Big or small, unsolved conflict with others (especially with those who we love) has a deep impact on our mental and physical health. Forgiving someone who has wronged us is not merely an act of mercy but a transformative process that encompasses the release of anger, the cultivation of empathy, and the nurturing of compassion.
Chronic anger puts us in a fight-or-flight mode, resulting in a sustained increase in cortisol (a stress hormone), activating mechanisms that lead to heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, obesity and potentially even cancer. Studies have shown that forgiveness can reverse the risk of these by reducing blood pressure & heart rate, improving pain perception, anxiety, depression, stress, and inflammatory markers.
In this article we will discuss what it looks like to forgive, take a look at its different aspects, and discuss the substantial impact it can have on our physical & mental health.
Understanding the True Meaning of Forgiveness:
The American Psychological Association defines forgiveness as the intentional decision to release anger and resentment while fostering empathy and compassion for the wrongdoer. Contrary to common misconceptions, forgiveness does not require reconciliation; it primarily focuses on personal healing and growth. Forgiving does not necessarily require the wrongdoer to acknowledge the forgiveness, it can be done by oneself. There are three pivotal aspects of forgiveness involve forgiving another person, forgiving oneself, and forgiving the situation or circumstance.
The Three Aspects of Forgiveness:
1. Forgiving Another Person(s): Interpersonal forgiveness addresses issues such as betrayal, insensitivity, aggression, infidelity, or physical altercations. The nature of the relationship, the likelihood of harm happening again, and the severity of the offense are some of the main factors that influence the possibility of forgiveness. As said before, forgiveness does not mean reconciliation, but personal growth.
2. Forgiving Oneself: Self-forgiveness can be very difficult for some. It requires a conscientious effort to overcome feelings of shame and/or guilt, and this process can sometimes rekindle those feelings. Situations in which one has to forgive oneself also tend to be the most difficult ones, and people who cannot forgive themselves have more risk of developing depression and other serious mental health conditions.
3. Forgiving the Situation or Circumstance: This aspect involves events beyond personal control, such as natural disasters or the death of a loved one. Inability to forgive in these situations may generate a negative view of the world around us.
Ways Forgiveness Affects Mental Health:
1. Improves Mental Health: Studies show that forgiveness is associated with better psychosocial well-being and reduced depressive symptoms. Self-compassion plays a crucial role in moderating the relationship between lack of forgiveness and depression.
2. Decreases Stress Levels: Forgiveness breaks the vicious cycle of overthinking over past wrongs, reducing chronic stress. Research suggests a reciprocal relationship between forgiveness and stress, indicating that forgiveness can serve as a coping mechanism.
3. Helps Relieve Anger: Constantly accumulating anger over past injustices can be toxic to mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Teaching forgiveness to youth has demonstrated a reduction in aggressive behaviors and an improvement in social competence.
4. Improves Self-Esteem: Forgiving someone, even in the face of severe harm, can positively impact self-esteem by transforming one's perception of how they feel about themselves..
Tips for Forgiveness:
Forgiveness can be a difficult process, and requires time and concerted effort. Practical tips include practicing empathy, embracing self-compassion, reminding oneself of the benefits of forgiveness, engaging in open communication, and expressing one's feelings through writing. Keeping a gratitude journal can be very helpful to get a different perspective on the things that hurt us.
Practicing Small Acts of Forgiveness:
Incorporating small acts of forgiveness into everyday life can serve as a valuable stepping stone. Recognizing and forgiving minor transgressions can gradually pave the way for more significant acts of forgiveness, fostering a mindset of compassion and understanding.
The REACH Method:
The REACH method was developed by Dr. Everett Worthington, PhD while he was a Psychology Professor of the Virginia Commonwealth University. This method offers a structured approach to forgiveness, and involves 5 steps:
The first step in the REACH method involves recalling the wrongdoing in an objective and mindful manner. It's not about focusing on the negative aspects or feelings of resentment; instead, it encourages a clear understanding of the wrong that was done. The goal is not to resent the wrongdoer but to gain a balanced perspective on what may have led to the past events.
The second step is to empathize with the wrongdoer. Attempting to understand the other person's point of view regarding why they may have caused harm without minimizing or downplaying the severity of the wrongdoing. Recognizing that people may act out of fear, worry, or hurt, the process of empathizing allows us to understand the multifaceted nature of human experiences and motivations.
The third step introduces the concept of an altruistic gift. This step invites us to remember a time when we, too, were forgiven for our own shortcomings. This self-reflection serves as a powerful tool for recognizing forgiveness as a reciprocal and altruistic act. It creates an awareness that forgiveness is not just a personal benefit but a gift that individuals can offer to others. By understanding how liberating it is to be forgiven, we can appreciate forgiveness as a shared human experience that transcends personal grievances.
The commitment to forgiveness is a key aspect of the REACH method. This step encourages us to make a conscious decision to forgive. Whether through writing a journal or a letter (even if unsent), or confiding in a trusted friend, the act of commitment reinforces the decision to forgive. It's a declaration to oneself and to the universe, that the path of forgiveness is chosen deliberately. This commitment can serve as a guiding light during moments of doubt or when memories of the harm return.
The final step in the REACH method is holding onto forgiveness. This acknowledges the reality that forgiveness is not erasure; it doesn't wipe away memories of past wrongs. Instead, it's about changing one's reaction to those memories. When negative feelings arise, we are encouraged to remind ourselves of the forgiveness we have granted. This may involve revisiting journal entries, letters, or recalling conversations with trusted confidants. The act of holding onto forgiveness reinforces the commitment made and helps in overcoming the emotions associated with the forgiven event.
Forgiveness is a transformative journey that not only helps heal past wounds but also positively impacts mental health by reducing stress, decreasing anger, and increased sense of overall well-being. By understanding what it means to forgive and adopting the methods described in detail above, we as humans can be released of those internal negative feelings and embark on a journey of personal growth and healing leading to a healthier, happier and more fulfilling life.
At METSI Care, we’ve created a dedicated healing room for our patients to open up and get support for their mental health, including when angry and resistant to forgiveness. Dr. Garrick is here to listen to and support you in your time of need in our dedicated safe space or from the comfort of your home. our patients ouBy understanding and incorporating this process into our Mental Health approach. If you would like to learn more about our Mental Health Services at METSI Care, you can call us at 512-729-5575 to set up a FREE Discovery Call with Dr. Garrick. We look forward to hearing from you!