Ryan Howes, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California. Here, he offers his insights on why forgiveness is important and where to start.
Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles to forgiveness?
A: In my experience, there are four elements of healthy, satisfying forgiveness:
- Expressing the emotion
- Understanding what happened
- Rebuilding safety
- Letting go
Healthy forgiveness requires addressing all four, but not necessarily in that order. For example, let’s say you stomp on my foot. When the shock and pain wear off, I’ll need to express how I feel: I’m angry, I’m confused, my toe is throbbing, etc. It’s best if I can tell you directly, but that’s not always possible or necessary. The main thing is that I allow myself to fully feel and express what this stomping was like for me. I also need to have some framework for why it happened. My brain will continue to search for a reason until I find something: You were mad at me, you were killing a spider, you were drunk and stumbled on me, I was the victim of a random stomping, etc. I don’t need to agree with the reason, I just need a schema to understand why. I also need to regain some semblance of safety, a reassurance the crime won’t recur. I may choose to remove myself in the future, buy steel-toed shoes or ask for a genuine promise from you that it won’t happen again. These three elements can happen in any order and may need to be revisited a few times before I’m ready for the final stage: Letting go.
Letting go is a decision to stop ruminating on the stomp. It’s a promise that I won’t lord this indiscretion over you forever or jump to it when losing an argument: “I’m inconsiderate?!? Well you stomped on my foot once!” It’s not forgetting, but it is agreeing to set aside the tantalizing power of you owe me. Being the victim is a very powerful position; forgiveness means giving up that power.
Obstacles can arise during any one of these points. Many people don’t like feeling and expressing these painful emotions so they rush to forgive and forget. Others don’t take the time to assure their future safety, which is essential for rebuilding trust. The brain wants to understand, but sometimes it’s hard work to figure out what happened. Even if these three elements are sufficiently processed, there’s the problem of letting go. In order to forgive, we need to drop the grudge and relinquish the power we have over the perpetrator.
Q: Are some things tougher to forgive than others?
A: Two come to mind: When we feel betrayed by those closest to us and when we injure ourselves.
When someone very close to us (a best friend, family member or spouse/partner) betrays us, the injury is doubled. First, we feel hurt, vulnerable and exposed. The deeper the relationship, the deeper the feelings of rejection and abandonment. But it also causes us to question our own judgment: “How could I have trusted someone who hurt me this bad?” We may question whether we had a faulty compass from the start. The task of forgiving a loved one includes assessing our own judgement of character.
Then there is self-forgiveness. Self-inflicted infractions are inevitable; we all have moments when we screw up, indulge in unhealthy behavior and sabotage our growth. It’s so easy to look back and criticize all the choices we should have made differently; hindsight really is 20/20. Unless we go through the four elements with compassion and understanding, we may continue to beat ourselves up.
Q: What can we do if we want to be forgiven?
A: Listen: If you want to be forgiven, you may need to be a bucket for the other person’s feelings for a while. Hear the complaints and feelings of the injured party without being defensive or reactive. Try to truly, deeply understand the experience of the other – you may learn something important about yourself.
Apologize: From your heart, acknowledge your transgression and profess your sorrow that you caused pain. No excuses, no deflection, just say you’re sorry. If they want to know why it happened, do your best to explain.
Commit to change: Give specific examples of how and why your behavior will change from this point forward. Even more important, prove this change through your behavior. Injuries cause people to lose trust, and trust is gained through consistent behavior over time. If you really make a significant change, they’ll eventually see it.
Restitution: If you can repair the injury and return things to normal, do it. You’ve still betrayed the trust, but this sends the message you’re sincere about your efforts to change.
Q: Why is forgiveness important?
A: Many studies show that forgiveness greatly benefits the forgiver. The Mayo Clinic touts research showing those who forgive experience:
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower stress
- Less hostility
- Lower heart rate
- Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
- Fewer depression symptoms
- Fewer anxiety symptoms
- Reduction in chronic pain
- More friendships
- Healthier relationships
- Greater religious or spiritual well being
- Improved psychological well being
In addition to these important factors, forgiveness allows people to move on in life. When people dwell on injuries they tend to stay stuck. Forgiveness allows them to re-engage with others and with life. Holding a grudge equals stagnancy and forgiveness is the antidote.
Forgiveness is something you do for yourself, the benefits for the perpetrator are secondary. When you’ve dealt with your feelings, thoughts, safety and relationships, you’re ready to move on in life. Think about what kind of person you want to be: one who has power through holding grudges, or one who rises above to forgive? Who is the bigger person?
Written by Sarah Treleaven