The Healing Power of Forgiveness

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Many of us understand forgiveness as something we offer to someone who has wronged us. That is part of it, but the enormous emotional value to the person doing the forgiving is equally important. Though some people can move past hurtful events, others can’t let them go. An incident that happened decades ago can still affect them, emotionally and physically.

An inability to forgive can make you miserable

Not being able to leave a wrong behind can wear you down over time. You replay the situation in your thoughts and feel freshly angry or victimized. You may dwell on the unfairness of the situation, rehearse your response or think about revenge. Not only doesn’t it help; it can make things worse.

The science of forgiveness

Hurtful incidents trigger a stress response involving the release of hormones, increased heart rate and blood pressure and other physical effects. When we hang on to resentment, that stress response continues. Each time the incident is recalled, we experience another stress response.

By forgiving, we can have healthier, more satisfying relationships, less anxiety and a better overall quality of life. There is broad scientific consensus on the effects of forgiveness.

Noted resilience expert and Mayo Clinic professor of medicine Dr. Amit Sood has spent years connecting emotional and physical dots… how mind and body interact. His work involves identifying factors that make people resilient instead of easily overwhelmed by the stressors of daily life. Along with gratitude, acceptance, compassion and reflection, forgiveness is a resilience principle. It equips people to withstand adversity and stay emotionally healthy.

Hundreds of studies of diverse groups, from healthy people to patients with terminal cancer, confirm that forgiveness is strongly tied to health benefits. These include lower levels of anxiety, depression and perceived stress, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, the use of fewer medications, better sleep and other measurable effects.

Forgiving yourself

We tend to be hardest on ourselves, putting up barriers to self-forgiveness, including the idea that we deserve to feel bad. Getting past old mistakes can take some work, but once we do, it can feel as though a burden has been lifted.

Studies suggest that making amends to the person who was wronged often helps. It gives people permission to forgive themselves, even if they get a cool reception from the person to whom they apologize.

One of the most often-quoted statements on forgiveness sums up how dangerous resentment can be. “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

EAP counselors assist their clients in resolving personal issues, including those that originate or spill over into the workplace. Exploring forgiveness is one tool to help people find resolution and improve their quality of life. Even for conflict rooted in a long-simmering problem, forgiveness is possible.

What forgiveness is

A voluntary choice
A gift that may go to someone undeserving
A way to heal
Something good you do for yourself

What forgiveness is not

A short-cut to avoid negative emotions
Pretending everything is OK
Conditional on the other person apologizing
Approving of the hurtful behavior
Burying your real feelings

Professional counseling for troubled employees is available to your organization through Mayo Clinic Health System. In the La Crosse area, call 608-392-9530 or 800-493-3960 or see the Employee Assistance Center web page, employeeassistancecenter.org.