I used to think of myself as a primarily “good” person. Never mind that the distinct moral poles of “good” and “bad” or even good and “evil” do not leave much room for the amazing amount of ambiguity or even neutrality that we encounter in our daily lives. It is easy to make judgments about ourselves and other people using incredibly narrow definitions. So, when a few personal events caused me to place my character under a more powerful microscope, I soon realized that I had some glaring flaws that I hadn’t previously acknowledged.
One of the most apparent was that I was a world-class grudge holder. While I spent plenty of time ruminating on my own mistakes, I also spent an inordinate amount of time dwelling on the hurtful things others had said or done to me. These were actions performed by people who said they loved me or claimed to have my best interest at heart, but they were also events that were years—in some cases over a decade—past.
Pisanthrophobia is a fancy Greek word for “the fear of being hurt by a loved one.” Sometimes, that fear can be very justified. This article is about forgiveness, but if you are in a situation where ongoing abuse is being perpetrated against you, it is important to get help. Forgiveness is unlikely to be a viable solution for moving forward until you are safe. It is also important to consider that forgiveness does not work for everyone; sometimes when others pressure us to forgive those who have harmed us it becomes another source of trauma. Forgiveness is a choice that we can make only when/if we are ready.
That being said, research shows that forgiveness can help improve our physical and mental health. In studies, participants who practiced empathetic thinking—as opposed to those who reflected negatively about past grievances—demonstrated an improved immune response, reduced cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, better cholesterol, and improved cardiovascular health. Forgiveness is also associated with a decreased sensitivity to anxiety and PTSD. Placing the people and situations that created our trauma in a different context can help us to better process the events of the past.
Choosing to let go of grudges can also improve our existing relationships. We all know the couple that “goes for the jugular” in arguments, using character attacks to tear each other down. They will often cite past mistakes and misbehavior as part of the “proof” that their partner can simply do no good. John Gottman, a relationship specialist, refers to this as contempt and warns that it is the number one predictor that a couple will divorce or separate. Choosing not to weaponize the faults of our relationship partners can be key to building trust and intimacy.
I may have kept my contempt to myself, but it was still alive and well within me. Predictably, wrestling with those negative feelings did not improve my opinion of myself. Low self-esteem is a common feeling for people who are dealing with injustice. It is important to note at this point that forgiving injustice doesn’t remove the inherent unfairness of what was done against us. Forgiveness is instead a way of psychologically distancing ourselves from toxic anger, hostility, and resentment, and instead replacing those with empathy and goodwill towards the person(s) who harmed us. This can still improve our health even if the person doesn’t change, or even if we are unable to keep that person in our lives because they are unsafe or refuse to behave differently. Recognizing that forgiveness is a process that begins—and may even end—with us releases us from the burden of needing someone else to change before we can.
I think the reason why I held back on trying forgiveness for so long was that I thought that forgiving meant I had to forget. I had been raised in a religion that mandated forgiveness, and I thought that the role of forgiveness in my life was diminished once I had left. I also thought that forgiving meant I was offering someone a blank slate or a new opportunity to hurt me with no consequences. In ongoing relationships, however, forgiveness is less about forgetting past faults and more about choosing to see others’ actions in a more charitable light. Instead of assuming the worst motives in the people we love, we acknowledge their humanity and our own.
It may sound clichéd, but sometimes the most difficult person to forgive is oneself. Self-forgiveness, however, is necessary and possible. Feeling guilty about something we have done can encourage us to make changes in our lives to avoid repeating the same mistake. We can also make amends to anyone we have harmed, even if they refuse to accept them. As we make changes, we can be compassionate towards ourselves, recognizing that if we knew then what we know now, we would have behaved differently.
There are some cases when it may be harder to forgive than others. In the case of a particularly heinous offense, or if our attachment style makes apologies, forgiveness, and/or reconciliation difficult. However, there is proof that forgiveness is a skill that we can improve with time and that even some of the worst actions are eligible for forgiveness. Self-awareness and determination in our practice may guide us on the path to a healthier, more peaceful life.
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