Nov. 21, 2019 -- Forgiveness is called "the F word" by some therapists.
That’s because many people look on forgiveness as an imposition or a burden -- a necessity they feel pressured to do.
While forgiving isn't easy for many, it is a skill that can be learned. Misconceptions abound about what it means to forgive and forgiving has more to do with the forgiver than the forgiven.
Just as importantly, forgiveness brings health benefits.
“You intentionally choose to let go of the negative feeling and motivation you might be having and the negative thoughts towards the person who hurt you,” says Loren Toussaint, PhD, a professor of psychology at Luther College in Decorah, IA.
In letting go, he says, people commit that they are not going to be consumed by the offensive act. That’s not saying the offensive act or remark was OK, says Toussaint, who co-edited the book Forgiveness and Health.
Forgiveness “is like an internal cleansing,” says Frederic Luskin, PhD, who directs the Forgiveness Projects at Stanford University. He developed and tested the “Forgive for Good” Method and wrote a book with the same title. “It stops blaming someone else for your current life.”
“The best definition of forgiveness I’ve heard came from a woman whose daughter had been murdered,” Luskin says. “She said ‘Forgiving is giving up all hope for a better past.’” It is not about condoning bad behavior, or even forgetting it, he says.
Forgiving and Your Health
Whether forgiving involves a crime, a friend standing you up, or a chronic illness diagnosis, it is linked with numerous health benefits, studies suggest. Among them:
Better physical, mental health: In a study of 148 young adults, Toussaint and his team measured their stress exposures, ability to forgive, and health status. Greater stress and lower levels of forgiveness each predicts worse mental and physical health, Toussaint found. He concludes that “developing a more forgiving coping style may help minimize stress-related disorders.”
Better thinking skills: Forgiving unpleasant situations, such as dealing with a hated job, a chronic illness, or the death of a loved one, was linked with better “executive functioning,” such as the ability to plan, organize, and complete tasks, researchers from Brigham Young University found.
Relief of “social pain”: Forgiveness can help reduce “social pain,” at least if it’s combined with acetaminophen, another study found. Social pain is defined as the feeling that can come with social rejection. Researchers believe acetaminophen might relieve symptoms of it.
Researchers assigned 42 healthy young adults to take 1,000 mg of acetaminophen daily, a placebo pill of 400 mg of potassium daily, or no pill. They assessed their forgiveness levels and social pain daily for 20 days. The acetaminophen reduced social pain levels, but only in those who had high levels of forgiveness.
Less depression: Lack of forgiveness and depression are linked, research suggests. In one study evaluating 311 Korean teachers, researchers found that having self-compassion moderated the link between a lack of forgiveness and depression, with those who had little self-compassion more likely to be depressed.
Better productivity at work: Forgiveness in the workplace may reduce stress on the job, another study found. Researchers evaluated 262 workers, measuring forgiveness, lack of productivity, absenteeism, stress, and health problems. Forgiveness of a specific workplace offense was linked with more productivity and fewer mental and physical health problems.
Who’s Good at Forgiveness?
Stories of forgiveness often mention a strong faith as a driving force, but people with a strong faith are not the only ones good at forgiving. People who have what Luskin calls “philosophical stoicism” tend to forgive more easily. “Some people simply say, ‘Life is going to have difficulties. I am going to die, bad things will happen. I am going to have to remember that, and not get lost in that.’”
In other situations, some people may have suffered so much themselves that it makes them deeply compassionate, Luskin says.
For some, the driving force may be a desire to let go -- freedom from holding on to the old hurt, says Neda F. Gould, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She often counsels people trying to forgive.
Narcissists -- self-absorbed people who think they’re the only one who counts -- have a much tougher time forgiving, Luskin says, while people with a high level of gratitude tend to be quick to forgive. They see so much good in the world, he says, they can more easily forgive some of the bad.
Having hope that things will turn out right, humility, and gratitude are three personal characteristics that help people forgive more quickly, says Everett Worthington, PhD, commonwealth professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University.
One Woman's Decision to Forgive
In 2007, Barbara Mangi’s daughter Dana, 25, was murdered. Mangi not only has forgiven the murderer, but she writes occasional letters to him in prison, where he is serving a 35-year sentence.
Mangi, now 68, says she has always had strong faith as a Catholic and wanted to forgive her daughter’s murderer. But it did not come easily. "I was angry at first," she says, "but I never remember wishing horrible things would happen to him. I didn't go there. I just wanted justice.
"I remember having a conversation with God, saying 'I know I am supposed to forgive this person. Help me figure out how to forgive.'" Besides prayer, Mangi says she meditated, spent time walking in nature, and saw a therapist.
At the sentencing, "my heart was still hardened," she says. She read her impact statement, describing how the murder affected her. The murderer asked the judge if he could speak to the family. "He proceeded to tell us how very sorry he was," she says. He told them he never meant to hurt Dana. He said that "all he was able to do for the rest of his life was pray for us."
Mangi remembers that "he had a quivering voice and tears in his eyes. At that moment, I actually realized I felt compassion for him. That's how my forgiveness started." Soon after, she says she began to feel horrible for having compassion, worried about reactions from her family. Then her daughter Sarah confided that she had the same feelings of compassion and worried her mother would be mad at her.
Mangi says she realized that "Dana would have forgiven him right away."
Finally, Mangi wrote a letter to the murderer, who she says had mental health issues, telling him she forgave him. "After I was able to forgive him, I felt so much more freedom," she says. "I felt like I was at peace." She chronicles the path to forgiveness in her book Reawakening: Return of Lightness and Peace after My Daughter's Murder.
Learning About Forgiving
First, Toussaint says, it’s important to acknowledge that you have been hurt.
He also thinks it’s crucial to separate justice from forgiving. In the case of a person charged with murder, for instance, some people may say forgiveness is not "earned" if the sentence is lighter than they think it should be, he says. He sees it differently. Justice has no bearing on forgiveness, he says. “Some get no justice and still forgive.” And the opposite is sometimes true.
But the “injustice gap” may play a role in a willingness to forgive, Worthington says. If the offender doesn’t show remorse, for instance, that can “jack up” the injustice gap, making the offense harder to deal with, says Worthington, whose books include Forgiving and Reconciling.
Striking back at someone who wronged you might seem like it will bring relief, Luskin says. But some eventually find the bitterness that retaliation generates is overwhelming. “They get tired of their own suffering. They let go of the bitterness and resentment.”
Another barrier to forgiveness, Luskin says, is that people who have been wronged have to come to terms with the fact that they are vulnerable and not in control.
As for teaching someone to forgive, “you don’t tell a non-forgiving person to forgive any more than you tell an alcoholic to stop drinking,” Toussaint says. “Neither of those work.” People have to want to forgive, he says, “and generally quite badly.”
Once someone decides they need to forgive, experts can help them get there. Among the experts’ tips:
- Be clear about what offended you.
- See the other side of the equation. Instead of seeing the other person as evil, ask yourself if you could have made the same mistake.
- Remember how grateful you may have been in the past when you were forgiven.
- Focus on the benefits of forgiving. Some people talk about a weight being lifted.
- When you think of the opposite of forgiving -- holding on to the anger, and constantly turning on the stress response -- the benefits become clearer, Gould says.
Luskin’s “Forgive for Good” method is a nine-step program that stresses a goal of finding peace and realizing that “a life well lived is your best revenge.”
The person you are forgiving doesn’t have to be alive, experts say, or even know you are forgiving them. “Forgiving entirely resides in the offendee, not the offender,” Luskin says.
Gould agrees. “Sometimes you won’t have access to the person, and sometimes you may choose not to. Even then, I think forgiving is a process from within. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to confront them.”
A decision to forgive for a serious act such as murder does not mean the person hurt is not still grieving, experts say.
But forgiving relatively quickly after a serious trauma such as a loved one's murder may make the process of grieving easier, Luskin says.
“Forgiveness is separate from grieving,” Toussaint says. “Everyone has to grieve, it’s a normal human response, but not everyone has to hate.”
If You Still Can't Forgive
Even with the benefits of forgiving, it can be hard to do, especially for victims of atrocities such as violent crimes. Experts offer alternatives when forgiveness really is impossible.
"I generally say it makes sense not to forgive a bad[ly] behaving person," Luskin says. "I then suggest the actual goal is to forgive your life for being imperfect, which all lives are. The goal is embrace all of it, with an understanding that suffering is part of a full life."
"There are many ways to deal with injustice," Worthington says. That includes not just forgiving, but also seeking justice, accepting and moving on, or seeing justice done. "A person can say, 'I can't forgive,' yet get over the hurt by using one or more of the alternatives."
"I think it's fine to say, 'I just can't -- right now,'" Toussaint says. "But hopefully, you might find you can, at some point in the future. There is a lot of hope in forgiveness -- that is, hoping for a better tomorrow and one in which you can forgive. Forgiveness develops hope, but it also requires it."