Forgive and Forget???

For many January is the time for new beginnings or “wiping the slate clean”. For this reason Kerry and I choose to write 2014’s first blog about something that frequently surfaces in counselling and is a critical component to the healing process and moving forward: forgiveness.

Buddha once said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Forgiveness is not about forgetting, denying, or excusing; it is choosing to no longer seek punishment and surrendering feelings of animosity, anger, and hatred. Some of you might be rolling your eyes thinking, “riiiiight…..easier said than done!” Well, I don’t blame you for being skeptical and the truth is that it does not occur over night-it is a process. Forgiveness entails hard work and it takes courage to work through difficult emotions and memories. For this reason, no one should be pressured into it; forgiveness needs to occur when you are ready and on your own terms.

There are obvious benefits to your mental health when you forgive but did you know there are also physical health benefits? Researchers have found that, when compared to participants who hold grudges, those who forgive have lower cortisol levels and a lower physiological response to stress (Witvliet, Ludwig, & Lann, 2001). Forgiveness has also been shown to be good for the heart, literally. According to findings in a study by Lawler-Row, Karremans, Scott, Edlis-Matityahou, Edwards (2008) people who hold grudges tend to have higher heart rates than those who choose to forgive. Forgiveness has also been indicated to help lower pain in chronic pain sufferers (Carson, Keefe, Goli, et al. 2005), lower blood pressure (Lawler, K. A., Younger, J. W., Piferi, et al. 2003) and, if that’s not enough for you, findings of one study even indicated that those who forgive live longer lives than those who hold grudges (Toussaint, Owen & Cheadle, 2012).

Now that we have you on the edge of your seat in excitement and motivated to forgive, you are probably wondering about the process and what is involved. Although there is no set formula there are some suggested steps one can take to help him/herself through the process. The first step is acknowledge. Acknowledge what occurred and the fact that you were hurt. It is also important to get in touch with any other emotions you may experiencing in response to what occurred. If you do not feel able to do this on your own don’t push yourself. Instead, find a counsellor who can support you through the process in a safe, non-threatening way. It is important to note that this step can take a day, a week, or even several years. It should be moved through at a pace that is comfortable for you.

The next step is communicate. If possible, communicate your feelings with the individual that hurt you and share how his/her actions impacted you emotionally. If it is not possible to speak to the individual directly writing a letter or speaking to an empty chair can be just as therapeutic. It is not necessary to give the letter to the individual, sometimes just writing it can be cathartic and freeing. The person may not ever fully understand the depth of your pain, however, you owe it to yourself to honor your feelings.

The final step is release. Give yourself permission to hand over and release the painful emotions you are carrying. It can be beneficial to do something to symbolize letting go such as burning the letter you wrote; writing down the name of the offender and what he/she did, putting it in a balloon, and letting the balloon go; or meditating/visualizing being tied to the offender by a cord/rope and then cutting the rope and freeing yourself. Regardless of the exercise you choose the most important thing is that it is meaningful to you.

Forgiveness can be challenging and take time, however, the reward is that it can lead to a place of greater healing and inner peace. We challenge you to start 2014 off by shedding some emotional layers, digging deep, and choosing to let go and forgive-especially if the person you need to forgive is youself.

Philippa & Kerry

Carson, J. W., Keefe, F.J., Goli,V., Fras, A.M., Lynch, T.R., Thorp, S.R., Buechler, J.L (2005). Forgiveness and chronic low back pain: A preliminary study examining the relationship of forgiveness to pain, anger, and psychological distress. Journal of Pain 6(2): 84-91.

Lawler-Row, K. A., Karremans, J. C., Scott, C., Edlis-Matityahou, M., & Edwards, L. (2008).Forgiveness, physiological reactivity, and health: the role of anger. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 68: 51-58.

Lawler, K. A., Younger, J. W., Piferi, R. L., Billington, E., Jobe, R. (2003). A change of heart: Cardiovascular correlates of forgiveness in response to interpersonal conflict.Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 26: 373-393.

Toussaint, L.L., Owen, A.D., & Cheadle, A. (2012). Forgive to Live: Forgiveness, Health, and Longevity. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 34(4): 375-386.

Witvliet, C.O., Ludwig T.E, & Laan K.L.V. (2001). Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science 12(2): 117-123.