The health benefits of forgiving
by Tamara El-Rahi | February 01, 2016
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” – Buddha
I’ve got to say, that Buddha was an insightful bloke.
Recently, I’ve been encouraged to practise forgiveness. It wasn’t even because of direct injury to me - rather it was for something in the past that indirectly had made me suffer, and that was taking up a lot of my mind-space. I didn’t know how to get rid of it.
While being encouraged by good friends to be “merciful” towards the person in question, I came across this recent article in The Atlantic which spoke of a man’s journey to forgiving the person who murdered his mother. This man, Everett Worthington, happened to be a university professor who had been researching the psychology of forgiveness for some years. While his brother never managed to deal with their mother’s murder and eventually took his own life, Everett was able both to forgive and move beyond it – at least, as much as you healthily can move on after losing family members so tragically.
However the fact of the matter remains: the thought of forgiving is nice, but the actual act is hard. I mean, it’s tough enough to forgive someone for eating the last chocolate in the box, let alone anything more serious. So what really spoke to me in the article was the five-step “REACH” strategy that Everett used (and had developed himself) for forgiveness:
“First, you “recall” the incident, including all the hurt. “Empathize” with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the “altruistic gift” of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, “commit” yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, “hold” onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.”
Still not sure if you can forgive? Everett’s research found that there are numerous benefits to forgiving. For one, there’s a large and fairly immediate mental health boost, where anxiety levels are depleted. Forgiving people are physically healthier, for example they sleep better at night and enjoy lower blood pressure, as well as have less of the stress hormone cortisol running through their body. Interestingly, studies mentioned in the article also show that forgiveness weighs a person down – literally – and so that “forgiving” test subjects on average could jump higher than “non-forgiving” test subjects. Seriously!
On a personal level, I have felt such relief and peace after forgiving the person who indirectly hurt me – and they don’t even know that I’ve been going through anything or that I’ve forgiven them! It has given me a sense of resolution in the matter, which means that the pain I was feeling doesn’t dominate my thoughts anymore – making it easier to move beyond it. Sure, it might always be there in some small way and difficult to completely forget, but that’s when I’ll use the last step of the “REACH” program to remind myself that I have already forgiven. And yes - the person who wronged me may not even deserve forgiveness - but isn't it better to give them that unwarranted gift rather than allow the pain to rob me of my own happiness?
I think that what really changed things for me was the second step of “REACH” – empathising with the person that wronged me. It’s amazing to realise, but genuinely feeling for another person, and understanding that perhaps they wronged you out of their own place of hurt (and that if I was in the same position, I’d surely be capable of the same wrongdoing), seemed to be the only thing that outweighed the pain I was feeling. It really is true that we are happier when we think of others rather than ourselves.
There’s no doubt in my mind that forgiving is therapeutic. Try and add a little more of it to your lives, I certainly will be!