It's impossible to go through life without being wronged by someone. But how you deal with it can have health consequences that can last long after the person who hurt you has forgotten what they've done --- and you. And while many of us are ringing in the new year with exercise regimes, diet plans, and promises to try new things, what most of us should add to our list of resolutions --- f0r the sake of our own health --- is forgiveness. Why can't we forgive? What makes it so hard? What are the health benefits of forgiving?
One of the reasons forgiving is so hard is that its alternative --- holding on to hurts --- can seem to feel so good. Like candy, revenge is, well, sweet. But also like candy, not all things that taste good or feel good are good for you.
Forgiveness, the harder path, doesn't always feel good at first. But dwelling on the negative, focusing on grudges, and constantly seeking vengeance could taint un-related relationships, and take a toll on our own psychological and physical state. Indeed, deciding and committing to forgiving others in place of festering grudges has been linked to less anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, and over-all well-being.
But how can we forgive our boss for unjustly punishing us, our ex-partners for betraying us, or that friend who wasn't there for us when he or she should have been? The trick is in learning what forgiveness is not. Forgiving is not condoning. Forgiving is not forgetting. Rather, forgiveness is a "commitment to a process of change" that "brings a kind of peace" to help you, the betrayed, to live a happier life.
Check out the following list of research-based studies that reveal how forgiveness affects our health, and techniques for forgiveness:
1. For the Sake of Your Blood Pressure --- Forgive!
Most of us know how good it feels to get an apology: a recent study suggests that it might feel just as good --- and be just as good for our blood pressure --- to forgive a wrong as it is to receive an apology.
In 2009, experts with the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and West Virginia University, including Matthew Whited with the first, looked in to how forgiveness related to "cardiovascular reactivity and recovery" in 29 men and 50 women.
These 79 participants performed a "serial subtraction task," during which time an "interpersonal transgression" occurred (that is, verbal harassment). Later, about half of the participants received an apology for the "transgression."
The team found that persons "high in forgiveness" displayed better blood pressure recovery than those who were "low in forgiveness," and that those participants who received an apology showed greater heart rate recovery compared to those who did not receive an apology. The group concludes that there are "potentially healthful benefits to forgiveness and apology."
If one of your goals is to work on maintaining a healthy blood pressure, this may be a good year to start thinking outside of the body. Try adding forgiveness to your new health regime. (Read more about the Top 10 natural remedies for high blood pressure.)
2. Forgive Away Your Back Pain!
It all seems to happen at the same time doesn't it? Just when the dog's run away, the grocery store is out of produce, and the trash wasn't put outside in time to be collected, someone we trusted does something entirely unforgivable, and then, naturally, our back goes out. Research suggests that all of this bad luck may not be unfortunate coincidence - an inability to forgive and back pain, at least, may work together.
In 2005, a large team of researchers led by Jim Carson with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center responded to previous "clinical observations" that patients with chronic pain often have difficulty forgiving other persons they see as having "unjustly offended them in some way."
The team gathered data on the "reliability and variability of forgiveness" in 61 patients with chronic lower back pain. The study took standardized measurements on the participants' current levels of forgiveness, pain, anger, and psychological distress.
Results showed that "forgiveness-related constructs can be reliably assessed in patients with persistent pain," and that "patients vary considerably along dimensions of forgiveness."
More specifically, patients who had higher scores on forgiveness-related variables reported lower levels of pain (and anger and psychological distress, to boot!) The team reports that "forgiveness can be reliably assessed in patients with persistent pain, and that a relationship appears to exist between forgiveness and important aspects of living with persistent pain."
What all of this means, the team suggests, is that "patients who report an inability to forgive others might be experiencing higher pain and psychological distress."
It's time for us all to quit breaking our own backs: if we can forgive those who have wronged us, we may have a better shot at looking towards a less-painful future.
3. Find it Hard to Forgive? It May be Your Ego to Blame
For those of us who have done a bit of honest self-reflection, we would have to admit a weakness or two. Perhaps pride makes its way on your own list?
If so, you probably don't need to be told that you're not the only one to suffer from pride. But it might interest you to know that the mastermind behind this pride, that's right, the almighty ego, may be getting in the way of your ability to forgive others.
In 2006, Judy Eaton with Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario, along with other experts with York University in Toronto, examined how successful people with "ego-defensiveness" personalities are bad at forgiveness.
Participants completed several surveys about their self-esteem, their "personal need for structure," narcissism, and their "tendency to forgive." Participants then competed in a game with two other players, during which time a player "committed a transgression," which was followed by yet another survey.
Results showed that "certain traits associated with ego-defensiveness can inhibit the ability to be forgiving" as well as to "actually forgive."
If you think your ego is getting in the way of your ability to forgive (and thus denying you the health benefits associated with forgiveness, as discussed in this article), it may be time to consider some serious soul-searching or professional help.
4. Forgiveness, A Healthier Self-Medication
We all deal with anger at other people in different ways, and some of these ways are flat out healthier than others. Turning to drugs or alcohol, for example, may not be the most beneficial way to express anger at someone else, just as keying their car or screaming at them over the phone may not provide desired results. Luckily, research from a few years ago suggests a healthier technique for all of us to deal with anger at another person --- forgive them.
In 2008, Kathleen Laler-Row with the Department of Psychology at East Carolina University, as well as other researchers from The Netherlands and the University of Tennessee, investigated how forgiveness influences our anger at others, as well as how forgiveness affects our other habits, such as using drugs or alcohol.
They examined both "state and trait forgiveness" and styles of "anger expression" in patients during "recalled betrayal." Amongst other results, the team found that "trait forgiveness was significantly associated with fewer medications and less alcohol use."
For any of us who have ever sent an angry letter, email, or text message to our betrayer, and regretted it the next day (when will we be able to delete emails that have already been sent?), imagine how much worse these could be when adding drugs and alcohol to the situation. Perhaps if we focus on forgiveness rather than on revenge, we could spare ourselves not only anger and bitterness, but the risk of falling into bad habits, as well.