The Forgiveness Stimulus

The health consequences of holding a grudge.

Your significant other: (a) didn’t do the dishes; (b) snapped at you in front of your family; (c) forgot Valentines Day; (d) slept with someone else; (e) gambled away your joint bank account.

Where do you draw the line between excusable … and completely unforgivable?

Everyone has their own personal threshold—but why? Why is one person able to easily forgive a forgotten holiday, while others harbor that grudge, letting it sit under the surface, ready to fuel the next kitchen sink fight.

Studies have found that some people are just naturally more forgiving. Consequently, they tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to have less depression, anxiety, stress, anger, and hostility.

“I think this has to do with the stickiness of one’s thoughts (that is, the tendency to ruminate) and the meaning of the incident,” said Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., author of Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now and the Awakened Introvert. “People who really latch on to the grievance story and won’t let go probably hold on to all sorts of worries, concerns, and complaints.”

Furthermore, a study conducted by Case Western University found that that men have a harder time with it than women—which researchers traced it back to the amount of empathy that each gender typically has.

What Is Forgiveness?

Perhaps the reason that forgiveness is so difficult to fully comprehend is because what it actually entails varies depending on circumstance. No relationship is free from the process, whether the offense committed incites a conflict with a stranger, friend, family member, coworker, or even within ourselves.

“I’ve come to believe that how we define forgiveness usually depends on context,” wrote Everett L. Worthington, Jr, PhD, a Professor of Psychology and expert on forgiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University. “In cases where we hope to forgive a person with whom we do not want a continuing relationship, we usually define forgiveness as reducing or eliminating resentment and motivations toward revenge.”

However, in the case of a significant other, close friend, or family member with which one hopes to continue a relationship, the process becomes more complex. It’s not simply reducing resentment and desire to retaliate, but returning to a place where we can act out of goodwill despite that offending person’s actions. “In a close relationship, we hope, forgiveness will not only move us past negative emotions, but move us toward a net positive feeling. It doesn’t mean forgetting or pardoning an offense,” Worthington continued.

But continuing a relationship without truly forgiving can cause a dramatic shift: a review of 17 empirical studies on forgiveness in relationships concluded that when partners hurt each other, there is often a shift in their goals for the relationship. They focus on getting even, winning arguments rather than on compromise, and use past transgressions to remind the partner of his or her failings. Suddenly the relationship becomes not only unproductive, but unhealthy.

In order to navigate a situation meriting forgiveness, especially one in which a continued relationship is desired, it’s important to understand the two-step process by which true forgiveness is reached.

The Two Types of Forgiveness

According to Worthington, there two types of forgiveness: decisional forgiveness, a statement about one’s intentions about future behavior; and emotional forgivenessthe replacement of negative unforgiving emotions like resentment with positive other-oriented emotions like sympathy. It is important to note is that one can make a decision to forgive and still harbor negative emotions toward the offender, making forgiveness a process that goes deeper than simply deciding to forgive.

“Forgiveness can be defined from an internal or external perspective or both,” said Kozak. “The internal perspective does not necessarily involve communication with the object of the forgiveness. It’s an internal process of not letting what has happened in the past (the incident or incidents that have given rise to the grudge or feeling of forgiveness) to dictate the future.”

In other words, internal forgiveness can be equated to letting it go, or getting over it, or accepting it and moving on.

“External forgiveness is a communication to the target,” said Kozak. “It really won’t lead to good results if internal forgiveness doesn’t occur as well. If you forgive a friend or spouse for something he did but you really haven’t let it go it will come out as resentment.” 

Do You Always Have to Forgive?

So what about the cheating boyfriend, the backstabbing friend, or the co-worker that threw you under the bus? Is everyone deserving of your forgiveness?

Yes and no.

While you can get a pass on external forgiveness (let’s be honest, you’re not wasting any more breath on that ass-kissing co-worker that just took credit for your genius idea), internal forgiveness is a necessary process.

“The distinction between what you do inside your own heart and what you say to the person is crucial,” said Kozak. “You can certainly get a pass for communicating the forgiveness to the other but when it comes to your own experience, if you hold on to that grudge, it can make you chronically stressed. The energy that goes into maintaining the grudge won’t be available for other parts of your life.”

The Health Consequences of Holding a Grudge

“There is a powerful anecdote from Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who used to teach prisoners of war how to forgive,” said Kozak. “One vet who did the training met one of his fellow POWs and he asked him if he was able to also forgive their captors. The other man hadn’t, was still holding a grudge, and his friend said, ‘Then they still have you in prison.’”

There’s no doubt that holding a grudge weighs heavily on our emotional state—a study conducted by Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, a psychologist at Hope College, set out to quantify the physical impact it causes. She asked people to think about someone who had hurt, mistreated, or offended them, and monitored their blood pressure, heart rate, facial muscle tension, and sweat gland activity. The research revealed that when people recalled a grudge, their blood pressure and heart rate increased, and they sweat more. And there were psychological effects as well—ruminating on grudges made them feel angry, sad, anxious, and less in control. Witvliet also asked her subjects to try to empathize with their offenders or imagine forgiving them. When they practiced forgiveness, their physical arousal decreased and they no longer showed an increased stress reaction.

“According to a review of the literature on forgiveness and health that my colleague and I recently published, unforgiveness might compromise the immune system at many levels,” wrote Worthington. “For instance, our review suggests that unforgiveness might throw off the production of important hormones and even disrupt the way our cells fight off infections, bacteria, and other physical insults, such as mild periodontal disease.”

On the flip side, going through the process of internal forgiveness can be good for your health, said Kozak. Science has long supported the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of forgiving.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, “the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress.”

But if you’re someone who prides themselves on letting things go, it’s important to note that being too forgiving also has its consequences. “With internal forgiveness, someone might be adept at letting go but not protecting themselves from the hurtful situation,” said Kozak. “The purpose of forgiveness is not to avoid a situation or to gloss it over. You can protect yourself and let things go. With external forgiveness, it can be dangerous if the other person is not committed to changing the pattern that gave rise to the hurtful behavior.”

Common Misconceptions about Forgiveness

There’s no doubt that practicing forgiveness is important to our health, but the act remains an elusive concept for many, in part because of the myths surrounding what it really means to forgive. Parsing out some of these fallacies can help make the process more tangible, and true forgiveness easier to attain.

  • It’s about the offender. “It’s important to be clear that forgiveness is not giving the other person a free pass, letting him of the hook, or condoning the behavior,” said Kozak. “Forgiveness is something that you do within yourself for yourself.”
  • Forgiveness means continuing the relationship. Just because you forgive, doesn’t mean you want the relationships to continue in the same trajectory—or at all. “The internal form of forgiveness may or may not have a bearing on the relationship,” said Kozak. “Relationships can persist in our minds long after the actual relationship is over; It could be that the incident was a deal breaker but the person who was hurt will continue to be hurt if the incident is not released. Sometimes the object of the forgiveness is dead or no longer available in some way. Sometimes the object of forgiveness can be an institution like the Catholic Church.”
  • Justice and forgiveness can’t coexist. To the contrary, they often work in tandem. Worthington argues that forgiveness and justice operate in different spheres, one internal and one social.  “Forgiveness is not opposed to justice,” said Worthington. “[It] happens inside a person; so I could forgive someone who murdered my mother. Justice happens socially and societally. So, even though I forgave the murderer, I can still hope to see him caught and go to trial for the murder.” Our internal sense of justice is a different matter: “Internally, my sense of injustice if I’m wronged might be high,” said Washington. “The higher it is, the harder it is for me to forgive. If something brings justice into the situation (such as my offender apologizes), it lowers my sense of injustice and thus makes it easier to forgive.”
  • Vocalizing forgiveness means you’ve actually forgiving. Saying “I forgive you” is only the first step, and the passive act of stating forgiveness, without doing the work, just leaves you with empty words (and a heavy load of grudges). Forgiveness has to be an active process, where you make a conscious decision to let go of those negative feelings, and replace them with positive intentions.

Forgiveness: A Learning Process                                                                      

There’s no doubt that being able to forgive is extremely beneficial for our mental and physical heath, but anyone who has been wronged knows it’s not always easy. And while some are more predisposed to forgiveness than others, research shows that people can learn to forgive. Here are five expert tips for putting the practice into motion:

  1. REACH. In his book Five Steps to Forgiveness, Worthington explains the process by which one can reach true forgiveness, which he boils down to the acronym REACH. Recall the hurt without grudge or feeling victimized. Emotional replacement, usually by empathy or compassion toward the person who hurt you. Give an Altruistic (for the good of the other person) gift of forgiveness. Commit to the forgiveness experience. Hold on to the forgiveness if you doubt you’ve forgiven.
  2. See yourself in the offender’s shoes.“Offenses are easier to forgive to the extent that they seem small and understandable when we see ourselves as similar or close to the offender,” said Julie Juola Exline, a Case Western Reserve University psychologist. Her research showed that people are more forgiving when they see themselves as capable of committing a similar action to the person who offended them, since it makes the offense seem smaller. Seeing capability also increases empathy and understanding of the offense. Each of these factors, in turn, predicts more forgiving attitudes.
  3. Practice mindfulness. “Mindfulness practice can be very beneficial for being fluid with forgiveness,” said Kozak. “There has been some research on adding mindfulness to cognitive based therapy interventions and one study conducted by Shauna Shapiro (a leading mindfulness researcher) and Carl Thoresen (a leading forgiveness researcher) and others found that mindfulness may help to enhance forgiveness. Since mindfulness is essentially a skill of letting go of the past and being in the present, it makes sense that it could be helpful.” Give it a try with his free guided forgiveness meditation.
  4. Know that it may get easier with age. A study found that middle-aged and older people forgave others more often than did young adults, and this translated to positive health outcomes. People over 45 years of age who had forgiven others reported greater satisfaction with their lives and were less likely to report symptoms of psychological distress, such as feelings of nervousness, restlessness, and sadness. “We found a particularly strong relationship between forgiveness of others and mental health among middle-aged and older Americans,” says David R. Williams, a sociologist and senior research scientist at ISR. People who reported higher levels of forgiveness were more satisfied with their lives and less likely to report symptoms of psychological distress.”
  5. Let go. “The event happened. That’s a fact. It has had an impact on you and there may be some work to do around that (like therapy, journaling, talking with friends, or meditating),” said Kozak. “You now have a choice to no longer allow that incident and associated feelings to define you. If you can do that, you have forgiven and are moving on.”