I am a Senior Consultant in Health Promotion at Stanford University where I teach people ways to manage their stress and to live lives of greater satisfaction. I do this in part to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease and to help their bodies maintain health and well being. A funny thing happened to me in the midst of doing this work. I started to research the effect that forgiveness had on physical and emotional well being. Towards that end I developed a simple process of teaching people to let go of the grudges and grievances they carried around. As I started to teach forgiveness I discovered that an unexpectedly large number of people responded to this work with fascination, confusion, enthusiasm and mistrust, and almost no one knew for certain exactly what forgiveness was and why it might be useful to study.
My research has shown that learning to forgive helps people hurt less, experience less anger, feel less stress and suffer less depression. My research also shows that as people learn to forgive they become more hopeful, optimistic and compassionate. As people learn to forgive they become more forgiving in general not just towards one particular person who did them wrong. Our research has also shown that forgiveness has physical health benefits. People who learn to forgive report significantly fewer symptoms of stress such as backache, muscle tension, dizziness, headaches and upset stomachs. In addition people report improvements in appetite, sleep patterns, energy and general well being. Finally, one research project showed that angry people with high blood pressure showed a decrease in both anger and blood pressure when they were taught to forgive.
If forgiveness is so good for us why do so few of us choose to forgive when people hurt us? First no one has taught us how to forgive. The religious traditions usually tell us to forgive but do not offer the practical steps as to how. We live in a culture that prizes the expression of anger and resentment more than the peace of forgiveness. In addition most people are confused about what forgiveness is and is not. Because of this too many do not take the opportunity to heal themselves, sometimes from great emotional pain and the physical consequences that result.
First, forgiving an offense such as an adulterous affair does not mean you condone the affair. I am reminded often that we can only forgive that which we know to be wrong. Your partner’s affair was wrong but you do not have to suffer indefinitely because you were betrayed. Secondly, forgiveness in no way means you have to reconcile with someone who badly treated you. If you were the recipient of childhood abuse or are in a harsh relationship you can forgive the offender and as part of that choice make the decision to end or limit contact. Forgiveness is primarily for creating your peace of mind. It is to create healing in your life and return you to a state where you can live capable again of love and trust.
Another misconception about forgiveness is that it depends on whether or not the abuser or lying person apologizes, wants you back or changes his/her ways. If another person’s poor behavior was the determinant for your healing then the unkind and selfish people in your life would retain power over you indefinitely. Finally, you can forgive you ex spouse for their insulting speech and even for abandoning you and your children… but forgiveness in no way means you do not take the ex to court to make sure your children get their support payments to which they are entitled. Forgiveness and justice are not the same. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. Forgiveness and condoning are not the same.
What I have seen time and time again is that people have the capacity to make peace with their past. They regain their ability to trust and love and stop blaming other people for their emotional distress. They take more time to count their blessings and less to complain about what went wrong. They understand they need to look more at who they become and less on what has happened and they grasp that each day they wake up with a fresh start no matter what happened to them yesterday. They learn to forgive and heal in both body and mind.