We can all lay claim to grievances, grudges, resentments and maybe even desires for revenge. Such feelings may be entirely understandable, but holding on to them ultimately stands in the way of happiness. In extreme cases the wounds that arise from anger and bitterness can follow a person around and rob them of their future. The alternative is forgiveness.
The practice of forgiveness is an active and personal decision to let go of the negative feelings that eat us up. The process doesn't necessarily mean you forgive or condone the actions of the person or people who hurt you, but it is sometimes possible to forgive someone without excusing what they did. Forgiveness means understanding what is causing our distress. It's about accepting that we can't turn back the clock in order to change history but that we can choose how we react.** Forgiveness Research**
So far as the psychological research on forgiveness is concerned, pioneering work by Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, shows the benefits that can be derived from letting go. Noted improvements in physical health include reduced blood pressure, improved immune response and improved heart health.
Furthermore, research notes fewer symptoms of depression, reduced anxiety and stress, more fulfilling relationships and reduced anger and hostility as some of the psychological improvements from letting go. Earlier this year, the results of a systematic review (1) into forgiveness therapy found ‘moderately strong evidence to suggest that forgiving a variety of real-life interpersonal offenses can be effective in promoting different dimensions of mental well-being.'
Forgiveness Therapaking responsibility for our own happiness is a key concept of forgiveness therapy. Although therapists may adopt different approaches to forgiveness therapy, there are certain common threads. The starting point is often to allow a final time to feel and express pain. The therapy then steers you towards a recognition that your anger and pain results from how you think about the issues. It highlights that continued anger or desire for revenge is locking you into a state of inertia. Working out positive alternatives and ways to achieve them represents the next stage. Finally you reward yourself with an alternative story. This becomes the story where you were hurt but have managed to move on.
Forgiveness can present a variety of challenges. For example, if the person you are trying to forgive continues to behave badly, or will not admit to their part in the hurt, it can act to block your progress. The important thing to remember is what forgiveness can do for you. Forgiveness can take away the power of the other person to hurt you. It does not mean you'll forget, but it does mean you can let go of all the effort and energy you are expending in ways that provide no relief. Focusing your life on what you want it to become rather than what it is as a result of pain and anger is the ultimate goal.
Akhtar, S., Barlow, J (2016) ‘Forgiveness Therapy for the Promotion of Mental Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’. Trauma Violence Abuse. March 23.
Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.