Some people are able to forgive more easily than others. Small errors in judgment, little white lies, and backhanded comments can quickly be forgiven. But resentments that run deeper, such as those caused by infidelity, sexual abuse, and addiction can leave physical and emotional scars that are difficult to overcome. These transgressions can cause anger that ranges from mild to severe. Holding on to that anger prevents an individual from being able to forgive the perpetrator. Research has shown that the stress that accompanies suppressed anger resulting from unforgiveness can lead to mental and physical health problems. Some studies have even suggested that trait anger directly increases a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. In addition, research has also found a link between anger and self-forgiveness. People who hold grudges against others may be able to forgive them at some point and time. But forgiving oneself has been shown to be more difficult. This is especially true for individuals who struggle with high levels of anxiety.
To better understand the relationship between anger, forgiveness, mental health, physical health, and overall life satisfaction, Ann Macaskill of the Psychology Research Group at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK recently conducted a series of studies examining these dynamics. In two separate studies, Macaskill and her colleagues found that individuals who were unable to forgive other people had no declines in life satisfaction or mental health. However, those unable to forgive themselves experienced reductions in both psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Macaskill also discovered that anger was directly related to a person’s ability to forgive others but not themselves. However, shame, guilt, anxiety, and anger were all predictors of self-unforgiveness.
The findings suggest that people who harbor resentment and anger towards others and themselves are at increased risk for poor physical and mental health. Those who internalize their feelings even more can experience even poorer outcomes that result from shame, guilt, and anxiety. Macaskill believes that the results of her studies demonstrate the need for addressing anger in people who have trouble forgiving themselves and others. She also notes that while the findings from her studies confirm a relationship between anger and unforgiveness, the results do not support a direct and strong connection between anger and overall health. She added, “While self- and other-unforgiveness are associated with poorer mental health and lower life satisfaction, the search for a causal link must continue.”
Macaskill, A. (2012). Differentiating dispositional self-forgiveness from other-forgiveness: associations with mental health and life satisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31.1, 28-50.
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