, live in depression, etc). I will live in (choose positive benefits of forgiveness from list above; example … I will live in fulfilled relationships, joy, peace, etc). I will forgive because I am strong, and because it’s the right thing to do. And because I am a victor, not a victim.
- Remind yourself that until you forgive, you are a victim. But that the moment you forgive, you are a victor.
I know forgiveness is not easy. But we forgive for our sake, not for the sake of the offender. We forgive because it keeps the rat poison out of our system. We forgive for the sake of our health. We forgive so we can have healthy relationships. And we forgive because it’s the right thing to do!