The Healing Power of Forgiveness

We ask for forgiveness. And we forgive others who ask us. In that way we can experience healing, healing in our souls. ~ Ed Dobsons

Forgiveness can be an important step in healing and moving on with our lives after someone has done us harm.  However, forgiveness, as it is commonly conceived, is not always possible or even appropriate. Survivors of childhood abuse, sexual or physical abuse, or other highly traumatic experiences could cause themselves substantial harm trying to forgive their offender.

Forgiveness has long been associated with religion, with its focus on “live and let live,” “let bygones be bygones,” etc.  However, this is an old fashioned approach to the idea of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a conscious decision to try and let go of the pain that someone has caused you–without minimizing or denying their actions and only where appropriate.  If we cultivate forgiveness and practice it in our lives, we will be able to move towards self-healing and empowerment. 

Some of the benefits of forgiveness include:[1]

  • A positive outlook
  • Healthy relationships
  • Empathy for others and self-compassion
  • Improved mental health
  • Lower blood pressure
  • A stronger immune system

Interestingly, we do not often talk about forgiveness as a learned behavior.  However, it is, and it takes practice. Because the definition of forgiveness, “the action or process of forgiving or being forgiven,” denotes action, it is inherently something that we must put into practice and choose to do.

Types of Forgiveness

There are two main sources of forgiveness which will help you make peace with life:[2]

  1. Oneself

This is an essential starting point, as if you are unable to cultivate empathy for yourself, how can you develop it for others?  This highlights that forgiveness has a dual function; it is both intrapersonal and interpersonal. There is less research in this area as self-forgiveness is harder to evaluate and quantify. However, there is evidence that self-forgiveness is essential for psychological wellbeing.[3]

Regret, guilt, and shame are all highly negative emotions which cause the sufferer pain and emotional conflict. Those who struggle with self-forgiveness are shown to suffer with higher levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and physical symptoms such as fatigue, pain, or self-harming behaviors.[4]

Self-forgiveness requires careful reflection, however, and when practiced most effectively  would include an admission of the mistake, empathy for the person hurt, and an apology for the offense. By allowing yourself to forgive past actions, real or perceived, you will notice improved levels of self-esteem and confidence.

  • Another

Being hurt or betrayed by someone, particularly someone you love and trust, can cause anger, sadness, bitterness, and confusion. This can commonly result is someone holding a grudge, which can easily cloud their daily lives and lead to an escalation of negative emotions.

It is not uncommon for someone who is holding a grudge, or multiple grudges, to bring this learned behavior into new relationships and new experiences. In turn, this can lead to anxiety, distrust of others, depression, and a loss of valuable, meaningful connections with others.

It is essential to note that forgiveness will not always result in reconciliation. Sometimes it is simply not possible as the offender might have died, moved away, or does not reciprocate the desire for reconciliation. It is also important to ask whether reconciliation is appropriate. Sometimes it may cause more harm than good, especially if the other person cannot or will not change their behavior or take responsibility for their actions. 

There are certain key instances where forgiveness would cause significantly more harm than good, especially amongst survivors of trauma and abuse.  Survivors of childhood abuse, neglect, rape, domestic violence, etc. are likely to negatively impact their mental health and self-esteem if forced or coerced into forgiving their attackers. The process of forgiveness can also cause psychological damage as the victim is forced to relive and re-experience the horrific events of their past.

Forgiving someone who is undeserving can also have more tangible consequences. It is well understood that abused women who forgive and return to their violent partners are more likely to experience lethal violence.[5]

What is Forgiveness Therapy?

Research has found forgiveness to be a pivotal process in helping clients relieve anger, depression, and anxiety over betrayals, restoring peace of mind.[6]  Again, please remember that this does not include instances of abuse or trauma. It is important to note that forgiveness is not about condoning the harm caused or forgetting what has occurred but is instead about releasing negative thoughts and emotions attached to it such as revenge or bitterness.  Forgiveness is not a selfless act, and the primary focus is on the freedom of the injured party rather than the one who caused the upset.

Unfortunately, many people can become stuck in patterns of anger, resentment, and fantasies of revenge, which can negatively affect all aspects of their lives.[7] Forgiveness Therapy helps clients forgive themselves as well as those who have done them harm, in order to progress towards self-liberation.

Being unable to forgive can cause a multitude of physical and psychological issues, including:

  • Flashbacks to negative past events that cause distress in the present
  • A preoccupation or obsession with the harm caused that stops you from living in the present in a positive, connected way
  • Fantasies of Revenge  that stir up negative emotions such as anger and hatefulness
  • Seeking solace in substances to avoid the negative emotions
  • Engaging in harmful, risky behavior to avoid the events of the past

The mental health benefits of forgiveness are well established and, through therapy, those who feel victimized can let go of limiting perceptions and behaviors and become more connected and open in the world.

The main goal of Forgiveness Therapy is to establish empathy with the offender in order to understand a different perception of the event. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the client will be able to:

  1. Increase compassion for the offender and for themselves
  2. Gain a balanced perspective and insight
  3. Decrease negative feelings towards the offender
  4. Stop seeking closure in terms of punishment, retribution, or even reconciliation

Forgiveness is a developmental process, and a person’s unique history, experiences, motivations, and underlying mental health concerns are key to the success of therapeutic treatment.[8]

While forgiveness is generally a powerfully positive and healing practice to cultivate, it must also be actioned with care and never at the sake of oneself.

[1] Elliott, Barbara A. “Forgiveness Therapy: A Clinical Intervention for Chronic Disease”. Journal of Religion and Health, vol 50, no. 2, 2010, pp. 240-247. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s10943-010-9336-9. Accessed 28 Apr 2021.

[2] Raj, Paul et al. “Mental Health Through Forgiveness: Exploring the Roots and Benefits”. Cogent Psychology, vol 3, no. 1, 2016, p. 1153817. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/23311908.2016.1153817. Accessed 28 Apr 2021.

[3] Wohl, Michael J. A. et al. “Looking Within: Measuring State Self-Forgiveness And Its Relationship To Psychological Well-Being.”. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, vol 40, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1-10. American Psychological Association (APA), doi:10.1037/0008-400x. Accessed 28 Apr 2021.

[4] Worthington, Everett L. et al. “Forgiveness, Health, And Well-Being: A Review of Evidence for Emotional Versus Decisional Forgiveness, Dispositional Forgivingness, And Reduced Unforgiveness”. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, vol 30, no. 4, 2007, pp. 291-302. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s10865-007-9105-8. Accessed 28 Apr 2021.

[5] McFarlane, Judith et al. “Risk of Behaviors Associated with Lethal Violence And Functional Outcomes For Abused Women Who Do And Do Not Return To The Abuser Following A Community-Based Intervention”. Journal of Women’s Health, vol 24, no. 4, 2015, pp. 272-280. Mary Ann Liebert Inc, doi:10.1089/jwh.2014.5064. Accessed 28 Apr 2021.

[6] Enright, Robert D., and Richard P. Fitzgibbons. “Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger And Restoring Hope.”. 2015. American Psychological Association, doi:10.1037/14526-000. Accessed 28 Apr 2021.

[7] Yoshimura, Stephen M., and Susan D. Boon. “Exploring Revenge as A Feature Of Family Life”. Journal of Family Theory & Review, vol 6, no. 3, 2014, pp. 222-240. Wiley, doi:10.1111/jftr.12041. Accessed 28 Apr 2021.

[8] Raj, Paul et al. “Mental Health Through Forgiveness: Exploring the Roots and Benefits”. Cogent Psychology, vol 3, no. 1, 2016, p. 1153817. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/23311908.2016.1153817. Accessed 28 Apr 2021.

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