Many people view forgiveness as an offshoot of love -- a gift given freely to those who have hurt you.
Forgiveness, however, may bring enormous benefits to the person who gives that gift, according to recent research. If you can bring yourself to forgive and forget, you are likely to enjoy lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, and a drop in the stress hormones circulating in your blood, studies suggest. Back pain, stomach problems, and headaches may disappear. And you'll reduce the anger, bitterness, resentment, depression, and other negative emotions that accompany the failure to forgive.
Of course, forgiving is notoriously difficult. "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive," said C.S. Lewis.
And forgetting may not be a realistic or desirable goal.
"Despite the familiar cliche, 'forgive and forget,' most of us find forgetting nearly impossible," says Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Hope College. "Forgiveness does not involve a literal forgetting. Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt."
Forgiving (and Forgetting) Quells Stress
That type of angry "embellishment," as Witvliet calls it, seems to carry serious consequences. In a 2001 study, she monitored the physiological responses of 71 college students as they either dwelled on injustices done to them, or imagined themselves forgiving the offenders.
"When focused on unforgiving responses, their blood pressure surged, their heart rates increased, brow muscles tensed, and negative feelings escalated," she says. "By contrast, forgiving responses induced calmer feelings and physical responses. It appears that harboring unforgiveness comes at an emotional and a physiological cost. Cultivating forgiveness may cut these costs."
But how do we cultivate forgiveness?
Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, readily admits that forgiveness, like love, can't be forced.
"You can't just will forgiveness," says Luskin, author of Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. "What I teach is that you can create conditions where forgiveness is more likely to occur. There are specific practices we offer that diminish hostility and self-pity, and increase positive emotions, so it becomes more likely that a genuine, heartfelt release of resentment will occur."
How to Encourage Forgiveness
For example, Luskin encourages the practice of gratitude -- the active effort to acknowledge what's good in your life.
"Gratitude is simply focusing your attention on the positive things that have happened," he says. "That creates a biochemical experience that makes it more likely that forgiveness will occur."
Stress management, whether through meditation, deep breathing, or relaxation exercises, also helps quell the stress of anger and resentment, he says. So does "cognitive reframing," which fosters acceptance of the facts of your situation.
"You may wish you had a better mother or a better lover," Luskin says, "but the world is the way it is."
Finally, Luskin encourages people to change the story they tell themselves so they appear more like survivors who are hopeful about the future rather than victims with a grievance.
"You can change, 'I hate my mother because she didn't love me,' to, 'life is a real challenge for me because I didn't feel loved as a child,'" Luskin said. "That makes forgiveness so much more possible."
Two Types of Forgiveness
Everett L. Worthington Jr., PhD, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Applications, divides forgiveness into two types. Decisional forgiveness involves choosing to let go of angry thoughts about the person you feel has wronged you.
"You can tell yourself, 'I am not going to seek revenge,' for example, or, 'I am going to avoid that person,'" Worthington says. "You could choose decisional forgiveness and still have a lot of emotional unforgiveness."
The ultimate goal, however, is emotional forgiveness, in which negative emotions such as resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear are replaced with love, compassion, sympathy, and empathy.
"Emotional forgiveness is where the health action is," says Worthington. "Emotional unforgiveness causes a chronic stress response, which results in obsessing about the wrong done to you. Rumination is what gets people into trouble. Rumination is the mental health bad boy. It's associated with almost everything bad in the mental health field -- obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression ... probably hives too."
REACH for Forgiveness
To help people achieve emotional forgiveness, Worthington has devised a 5-step program called REACH, with each letter representing one step.
"First you recall the hurt objectively, without blame and self-victimization," Worthington says. "Then you empathize by trying to imagine the viewpoint of the person who wronged you. The altruistic part involves getting people to think about a time they were forgiven and how that felt. When it's time to commit to forgiveness, people usually say, not yet, but when they finally do, they must then hold on to forgiveness."
All this is not merely theoretical for Worthington. His mother was beaten to death with a crowbar in 1995, and yet, by applying the five steps of REACH, he managed to forgive.
"Within 30 hours I was able to forgive the youths who had committed this horrible crime," he writes in Forgiveness and Reconciliation.
When Not Forgiving Is OK
But some people cannot forgive, and that's OK too, according to Jeanne Safer, PhD, a psychotherapist and the author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving. For some of her patients, recognizing that they don't have to forgive is a huge relief.
"Many don't have to forgive in order to resolve their feelings," Safer says. "They say, 'I can never feel OK about these terrible things, but I'm not going to be vengeful.'"
To help them achieve this resolution, Safer offers a three-step process. The first step involves re-engagement -- a decision to think through what happened. The second step, recognition, means looking at every feeling you may have about the injury. "You ask yourself, 'why do I want revenge?'" Safer said. "Revenge is based on powerlessness and it's doomed to failure."
The final step involves reinterpretation of the injury, including an attempt to understand the person who caused it. "This is where forgivers and nonforgivers divide," Safer said. "Sometimes you're not able to reconnect with the person, but if you go through this process, at least you won't be a victim."
Forgiveness research proliferated after the publication in 1984 of Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve, by Lewis B. Smedes, who claimed that forgiveness produced benefits for the forgiver.
Safer, however, is wary of those who picked up on this idea and started to promote what she calls "promiscuous forgiveness."
"What's important is working it through and achieving resolution, whether it leads to forgiveness or not. Forgiveness involves wishing the other well. You're already there if you don't wish them ill," Safer says.