Answering the tough questions on forgiveness

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Often we hold onto grudges in life after being wronged, and we can probably feel justified in doing so. Yet when you make peace with someone you feel better. Why is this? What is the power of forgiveness—and what kind of mental and physical benefits does it have on you?

Forgiveness, like many things, is different for different people.  Some folks find it quickly and others require more time, the appropriate circumstances, and conciliatory behavior on the part of the offender, usually an apology.  Characteristically forgiving people tend to forgive wrongdoers across a wide variety of different types of places, events and times. Generally the more forgiving a person you are, the more practiced you are at it. Skillfulness in forgiveness comes with practice, and unfortunately some of us have had more practice than others. Something I want to emphasize is the power of everyday forgiveness. I think a key in your decision to forgive in everyday circumstances where someone cut you off in traffic, barged in front of you in a line or made a rude or disrespectful remark, is probably found in your description of the offender's motivations.

Understanding an offender’s motivations for his actions does a couple critically important things. First, it allows you to empathize with the "poor guy." We've all been there, right? You know how hard it is to face up to the fact that you are not perfect, and in fact, might be highly flawed. If you were in the same situation, might you have not done the same thing...? That's empathy for you, putting yourself in another person's situation and seeing it through his eyes. Empathy paves the way for forgiveness. Second, by relating to his natural motivations you are engaging humility and a humble perspective allows you to realize that this could have just as easily been you and you would want your friends, family, and co-workers to be forgiving. Third, getting in touch with another's perspective allows you to see that these are often inexcusable things to do and you don't owe others your forgiveness, but rather it is a freely offered response that is pro-social in nature. It's what we do for friends and family, and sometimes strangers, because we all belong to a larger social group and we want to be encouraged and supported by that group and it is our responsibility to do the same for others. In other words, forgiveness is altruistic.

Much of this understanding of forgiveness is captured in our forthcoming book on "Forgiveness and Health" where we take up the meaning of forgiveness, but more importantly we also consider at some length how forgiveness is good for you. It's good in so many ways, but in short, it benefits mental and physical health, happiness, and even physiological functioning. Most of the benefits seem to come from the stress reducing effects of forgiveness. Remember that you might feel justified in holding out on forgiveness, but rarely does that make you feel better. The equation looks something like this: Well Being = Forgiveness - Stress. It doesn't take long to understand that more forgiveness and less stress makes you feel better. Our edited volume on forgiveness and health bears this out again and againforgiveness reduces stress which enhances health. Psychologists, sociologists, epidemiologists and physicians agree that forgiveness helps enhance health. That's why some hospitals are now even using forgiveness as a method of helping patients cope with illness and disease and enhance quality of life for patients (as one example, the  Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia). Keep in mind that it is easy to think that forgiving the big things in life is the most important, but consider the frequency of those events. By definition, big things are fairly rare things. Think of your daily situations, which are much more common, if you can more quickly engage the forgiveness process you potentially experience years of less stress and more forgiving, peaceful and healthy years.

Is forgiveness a sign of weakness at all? Are forgiving people just getting steamrolled?

The funny thing about forgiveness is that rarely do folks actually give it with absolutely no strings attached. The no strings part of forgiveness is the really, really hard part. That's the truly divine type of forgiveness, and the type that is rarely offered in this world. Nevertheless, forgiveness doesn't have to mean that you don't hold people accountable. You can require justice, a social and legal matter, and still offer forgiveness (something that happens within you only). Forgiveness is about how you respond and nothing else. It gets tricky when we start to think that other things should be involved toosuch as an apology or guarantee that you won't be hurt that way again. Those things are important social agreements that allow us all to function peacefully, but they are not prerequisites for forgiveness. For instance, you can forgive someone who has passed away even though the issues of justice and such are no longer relevant.

What is the hardest part about forgiving someone, and how do you make it easier?

Oddly enough, making it easier is about focusing on YOU (and for people of faith, God or some higher power)! The hardest part of it is maintaining your exclusive focus on your own feelings and suffering. Typically, continuing to hate on someone just keeps you in a position of powerlessness and pain. Nobody likes to be in that spot!  Forgiving means you no longer focus on the pain and hurt and you move on. If a friend asked you to hold a heavy brick and didn't answer his phone when you called to ask if you could set it down, how long would you wait before deciding that what is best for you is to let go of the brick and stop being weighed down by it? It's the same deal with forgiveness. How long are you going to wait before you decide to drop the heavy burden?

Loren Toussaint

Loren Toussaint

Loren Toussaint, Luther professor of psychology and associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project, is conducting research to broadly understand religious and spiritual factors, especially forgiveness, and how they are related to mental and physical health and wellbeing. Toussaint's research has been featured in a number of print, online and radio outlets, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register, Greater Good, Miller-McCune, Ladies Home Journal, Scotland on Sunday, Men's Health, Psychology Today and the Associated Press. Toussaint was interviewed on Georgia Public Broadcasting on the science behind forgiveness.

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