“When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.” Bernard Meltzer
“The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive.” Marianne Williamson
Précis: Recently had a friend go through a difficult break-up from a marriage. The notion of getting past the failed relationship, achieving forgiveness, and moving on without causing illness was of paramount importance. The implications of forgiveness/unforgiveness as it relates to health-illness crossed my mind. It started with assembling the quotes in this post. Next, I did a Google Scholar search for “forgiveness and health” and discovered a whole new area of psychology-science-medicine (well, it was new to me). Most of us would agree that forgiving yourself promotes wellness; whereas remaining unforgiven could disrupt your mental and possibly even your physical health. This post reviews forgiveness and its positive impact on our health.
“Forgiveness is really a gift to yourself – have the compassion to forgive others, and the courage to forgive yourself.” Mary Anne Radmach
Forgiveness and Health: The Oxford dictionary defines ‘forgive’ as to stop feeling angry and resentful towards (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake. Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Forgiveness is a big part of positive psychology regarding both physical and mental well-being. Over the past 15 years, researchers have focused on 2 primary hypotheses: (1) forgiveness has important connections to physical health; and (2) this relationship is guided by an association between lack of forgiveness and anger. Evidently, there is consensus in the field that these two primary processes form the basis of forgiveness: (i) letting go of one’s right to resentment and negative judgment; and (ii) fostering undeserved compassion and generosity toward the perpetrator. The first process implies a person would reduce their negative emotions (i.e., anger and revenge); while the second process involves increasing positive feelings and might even include reconciliation. Collectively, there is growing scientific evidence that links the positivity of forgiveness and health.
“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The more you know yourself, the more you forgive yourself.” Confucius
Forgiveness vs. Unforgiveness: It is probably apparent (to you) that forgiveness is generally associated with improved mental and physical health, as opposed to someone unable/unwilling to forgive. Modeling the relationship between forgiveness and health, based on the hypothesis that forgiveness reduces hostility (and this would be considered healthier), 6 paths linking forgiveness and health have been described: (i) decrease in chronic blaming and anger; (2) reduction in chronic hyper-arousal [“a state of increased psychological and physiological tension marked by such effects as reduced pain tolerance, anxiety, exaggeration of startle responses, insomnia, fatigue and accentuation of personality traits.”]; (3) optimistic thinking; (4) self-efficacy to take health-related actions; (5) social support; and (6) transcendent consciousness (“state achieved through the practice of transcendental meditation in which the individual’s mind transcends all mental activity to experience the simplest form of awareness“).
What does this mean? The majority of studies on forgiveness indicate a reciprocal relationship to hostility, anger, anxiety and depression. Forgiveness may directly alter sympathetic reactivity, which is often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response. These responses include increases in heart rate, blood pressure, cardiac contractility, and cortisol. This implies that unforgiveness could promote an acute, stress-induced reactivity that could be associated with general health problems. However, it is much more complicated than this simplistic flow of events: anger is a component of unforgiveness; anger is a health risk; therefore, unforgiveness is a health risk. This is really interesting reading but way beyond my training as a protein biochemist (If interested, look over the references listed below)
Forgiveness and Mental Health: Let’s take a different angle by looking at mental health. We begin with unforgiveness as being associated with stress from an ‘interpersonal’ offense and stress is associated with diminished mental health. Furthermore, unforgiveness due to an ‘intrapersonal’ wrongdoing may lead to shame, regret and guilt, which could also negatively affect mental health. The positive impact of forgiveness may help correct the downturn in mental health that resulted from either interpersonal or intrapersonal stress. In many instances, mental health is linked to physical health. This suggests that practicing forgiveness would positively influence mental health and could therein bolster physical health.
To summarize the ability of forgiveness to bolster mental health, I have re-drawn the figure from Toussaint and Webb (2005) as a 4-piece puzzle. It begins with the ‘direct effect’ of forgiveness as told through unforgiveness with emotions of resentment, bitterness, hatred, residual hostility, and fear. The negative emotions of unforgiveness could contribute significantly to mental health problems. By contrast, the emotion of forgiveness is positive and strong and love-based that could improve mental health. The ‘indirect effect’ of forgiveness through social support, interpersonal behavior and health behavior are all positively-linked to good mental health. The ‘developmental stage’ describes the recognition of the problem, need for an alternative solution, and ultimately the effect of forgiveness augments mental health. Being able to forgive bolsters personal control of one’s life, which is perceived to be positive. By contrast, unforgiveness blocks this life-controlling process by consumptive negative emotions made worse in the individual through rumination. Due to my own internal word limit and time-period to read/understand the topic, I have not included the religious or spiritual basis of the forgiveness of God, feeling God’s forgiveness, and seeking God’s forgiveness in the narrative of this post. For many people, these would be integral components to the discussion here on forgiveness and its overall impact on both mental and physical health.
“I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all.” Maya Angelou
9 Steps to Forgiveness (Fred Luskin, LearningToForgive.com): Dr. Luskin is a noted-researcher in the field of forgiveness. His belief is that by practicing forgiveness, your anger, hurt, depression and stress will all be reduced and it will increase feelings of hope, compassion and self confidence. Furthermore, he believes that practicing forgiveness contributes to healthy relationships and to improved physical health; here are the 9 steps to forgiveness:
- Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience.
- Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.
- Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you, or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the “peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.”
- Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you two minutes – or ten years – ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.
- At the moment you feel upset practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response.
- Give up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” you have for your health or how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace and prosperity and work hard to get them.
- Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt seek out new ways to get what you want.
- Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.
- Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.
“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” Lewis B. Smedes
Forgiveness in the Presence of Parkinson’s: Receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, a lifelong chronic progressive neurodegenerative disorder is a real shock. The diagnosis comes with a variety of emotions. After a while, acceptance takes over; no, not your identify, just ok, I’ve got Parkinson’s, live through it, make the most of this experience. Eventually I had to put forgiveness into part of this living-life-equation. There were two self-involved events where I might have contributed to the development of my own disease. The first was as a young boy in the summertime riding my bicycle behind the DDT trucks spraying for mosquitoes on our Air Force bases [Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) is a colorless, tasteless, and almost odorless crystalline organochlorine known for its insecticidal properties]. DDT is one of the known chemical inducers of Parkinson’s. Second, in graduate school before OSHA took over regulating lab safety, I routinely used many different noxious compounds for the benefit of science and for the completion of my PhD. Both events caused me to pause and ponder; however, I decided to forgive myself. I truly believe had I remained unforgiving, I would have paved a path of ill health.
This whole process of dealing with the emotion from diagnosis to acceptance (and forgiveness) of Parkinson’s reminds me of the opening verse of “We Are The Champions” by Queen:
“I paid my dues/ time after time./ I’ve done my sentence/ but committed no crime./ And bad mistakes-/ I’ve made a few./ I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face/ but I’ve come through./ (And I need to go on and on, and on, and on)
The vast majority of people with Parkinson’s are 60-years of age or older (although there is a group of early-age-onset). Interestingly, in a recent study with an elderly population, forgiveness showed positive and significant association with mental and physical health.
“You cannot travel back in time to fix your mistakes, but you can learn from them and forgive yourself for not knowing better.” Leon Brown
“Accept the past as past, without denying it or discarding it.” Mitch Albom
Forgive Ourselves: Dr. Elaine in her post “The-healing-power-of-forgiveness” nicely summarized self-forgiveness: “We tend to believe that forgiveness supports the transgression that has been committed against us. But forgiveness is not an endorsement of wrongdoing; rather, it’s an act of releasing the pain and hurt it caused through love, the root of forgiveness—and it is not love of the other but of the self. We must forgive ourselves as well as others in order to be whole and healed.”
“If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.” Maya Angelou
Lawler KA, Younger JW, Piferi RL, Jobe RL, Edmondson KA, Jones WH. The Unique Effects of Forgiveness on Health: An Exploration of Pathways. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2005;28(2):157-67. doi: 10.1007/s10865-005-3665-2.
Akhtar, S., Dolan, A., & Barlow, J. (2017). Understanding the Relationship Between State Forgiveness and Psychological Wellbeing: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Religion and Health, 56(2), 450–463. http://doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1007/s10943-016-0188-9
Lawler-Row KA, Karremans JC, Scott C, Edlis-Matityahou M, Edwards L. Forgiveness, physiological reactivity and health: The role of anger. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2008;68(1):51-8. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2008.01.001.
Rey L, Extremera N. Forgiveness and health-related quality of life in older people: Adaptive cognitive emotion regulation strategies as mediators. Journal of Health Psychology. 2016;21(12):2944-54. doi: 10.1177/1359105315589393. PubMed PMID: 26113528.
Toussaint, J.R. Webb. Theoretical and empirical connections between forgiveness, mental health, and well-being E.L. Worthington Jr (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness, Brunner–Routledge, New York (2005), pp. 207-226