William Reville: Forgiveness is healthier than holding a grudge

Research suggests that forgiving people can bring peace, happiness and emotional wellbeing

Oscar Wilde offered sage advice about forgiving one’s enemies

Oscar Wilde offered sage advice about forgiving one’s enemies

 

Religion and other forms of traditional wisdom all advise us to forgive those who have wronged us. Modern psychological research confirms the value of this advice.

If you do not practice forgiveness you might be the one who suffers most, but if you do forgive this will point you towards a path of physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing.

At one time or another we have all been hurt by the words or actions of someone else. These wrongs cause us to feel angry and bitter and can even prompt us to seek revenge. Such feelings are natural, but if you indulge them they will hurt you. As the Chinese philosopher and teacher Confucius (551-479 BC) said: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

On the other hand, if you forgive and let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge, this will lessen the grip that the hurt has on you and will help you to focus on more positive parts of your life.

It is wise to forgive, but not to forgive and forget. Forgiveness does not mean excusing the act that caused you hurt or erasing or minimising the other person’s responsibility for hurting you.

Forgiveness does not mean you should not take precautions to protect yourself from being hurt by that person in future. But forgiveness allows us to get on with our lives and to make way for happiness, health and peace.

The Mayo Clinic, a prestigious American medical practice and medical research group, has posted a valuable summary of the value of forgiveness in an article on its website, Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness. This lists the following benefits: healthier relationships; psychological wellbeing; lower blood pressure; less anxiety; less stress and hostility; stronger immune system; fewer symptoms of depression; improved heart health; improved self-esteem.

On the other hand, if you are unforgiving and harbour grudges you will allow negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings and you could be swallowed up by your bitterness and sense of injustice.

The Mayo Clinic lists the following effects of holding a grudge: it brings anger and bitterness into every new experience and relationship; prevents your enjoyment of the present; increases anxiety and feelings of depression; can make you feel your life lacks meaning and purpose; and causes you to lose enriching interactions with others.

Of course, you cannot just decide to forgive and that is that; you must work at it. In a very interesting article in the Atlantic (January 2015), Olga Khazan describes a five-step forgiveness method called the Reach method, which was devised by Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the Reach method, first you Recall the incident that hurt you, including all the pain. Then you Empathise with the person who wronged you, perhaps by visualising the pressures and temptations they were under. Then you give them the Altruistic gift of forgiveness, perhaps by remembering how good it felt when you were forgiven by someone you had wronged. Then you Commit yourself publicly to forgive, perhaps by telling a friend. Finally you Hold on to forgiveness when anger surfaces, reminding yourself that you have already forgiven.

Worthington has also described his and others’ research demonstrating the physical and psychological health benefits of forgiveness in an article in The Greater Good, September 1st, 2004.

What if you forgive someone who has wronged you but that person doesn’t change their behaviour towards you? Well, remember that the point of forgiveness is not to get the other person to change their behaviour. The point of forgiveness is to take away the power that the other person has to continue to affect your life negatively. Forgiveness is mostly for you, bringing you peace, happiness and emotional wellbeing.

Remember the wise words attributed to the Buddha (480-400 BC): “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

As always, Oscar Wilde has a comical twist: “Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.” William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC. http://understandingscience.ucc.ie

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