The Physical & Mental Health Benefits of Forgiveness

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Dr Ottilia Brown

The Physical & Mental Health Benefits of Forgiveness

Posted 20 Jan 2019

Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Ottilia Brown

The Physical & Mental Health Benefits of Forgiveness

Over the decades, stories of forgiveness have often been reported in the media, on reality TV shows, YouTube channels and movies. This topic receives so much attention because the act of forgiveness is commonly viewed as something that human beings struggle with. Being of South African origin, Nelson Mandela’s story of forgiveness after being imprisoned for 27 years has been an inspirational one. Mandela is known for advocating forgiveness in his speeches delivered across the globe.  Another inspirational story of forgiveness is that of Chris Williams, a man who lost his pregnant wife and two of his four children when an underage drunk driver collided with him. He has used this tragedy to spread the message of forgiveness and is a motivational speaker on the topic and has since befriended the drunk driver. And so there are numerous examples of these acts of forgiveness, on what some may consider a grand scale.

The topic of forgiveness has traditionally been a religious one. Well-known phrases like ‘forgive and forget’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ are often bandied around in our day-to-day existence. The psychological community however has a keen interest in the act of forgiveness and a number of research studies have emerged demonstrating the physical and mental health benefits of forgiveness. Unforgiveness has been theorised to be stressful as the individual holds onto anger, resentment, hostility and pain which negatively affects mental health. Forgiveness involves letting go of these negative emotions and thereby reducing stress levels and the risk for other mental health issues such as depression. The physical health benefits of forgiveness include lower stress hormones resulting in improved physiological stress responses, cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure and heart rate and improved immune functioning. Seeking forgiveness has also been associated with positive physical and mental health outcomes.

Forgiveness is a process. It is about letting go of a wrongdoing as well as the associated feelings of bitterness and resentment. Forgiveness is done for the self and does not have to be communicated to the transgressor.  Readiness is an important component of the forgiveness process. Forcing yourself to forgive prematurely, especially before the anger and resentment has been acknowledged and processed, can be counterproductive and intensify negative emotions and trauma responses. At this point, I want to mention some myths that commonly exist regarding forgiveness and that may contribute to taking an unforgiving stance:

  • Forgiving is a sign of weakness. Forgiveness actually takes a lot of work and requires an individual to make active decisions to let go of the emotional pain experienced and the need for retribution.
  • Forgiving excuses wrongdoing and makes the behaviour okay. The behaviour is in fact not excused but highlighted for the harm it caused and then a decision is made to forgive after taking a full account of the impact of the wrongdoing.
  • Forgiveness automatically implies reconciliation with the transgressor. Forgiveness and trust are not synonymous. The transgressed individual will have to decide whether they want to continue the relationship or whether it would be better to distance the self from the transgressor. In some situations, such as abuse, it may be dangerous to continue a relationship with the transgressor.
  • Forgiveness exposes us to the same wrongdoing. Individuals may use the anger and anxiety of unforgiveness as self-protection to prevent being a victim again. It is possible to learn helpful strategies for self-protection that do not include negative emotions.
  • Forgiving and forgetting are synonymous. Remembering the pain experienced as a result of the hurt inflicted does not mean that forgiveness has not taken place. Forgiveness is a process and may have to be done several times until the hurt fades. Remembering also reinforces the valuable learnings encountered when we are faced with painful situations.
  • Forgiveness means complete absolution of the anger and hurt associated with the perpetrated act. Forgiving and healing takes time. Forgiving does not equal healing but is rather an important part of the healing process. The trick is to recognise that the anger and hurt is there and to make the decision to forgive again.

There are various ways of approaching the act of forgiveness and working through the pain, resentment and bitterness of being wronged. I offer a few points of consideration for the forgiveness process… some suggestions on how to navigate its complexity:

  • Acknowledge and accept the reality of what happened and the impact of the transgression. Do not skirt around the issue or try to minimise the transgression or its consequences. Take time to understand what happened and to evaluate the impact thereof.
  • Allow the self to fully experience the anger, pain and any other emotions associated with the transgression. Experiencing the emotions and appropriately expressing them can be cathartic. Find healthy ways of experiencing and expressing negative emotions such letter writing, journaling, exercising, and so forth.
  • Acknowledge the negative impact on self of not forgiving. Take time to think about the ruminating negative thoughts about the transgression and the associated negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and resentment. This requires an honest evaluation of the mental and emotional cost to self of choosing unforgiveness.
  • Understand the reasons for not forgiving. Investigate why forgiveness has not happened as yet. Reasons could include waiting for an apology, feeling like forgiving will allow the transgression to happen again, feeling like the transgression is simply unforgiveable… whatever the reasons, understanding them may help with gaining perspective especially when these reasons are weighed in conjunction with the impact of choosing unforgiveness.
  • Reflect on lessons learned and points of growth that may have occurred as a result of the transgression. This may be an opportunity to reflect on how the self was injured, why the injury was felt so deeply, which boundaries were transgressed that resulted in the injury and how the self may have changed positively or negatively as a result of the experience.
  • Human beings are flawed. Take a moment to understand that all human beings, including yourself and the person that wronged you, are fallible and that we all sometimes operate from a set of skewed beliefs about ourselves and the world. Taking this point of view may help with adopting a compassionate stance and assist in the process of forgiveness.

Wishing you strength as we continue to bravely work on our relationships with ourselves! Stay open and keep looking for those growth opportunities!


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2 people have commented this blog.

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khaledmohammed_267 says:

5 months 1 week ago
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

5 months 6 days ago
Thank you for your comment Khaled Mohammed. Wishing you well, Ottilia

Chris says:

5 months 3 weeks ago
The length of this article is a sad indicator of how much guidance we all need to practice forgiveness. If the blog were about advice on not doing ill of others in the first place, which would lead to nobody having to forgive - then it would probably be dramatically reduced in length. Times they are a changin!
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

5 months 3 weeks ago
Dear Chris thank you for your comment. So true... it would be great if we lived in a world where no ills existed. However we inadvertently hurt one another from time to time even when this is not the intention. Being human comes with a certain amount of fallibility. I do however agree that it would be wonderful if malice intent could be erased from the face of the earth. In the meantime we forgive in order to lighten the load that we carry every day. Wishing you well, Ottilia

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