The Many Benefits of Forgiveness

father and son hugging

Betrayal, aggression, and just plain insensitivity: people can hurt us in a million ways, and forgiveness isn’t always easy. Whether you’ve been cut off in traffic, slighted by your mother-in-law, betrayed by a spouse, or badmouthed by a co-worker, most of us are faced with a variety of situations both serious and mundane that we can choose to ruminate over or forgive. But forgiveness, like so many things in life, is easier said than done.

The Challenges of Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be a challenge for several reasons. Sometimes forgiveness can be confused with condoning what someone has done to us: “That’s OK. Why not do it again?” Even for people who understand the distinction between accepting someone's bad behavior as "okay" and accepting that it happened, forgiveness can be difficult because these two are easily confused.

Forgiveness can also be difficult when the person who wronged us doesn’t seem to deserve our forgiveness. It can feel like you are letting them "off the hook." While this feeling is completely understandable, it's vital to remember that forgiveness allows us to let go of a connection we have to those who have wronged us and move forward—with or without them.

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that forgiveness benefits the forgiver more than the one who is forgiven.

Ultimately, forgiveness is especially challenging because it’s hard to let go of what happened. Forgiving someone who has committed unacceptable behavior can be difficult when we are having trouble letting go of anger or hurt surrounding the event itself.

The Importance of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is good for your heart—literally. One study from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found forgiveness to be associated with lower heart rate and blood pressure as well as stress relief. This can bring long-term health benefits to your heart and overall health.

A later study found forgiveness to be positively associated with five measures of health: physical symptoms, medications used, sleep quality, fatigue, and somatic complaints. It seems that the reduction in negative affect (depressive symptoms), strengthened spirituality, conflict management and stress relief one finds through forgiveness all have a significant impact on overall health.

A third study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that forgiveness not only restores positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the offending party (in other words, forgiveness restores the relationship to its previous positive state) but the benefits of forgiveness spill over to positive behaviors toward others outside of the relationship. Forgiveness is associated with more volunteerism, donating to charity, and other altruistic behaviors. (And the converse is true of non-forgiveness.)

To sum it up, forgiveness is good for your body, your relationships, and your place in the world. That’s reason enough to convince virtually anyone to do the work of letting go of anger and working on forgiveness.

How to Forgive

Forgiveness may not always be easy, but it can be easier with a few exercises and the right mindset. First, keep in mind that forgiveness is something you do for yourself to sever your emotional attachment to what happened. (Think of letting your hand off of a hot burner on the stove—it remains hot, but you move away from it for your own safety.)

Also, remind yourself that you are moving forward, and forgiving this person to allow them (or at least what they've done) stay in the past as you move on. Journaling, prayer or meditation, and loving-kindness meditation can all be helpful in easing yourself into forgiveness as well.

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