Forgiveness, Healing, and the Power of Compassion

ForgivenessA giant swallowtail butterfly in a man's hands.: one of those necessary challenges of life. The stubborn, self-righteous child inside of you will do anything to avoid it; but, as the saying goes, to not do so is akin to slowly poisoning yourself and secretly hoping the other person dies. By holding on to grudges and hurts, the only one you are poisoning is yourself. The poison being hatred and anger, two dangerous emotions that haven’t been known to do much other than lead to disease on an individual level, and war and conflict on a macro level.

Most mental health professionals know the importance of forgiveness in the healing process. When speaking to people about forgiveness, especially when it pertains to particularly traumatic events, not surprisingly I am often faced with much resistance. Some misconstrue the concept of forgiveness as giving a free pass to hurt another. This is far from the true definition, which is not to excuse or condone, nor is it necessarily to forget. Forgiving need not even involve the other party. After all, they are your wounds to mend. Of course, for some the decision to not forgive can be a source of empowerment and a driving force in moving forward; however, research suggests this is more the exception than the rule.

Forgiveness can be one of the most liberating acts of self-love one can commit. The result: freeing oneself from hatred and living with a peaceful heart. Additional benefits, according to Dr. Fred Luskin’s extensive research on the topic of forgiveness as therapy, can include decreased depression and anxiety, improved sleep, and improved relationships with others. Conversely, holding on to grudges or resentment not only leads to poor emotional, mental, and spiritual being, it can adversely affect physical health as well, leading to high blood pressure, for example. One may also miss out on the potential for true and fulfilling connections with others, as pent-up anger from past wounds usually ends up seeping into all our relations, consciously or unconsciously.

On a broader level, an act of forgiveness can potentially break the cycle of ongoing conflict and violence, while holding on to anger only serves to perpetuate it. The Fetzer Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to raising awareness about the power of forgiveness, believes that as individuals foster forgiveness in their own lives, it eventually leads to a “ripple effect” in the larger community. According to the institute, education on forgiveness has “shown promise in preventing crime by reducing vengeful responses that can lead to criminal acts.” The Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut, Lebanon, designed by Alexandra Asseily after the Lebanon civil war, was a project designed to be a “place for calm reflection, healing, understanding and expression of common humanity.”

In addition to the one in Beirut, proposals for several other “gardens of forgiveness” have cropped up elsewhere around the globe, including in Rwanda in memory of the hundreds of thousands who died during the genocide there. One activist in support of this project is Rwandan musician Jean Paul Samputu, who describes forgiveness as “the most powerful unpopular weapon against violence that exists.” The Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace, an international think tank and research organization, describes such projects as attempts to make people “consciously aware of where and how memory is held and how grievances are passed down from generation to generation … to help experience some personal healing, and forgive and feel greater compassion for others and ourselves.”

Speaking of having compassion for oneself, let’s not forget about the importance of self-forgiveness. For many, this can be one of the most difficult challenges of all. Lack of forgiveness of the self can play a significant role underlying clinical depression, to which Sigmund Freud once referred as anger turned inward. If you struggle with depression, ask yourself if there is something that you haven’t forgiven yourself for and work on making that possible, whether through therapy, prayer, or whatever process works for you. If there is someone you need to make amends with, do so. It would be a gift to them, but more importantly, it would be a gift to yourself.

Whether healing the world or healing your heart, more often than not, compassion and forgiveness continue to prove to be key ingredients in a recipe for success.

References:

  1. Research Into the Strength of Forgiveness, retrieved from http://www.forgiving.org/Campaign/harness.asp
  2. Conversations about Forgiveness, The Fetzer Institute.
  3. Luskin, Frederic. Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2002), 184.
  4. Retrieved from http://www.ghfp.org/dialogue/forgiveness.aspx
  5. Retrieved from http://www.samputufc.org/

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Allison Abrams, LCSW-R, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • BB

    September 11th, 2013 at 3:48 AM

    I know that I have done some terrible things to other people in my life and I have tried working through much of that. I have forgiven many of the people who first started the cycle of violence upon me, but I have certainly found it a lot more difficult to forgive my self for what I have now done to others. Yes it is powerful and I long for the day when I can get there and honestly say that I believe it, but I also know that I have a very long way to go before I get there.

  • Tate

    September 12th, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    You would think that given how self centered and selfish most of us are that this forgiveness would be the easiest to extend- but it far and away the most difficult

  • Beverly Mason, LPC, PC

    January 1st, 2014 at 10:13 AM

    This is a great article that I can use with my clients. I have clients that are holding 40+ yr old grudges, and as we all know, it only harms them. I like the comment about taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Thank for that one. Keep the good articles coming. Most sincerely, Beverly Mason, LPC

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