For a long time, a friend of mine (we’ll call her “Shirley”), genuinely hated a coworker of hers. Shirley wasn’t just bothered by this coworker, she genuinely couldn’t bring herself to think about them without being filled with a bitter anger, which ruined her evening on more than one occasion.
Notice that I don’t say Shirley didn’t have a “good” reason to hate this coworker – the person had deeply hurt her, and the organization that employed them both had failed to act appropriately in this situation, which made Shirley feel invisible, unsafe, and very, very angry. She had carried this anger for over a year, and it was taking a toll on her mentally, emotionally and physically.
For most of us, there has been a person in our life against whom we’ve carried a grudge of some kind. People hurt each other – it’s the price we pay for being able to have satisfying relationships; and, regrettably, these hurts are not always resolved. Shirley had been hurt, and like most of us, the very last thing she wanted to hear from a friend was that she needed to forgive and move on (this is not great advice, but is given more commonly than one might think).
For some people “forgiveness” is a bit of a dirty word; that is, how can we forgive someone who clearly doesn’t deserve it, especially if they don’t seem to understand the pain they’ve caused – or even seem to care? A better question to ask, perhaps, is, “What is forgiveness? And why should I forgive?”
Forgiving is not the same as forgetting (nor do these two things necessarily need to come as a pair). Forgetting is putting the hurt completely out of our minds, forever. Forgiveness is much more complex. Everett Worthington is a psychologist who has devoted much of his career to studying forgiveness, and he breaks the word into two main categories: ‘decisional,’ and ‘emotional’. Decisional forgiveness involves a cognitive decision to let go of the negative feelings we hold towards the person who has hurt us, whereas emotional forgiveness takes that a step further, replacing those negative feelings with positive ones like compassion and empathy. The person we are forgiving does not even need to be part of the process. We can forgive a deceased or estranged loved one that has no chance of ever receiving or reciprocating our gesture. We can also forgive someone as part of a relational gesture, regardless of whether or not the person chooses to, or is able to receive it.
It’s also possible that we might offer emotional forgiveness and have the person that hurt us accept it with genuine humility and remorse, which for everyone I’ve ever known, is a powerful experience. There is a famous scene in Les Misérables where a priest shows kindness to Jean Valjean, a man who hours before stole thousands of dollars worth of his property and knocked him unconscious after being shown kindness and trust. Valjean is completely and utterly undeserving. This scene brought tears to my eyes; there is something about undeserved forgiveness that can break down the most hardened exterior.
Forgiveness is pretty much always hard, no matter your situation. It doesn’t always go the way we hope it might. But one thing is certain: the resentment you are carrying is most likely hurting you a lot more than it is hurting the other person.
Resentment takes a toll on us; it takes energy to harbour a grudge (like carrying around a weighted pack). We are not required to forgive, but it is healthy for us in almost every conceivable way. Research shows that it improves heart health, immune system function, your gastrointestinal system, brain functioning and perhaps biggest of all, it reduces stress. Much research suggests that it also reduces rumination, which has been reliably linked to depression, anxiety, anger-related disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychologically related physical disorders.
For this reason, we can choose to view forgiveness as something we are doing for ourselves, rather than the offender. We can decide to try to let go of a grudge without actually feeling any different – and that is OK.
Try this: hold your arms out in front of you, with your hands clasped tightly together, as though you were clasping your resentment between them. Hold this for a minute (Not exhausted? Try two minutes), and then let your arms drop and relax. What did you notice? This is what happens internally when we let go of a grudge – we are releasing tension. Try it while actually picturing a minor grudge you are holding, and see if it makes you feel any different towards that grudge.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that things are not that easy. In many ways, we cannot just decide to forgive, and all hurts are definitely not created equal. However, if you recognize that you might be carrying a grudge (big or small) that is actually hurting you more than it’s helping, and you feel you can’t get over it, there are lots of options to help yourself with it:
- Try cognitively deciding you want to commit to forgiving, even if you don’t feel like it, as a gift to yourself. If you want to take this a step further, try Everett Worthington’s evidence-based REACH forgiveness worksheets (available here for free). Many people have found these exercises very helpful.
- Talk through what you are experiencing with a trained therapist. Even just putting words to your experience and having them heard and understood can be very relieving, and therapists are trained to help you recognize and navigate challenging circumstances.
- Read stories of people who have forgiven under seemingly impossible circumstances, and try to be curious about your reactions to these stories. Do you agree with them? Do they make you angry? Humbled? Chances are, reading others’ experiences with hurt and forgiveness will help you feel less alone, and even just the experience hearing those stories can shift some of the weight. If you are part of a faith community or come from a faith background, try talking to a spiritual leader about what your faith says about forgiveness, and question what you find.
Most of all, remember to give yourself some grace as you wade through this process; forgiveness is both one of the most difficult and most rewarding things a person can go through. If you have any question regards on forgiving and forgiveness, feel free to contact us.
Akhtar & Barlow have a few good articles out. This 2018 meta-analysis provides evidence for reduced depression, stress, anger, and hostility, as well as increased positive affect, related to forgiveness:
Akhtar, S., & Barlow, J. (2018). Forgiveness therapy for the promotion of mental well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(1), 107-122. doi:10.1177/1524838016637079
Akhtar, S., Dolan, A., & Barlow, J. (2017). Understanding the relationship between state forgiveness and psychological wellbeing: A qualitative study. Journal of Religion and Health, 56(2), 450-463. doi.org:10.1007/s10943-016-0188-9
Baldry, A. C., Cinquegrana, V., Regalia, C. & Crapolicchio, E. (2017). The complex link between forgiveness, PTSD symptoms and well-being in female victims of intimate partner stalking. Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, 9, 230-242. doi:10.1108/JACPR-08-2016-0247
Orcutt, H. K., Pickett, S. M., & Pope, E. B. (2005). Experiential avoidance and forgiveness as mediators in the relation between traumatic interpersonal events and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(7), 1003-1029. doi:10.1521/jscp.2005.24.7.1003