Forgiveness— For You or the Other Person?
Forgiveness is a difficult subject to broach as each of us has had life experiences where we have been hurt. And sometimes very wrongly hurt. People hold on to their hurts and wronged deeds for a variety of reasons. Authors Simon and Simon of the book Forgiveness: How to make peace with your past and get on with your life state that holding on to grudges can give you a pay off or illusions of benefits. First, not forgiving may give you the illusion that if this had not happened, you’d have a “perfect” life. Second, holding the grudge may give you the illusion of being good. It may define who you are: the victim of some injury or injustice. Or third, not forgiving may give you the illusion of power, ensuring you will not feel the powerlessness you felt when you were hurt. Not forgiving can give you the feeling of being omnipotent while you keep the people who hurt you locked away in the prison of your mind. Or not forgiving may give you the illusion that you will not be hurt again. (Simon, 1990)
Harboring resentments and holding onto past hurts definitely is a “holding on” of emotional baggage. People who are not able to forgive someone are dealing with more than spiritual concerns. It seems that forgiveness, touted for decades by spiritual leaders as being a spiritual virtue that was good for your soul and your spiritual evolution, is more than that. Forgiveness is medicine for the body, for your health. There is a growing body of research that tells us that our lack of ability to forgive someone has a negative impact on our health. And our ability to forgive has a positive impact on our wellness.
Try this exercise. Take a moment to do a quick inner body scan. Check in with how you are feeling, both physically and emotionally. Note if your body is tense, what your mood is right now, and how you are feeling about your day. Now take a moment to think about someone in your life who has wronged you, hurt you. Call the person to mind and spend a few minutes thinking about the person and the wronged act. Let your emotions and thoughts flow as you recap the scenario in your mind in which you were so unjustly treated. After feeling the emotions and thoughts of this person or event, both in your body and your mind, bring yourself back. Do another body scan. Note now how your body is physically feeling and if it is the same as when you started this article or if it has changed. Notice if there are any physical differences now or if your mood has changed and if it is better or worse. If you can feel it in your body, pay attention. Studies show that holding on to these thoughts and not forgiving does take a toll on your body.
Researchers are accumulating more and more evidence that those who are able to forgive will reap the health benefits. Forgiveness has been shown to improve cardiovascular function, diminish chronic pain, relieve depression and boost the quality of life. The more inclined one is to pardon those wrongdoings of others, the more apt he/she is to have lower blood pressure, fewer depressive symptoms and as he/she arrives in late middle age, better overall mental and physical health than those who do not forgive easily. Studies have shown that reducing anger, hurt and depression can lower blood pressure and may make people more optimistic, energetic, physically vital, and reduce the symptoms of physical stress – such as backaches and headaches. When we are mad, adrenaline dumps into our system affecting the heart, and anger and frustration are hard on the immune system. Being a victim depowers us, making us even more reactive. The fact is now showing that the closer we can come to being accepting, loving, and peaceful, the more apt we are to have a good life in all ways.
I know that this all sounds good in theory, but the question then becomes how do we let the anger go and finally forgive someone? Dr. Frederick Luskin has developed a protocol to help people in the studies learn to forgive. He takes the people in the study who are hurt and teaches them the forgiveness process and then studies their body’s response. (Free, 2002)
Dr. Luskin states that there are four stages in learning to forgive. First, we focus and blame others, outside ourselves, for what they are doing to us. We don’t see that it is our choice to respond with anger. Second, we turn our focus on what we are doing to ourselves. We figure out that anger isn’t much fun, doesn’t feel good and we begin to take steps to release it and get over it. In the third stage we start to realize that we are responding with anger in our daily life even to the simple situations such as a car cutting us off on the highway. And lastly, we decide that we don’t like being angry all the time, that it is a waste of our life, and we decide to stop reacting to life with anger. ((Free, 2002)
Dr. Luskin teaches that there are three things we can do when we are finally ready to give up the anger and forgive someone. First we can change the stories we tell ourselves when we describe our experiences. We all have a narrative in our head that we tell ourselves over and over again when we have been hurt. We often tend to make the experience awful and respond with weak coping mechanisms. He suggests that we talk less about the bad experience and talk more about what we can do, how we are learning to cope, and how we are growing through the experience (opportunity).
The second step in forgiving is to have a stress management practice. Meditation, visualization, breathing techniques, martial arts, and yoga are all practices that can help you dissolve the stress response when it hits your body. This is very important and needs to be practiced whenever the “grudge” shows its ugly head. Other ways to de-stress can include practices such as diaphragmatic breathing or shifting our attention to the heart and practicing compassion. It can be very helpful to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see things from his/her perspective. If you can have compassion for this person, you will have a shift within yourself.
And lastly, Dr. Luskin states that you need to think more clearly. We all have really distorted thinking at times and may get caught up in a narrative about how the world should be and what is owed to us. At those times, get clear and remind yourself that “you can’t always get what you want” and that maybe it is okay as you can grow and learn from the experience and become a better person as a result of it.
Perhaps you are still trying to put your head around the idea that letting the stories go in your head will impact your body. But what Dr. Luskin’s study showed is that after they taught people how to forgive, they found that the average person saw their physical vitality go up by 15 perecent over the course of a six-week training. This included changes in appetites, sleep patterns, and energy levels.
So if this article has raised your stress level as a result of bringing up an incident that caused your body to react, put the newsletter down, close your eyes, and do some deep breathing, down through your body to your abdomen. (See the article on page 3 for specific steps.) Allow yourself to release the stress response when you exhale and continue this until you feel better. And while you are at it, perhaps you want to set yourself free through the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness has a mind/body connection which impacts you on all levels and may allow you to fly through life in a better way.
Free, W. (2002, November). www.spiritofmaat.com. Retrieved May 2009, from Spirit of Maat.
Simon, D. S. (1990). Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your past and Get on with your Life. New York: Warner Books, Inc.Tags: forgivenes is medicine for the body, forgiveness, forgiveness is medicine for your health
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janie Pfeifer Watson
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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