Forgiveness is a conscious decision to let go of feelings of anger or resentment harbored toward a person who has committed a wrong. It can often help the one who has been wronged release any negative feelings and achieve a sense of peace. An individual who finds it difficult to forgive others for wrongs may be able to explore the benefits of forgiveness in therapy and as a result become able to forgive more easily.
Although the term "forgiveness" may bring to mind religious concepts, forgiveness need not have anything to do with religion. Forgiveness also does not mean that one has forgotten or excused an offense, simply that one has recognized it and made a conscious decision to let go of the pain it has caused. When forgiving someone, it is not necessary that one also reconciles with the offender, and misconceptions of the idea of forgiveness may be potentially harmful, especially in the case of an unhealthy or harmful relationship. Some might be inclined to think that reconciliation occurs along with forgiveness, but this is not always the case. One may be able to forgive a family member, for example, who has said or done hurtful things, but it may be harmful, both mentally and physically, to maintain a connection with that family member.
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Forgiveness is often necessary in the case of a perceived offense against the self, close friends, or family, when an individual says hurtful things due to differing ethics or morals, or as a result of the stigmatization of or disregard for one's identity or beliefs.
Some people may be able to forgive others by:
- Understanding why the other person did wrong, often by talking about the issue.
- Empathizing with the other person's position.
- Avoiding focusing on anger or sadness directed toward the person who did wrong.
- Reflecting on times that you hurt someone else and treating forgiveness of another person as forgiveness of yourself.
- Telling the other person that they are forgiven.
- Drawing from spiritual, cultural, and/or religious teachings.
- Reflecting on the negative consequences of holding a grudge.
Forgiveness does not only involve others. Throughout one's life, it may become necessary to forgive oneself for an act of wrongdoing, either real or perceived. Some people who have made choices in life that they later regretted may have a difficult time forgiving themselves for making those choices. People often also tend to hold themselves to higher levels of accountability than they do other people, and they may, as a result, have a harder time forgiving themselves after doing something wrong than they would forgiving another person who committed a similar offense against them.
Research shows that those who do forgive themselves readily after making mistakes may experience a reduction in empathy, and they may be less inclined to make amends to the victim. Self-forgiveness may be most effective and beneficial when it includes careful reflection on one's mistake, admission of one's mistake, empathy for the victim, and some kind of reparation for one's offense.
Because holding onto feelings of anger or other negative emotions, even those directed toward one's self, can lead to a decrease in emotional, mental, and physical well-being, forgiving oneself is an important process, although it may take time. When one has difficulty with self-forgiveness, issues such as anxiety, depression, and stress may result, and these conditions may cause physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, pain, and fatigue or lead to self-harm. An individual who maintains a grudge against the self may also be more likely to engage in risky and dangerous behavior such as substance and alcohol abuse.
Forgiveness generally does not only benefit the person being forgiven; those who are able to forgive someone who wronged them may see significant results from doing so. Studies show that an inability or unwillingness to forgive can have a negative impact on one's mental health and well-being, often contributing to conditions such as depression and anxiety. The personal benefits of forgiveness have been shown to be great: These may include increased happiness, better health, and stronger relationships.
People who are more forgiving of others have been shown to be happier and less likely to experience negative health effects of stress. They are often able to resolve conflicts more easily, repair damaged relationships with friends or partners, and may experience higher levels of empathy and more positive feelings toward people in general. They may also be more resistant to illness than those who hold grudges, as studies show that people who hold grudges may be more likely to have a compromised immune system.
The concept of forgiveness as an aspect of psychology and therapeutic treatment is still fairly recent. However, since the 1990s, multiple studies on forgiveness have been published. For some mental health providers, forgiveness began to be known as an integral part of the process of therapy. Many people who pursue therapeutic treatment have been wronged by others or may have aspects of themselves that they are unhappy with. With the help of a therapist, people are often more likely to understand exactly what forgiveness is and is not, and they may be able to better explore their feelings regarding an offense, whether they were affected by it or committed it, and thus begin the process of forgiveness.
Not forgiving or holding a grudge may lead to anger, bitterness, and emotional unrest, and a person's mental health can easily be affected by the potentially harmful emotions that often result when forgiveness cannot be achieved. A therapist can help a person better understand the situation in which the person was wronged, develop empathy for the offender, and explore the possible benefits of forgiveness. A therapist might also help facilitate a conversation about whether reconciliation with an offender may be beneficial or harmful. Counseling that promotes forgiveness has been shown to have a positive impact on a person's ability to achieve forgiveness, and this therapy often also treats stress, depression, anxiety, and other issues at the same time. A therapist might also, as part of the process, help a person to develop greater empathy for both the offender and people in general, if the person appears to lack empathy. Therapy to promote forgiveness has been shown to have a reductive effect on both the negative feelings harbored toward an offender as well as desires for revenge.
- Therapy to promote forgiveness of parents, classmates: Melina, 19, enters court-order therapy after being charged with stalking and harassment. Her therapist discovers that she has been following and taunting several classmates who bullied her in high school, threatening to vandalize their cars and homes. Melina at first does not express regret for her actions, stating that she "did not actually do anything" and telling the therapist that they should be held accountable for bullying her. The therapist asks her more about the bullying and discovers that she was teased because of her weight and her clothing, and that her parents did nothing to help her, other than encourage her to "lose weight and wear more makeup." Melina reports symptoms of depression and feelings of anger toward the world in general, and she tells her therapist that she hates her parents because they ignored the issue and that she wants them to "suffer." Over several sessions, the therapist works with Melina, first pointing out that if she does anything to her classmates or parents, she will likely go to jail, which will only harm her. They then explore Melina's resentment, the therapist acknowledging both the wrong done to Melina and the unfairness of her parents' indifference and the perpetrators' going unpunished. The therapist asks Melina to consider the possible reasons why her classmates may have been unkind to her without denying their cruelty or excusing it, and he helps her to understand that she can let go of her grudge and anger and forgive her former classmates for her own benefit. He also helps her to realize that she can forgive her parents without excusing their inaction and that it may be helpful for her to share her feelings with her parents, rather than holding them in as a grudge, in order for her to understand their behavior. Over the next several sessions, Melina is able to develop her sense of empathy and achieve a level of forgiveness, and she tells the therapist that she now realizes her attempted retaliation was not a positive choice. As she begins to have less anger toward her former classmates and her parents, she makes the decision to invite both of her parents to a therapy session in order to find a greater sense of peace with the past.
- Breienes, J. (2012, August 23). The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_healthy_way_to_forgive_yourself.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2011, November 23). Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/forgiveness/MH00131.
- Wade, N. (2010). Introduction to the Special Issue on Forgiveness in Therapy. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32(1), 1-4.
- What Is Forgiveness? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/forgiveness/definition#what_is.
Last updated: 07-14-2015
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