The healing power of forgiveness

Forgive and forget. We aspire to these wise words, but often fall short when we reflect on perceived wrongs done to us by others. The wrongs we endure can range from minor oversights, like a close friend forgetting our birthday, to major harms, such as being the victim of violence. Either way, the struggle for forgiveness can remain. And really, can we forget the offense?

We know that forgiving can be difficult, but the rewards of forgiveness can be great. Forgiveness can benefit our physical and emotional health. So, how can we forgive?

Understand what forgiveness means

In some ways, it’s easier to understand forgiveness by talking about what it isn’t. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning what the person did, or that it would be OK for them to do it again. It doesn’t mean denying our own feelings of hurt, or that there should not be consequences for the offending person. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting that something painful happened, or having to reconcile with the offender.

Forgiveness means letting go of resentments that keep us tied to the wrong committed against us. It means to heal and move forward with life without allowing anger, hurt or unproductive rumination to waste too much of our mental or emotional energy. In this respect, forgiveness is as much (or more) for ourselves as it is for the other person or people.

Recognize the link between forgiveness and health

In recent years, significant research has looked into the concept of forgiveness and how it affects our health, both physical and emotional. The growing body of evidence indicates that forgiveness carries many potential health benefits, including lower blood pressure and heart rate, fewer episodes of depression and anxiety symptoms, improved function of the immune system, and lower risk of substance abuse and a reduction in chronic pain. Forgiveness tends to support healthier relationships and an improved sense of well-being.

Practice forgiveness

Forgiveness is not always easy. It’s easier sometimes to think, “I’m right, so why should I forgive you?” So, we often may need to make a conscious decision to forgive.

There’s no right way or wrong way to approach forgiveness. Each of us needs to find what works best for ourselves. For some people, religious or spiritual beliefs will be their guide; for others, the memories of family will help teach forgiveness. We might need to learn new skills for forgiving and let go of past hurts. In truth, the act of forgiving is not necessarily a single event, but rather a process that takes time. Moving toward forgiveness can free us from the burden of anger, resentment and hurt that can push other people away. It can make us happier people.

Inspire yourself with stories of forgiveness

As a psychologist, I have the privilege of hearing people’s stories. It never ceases to amaze me what some individuals endure in their lives — childhood abuse, domestic violence, having a loved one killed by a drunk driver, or losing a son or daughter to war. We humans go through a lot, and it takes a toll.

When I hear stories of profound forgiveness of what we might easily view as unforgivable, they teach me lessons about compassion, wisdom, kindness and making difficult choices for our own good. In this way, we can be inspired to forgive through stories of other people. The websites The Forgiveness Project and International Forgiveness Institute feature many inspirational stories of forgiveness.

If you take time to approach forgiveness in a different way, you just might learn to forgive and forget.