After a betrayal, you might not feel ready to forgive the party who hurt you. Many times we hold onto hurt and resentment for years, but we might do more harm to yourself that way. In fact, research shows that forgiveness can ease anxiety, and in addition offers other mental health benefits.
What does it mean to forgive?
Often we run into a stumbling block when it comes to forgiving someone for a particularly painful action. We assume forgiveness means letting the person off the hook or offering reconciliation, and we can get bogged down in our refusal to forgive.
In some instances – as with your partner or a close friend – your reasons for wanting to forgive might include patching up the relationship. In other situations you might decide to end the relationship, but still to forgive the person. In either case, forgiveness does not mean you condone the person’s actions, nor does it discount the pain you experienced.
Psychologists who have studied the subject point to the following elements as hallmarks of forgiveness:
- Letting go and/or moving on
Empathy and understanding, according to Bob Enright, Ph.D., sit apart from justice. Enright has studied forgiveness for more than 30 years, and he describes forgiveness as something that happens internally for each person. It’s more about coming to terms with the situation and finding peace for yourself than about the other person receiving consequences for, or repenting, their behavior.
Another researcher and therapist, Everett Worthington, came face-to-face with an extreme example of practicing forgiveness. He had been studying forgiveness in the context of couples counseling when, in 1996, an intruder murdered his mother in her home. He and his siblings exercised what others have called “heroic forgiveness” in forgiving their mother’s murderer.
Most of us, fortunately, will not have to face such tragic circumstances as we work to forgive others, but Worthington’s example shows that it is possible, even in the most devastating conditions.
You can choose to forgive others for minor slights, such as forgetting to call as promised or for speaking a harsh word in anger. You can also choose to forgive people for actions that have a more lasting impact, such as long-term criticism from your parents or a spouse straying in your marriage.
Choosing to forgive another person makes you an active participant in the situation, rather than a victim. As an act and a choice, forgiving someone helps you regain a sense of control and peace.
Holding onto guilt or shame for your own actions can also have detrimental effects on your mental health, so in addition to forgiving others it’s important to learn how to forgive yourself as well.
While self-reflection can be an important learning tool, it can also lead to rumination. When you ruminate over an event it creates a negative thought spiral that can have a harmful effect on your mental health. Focusing on what went wrong, or what you perceive that you did wrong, prevents you from noticing and remembering the good ‒ either the good in that particular situation, or the good in yourself in a variety of similar situations.
People who experience anxiety and depression have a greater tendency to ruminate, which can trap you in a negative mental state. Learning to forgive yourself for mistakes or imperfection can bring you relief from that negative spiral.
Why choose forgiveness?
Whether you forgive others or yourself, research has shown a number of benefits, including:
- Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Better relationships with loved ones, friends, and colleagues
- Improved immunity
- Lower blood pressure
- A healthier heart
- An optimistic or hopeful outlook
Several studies have shown the healing power of forgiveness. One group of researchers even pointed to the “willingness to forgive” as a necessary step in the transition to adulthood.
For those who suffer from anxiety, specifically, holding a grudge or clinging to resentment can result in more stress and anxiety. Forgiveness provides a powerful way to ease those symptoms and achieve a calmer and more peaceful state of being.