Forgiveness—a Gift to You, Section 3
Copyright ©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD
www.arlenetaylor.org Realizations Inc
Forgiveness. The word, to say nothing of the concept, has been around a long time. Most people have heard of it; some have embraced it; others have demurred. Either way, confusion continues to abound. This topic of forgiveness is presented in the following sections:
- You Forgive for You
- What Forgiveness Is Not
- Definitions for Forgiveness
- Types of Forgiveness
- The Five R’s
- Forgiveness and Remembering
- Forgiving Yourself
- Forgiveness Confusion
- Forgiveness-Health Connection
- Life-saving Strategies
- Vicarious Abuse and Evil
- Erroneous Expectations
- Embracing Forgiveness
Our anger and annoyance are more detrimental to us than the things themselves which anger or annoy us. —Marcus Aurelius
Studies have shown that forgiveness is involved with more than just psychology. Being unable to forgive another person’s faults is harmful to your health. Until quite recently it would have been difficult to find much if any information on the physiology of forgiveness. Few people realized that forgiveness research even existed. Although the field is admittedly new, it has grown exponentially over the past decade with more than 1,200 published studies (up from fifty-eight as recently as 1997). An inability or unwillingness to forgive has been linked with a variety of health hazards and negative consequences. In fact, unforgiveness may underlie various problems that individuals grapple with in life.
According to one cleric, his belief at time of ordination was that about half of all problems were due (at least in part) to unforgiveness. Ten years later, he estimated that at least three quarters of all health, marital, family, and financial problems stem from unforgiveness. After more than twenty years in ministry, he concluded that over 90 percent of all problems are rooted in issues related to unforgiveness. Studies have revealed the power of forgiveness and its link with health. Counselors have known for a long time that those who refuse to forgive tend to struggle with relationships—but that’s not all. There is a link with health.
There’s something called the ‘Physiology of Forgiveness’ —being unable to forgive other people’s faults is harmful to one’s health. — Herbert Benson, MD, internationally known cardiologist and researcher
Unforgiveness results in negative outcomes to your health and overall wellbeing. Forgiveness results in positive outcomes to your brain and body along with increased levels of health and overall wellbeing.
Denial is a never-ending river that carries you along in a rush. Be aware. When you are unforgiving, the accompanying anger increases the release of stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. As adrenalin levels increase, dopamine release is triggered. Individuals can actually become addicted to their own adrenalin and dopamine that is released by rehearsing dramatically. The accompanying sadness can impact levels of neuropeptides (chemicals that impact mood) and serotonin, which can negatively alter your mood.
Every thought you think (imagine) changes the structure of your brain. PET scan studies have shown little if any observable difference in changes to brain imaging print-outs between actual versus virtual experiences.
Your thoughts create mental pictures that the subconscious mind can follow. If you say: “I hate _____ and I refuse to forgive.” a representation (mental picture) of whatever hate and unforgiveness means to you goes into working memory.
On the other hand, say, “Joe, you regret what happened. You choose to forgive _____ for the benefits you receive.” In this case, a representation (mental picture) of whatever forgiveness means to you goes into working memory. Your choice will impact your brain-body-health and maybe even your longevity.
If you choose unforgiveness, studies have identified negative side effects, including:
- Increased stress levels and muscle tension
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate
- Increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol
- Suppressed immune function
- Increased risk for depression, heart disease, stroke, and cancer
- Decreased neurological function and memory
- Impaired relationships at home and at work.
Fortunately, there is good news. Steven Campbell, PhD, points out that your brain locks onto what you decide to lock onto, which locks out other options. When you say: I refuse to forgive, you lock out forgiveness options. When you say: “Janet, you choose to forgive,” you lock out unforgiveness.
If you choose decisional and emotional forgiveness, studies have shown positive outcomes, including:
- Healthier relationships
- Lower blood pressure
- Less anxiety, stress, and hostility
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Lower risk of alcohol and/or substance abuse
- Increased compassion, kindness, and peace
- Increased mental, physical, and spiritual health
One of the secret causes of stress plaguing millions of people is unforgiveness. —Don Colbert, MD
Denial is more than the name of a famous river. —Old Proverb
Step 1: Identify what happened to you
Acknowledge the event or situation simply, clearly, and honestly. Avoid pretending either that the event was no big deal or making more of it than is warranted. Take responsibility for the contribution you made, if any. Never take responsibility for anything you did not contribute. Avoid blaming others in an effort to displace a portion of your discomfort onto someone else. Realize that your goal is to create a future that is better than your past. Start moving from a victim stance to that of a survivor, one day at a time.
A victim stance allows what happened in the past to control your future. A victim mindset burns up norepinephrine (mood and stress), stops emotional growth, and blocks recovery. It involves feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and often a sense of being special because you have been injured. You are not special because you’ve been injured—everyone is damaged because of living in the war zone of planet earth.
A survivor stance allows you to create a healthier future regardless of what happened in the past. Moving into a survivor mindset is a badge of honor―you can:
- Grow up emotionally
- Heal wounds from the injury
- Role model a survivor mindset
- Help others appropriately and effectively
Step 2: Outline the actual consequences to you
Life is an adventure in forgiveness. —Norman Cousins
Identify negative outcomes from the event or situation. Separate actual damage from your own hurt feelings. There may be positive outcomes, as well, if you are willing to look for them and be open to that possibility. It is important to have as accurate and balanced a picture as possible.
Mentally step away from the situation and ask yourself how others might view the event. At times it can result in your identifying positive outcomes that you have missed, lessons you have learned, and opportunities that opened up.
Genuine forgiveness acknowledges the consequences and faces the pain. Genuine forgiveness works through the process so that the pain no longer dominates your thinking and no longer triggers anger and thoughts of revenge.
Step 3: Decide to forgive and embrace both Decisional and Emotional forgiveness
Without forgiveness there is no future. —Desmond Tutu
Recognize the value of forgiveness to your life and health. Think of decisional forgiveness as a behavioral intention to resist an unforgiving stance and to respond differently toward a transgressor in your mind. In effect, it removes the enemy outpost in your head. Otherwise, you’ll live in the past and be held hostage to the person who caused you pain. Aristotle reportedly said that any person who can make you angry controls you. Forgiveness neutralizes the power of the person in your past and allows you to move forward. This doesn’t mean you choose to associate with the person, however. You may choose to be in the same room for short periods of time (e.g., at family gatherings) or not. It is up to you. In the same way, trust must be earned. Forgiving does not mean trusting injudiciously. You may never choose to trust the person again. It is up to you.
Step 4: Embrace emotional forgiveness
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. —Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi
Think of emotional forgiveness as the replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions. Emotional forgiveness, which involves psycho-physiological changes, has more direct health and well-being consequences. If you have been harboring anger and resentment, replace those thoughts and emotions with positive emotions. While it has often been said that love is blind, so is anger. Emotional forgiveness is a process of altering a one-dimensional perspective into a more inclusive big-picture dimension. If you fail to forgive, the person who hurt you still holds you as an emotional captive. Forgiveness doesn’t erase what happened or make up for it or even balance the score. It can keep you from spending the rest of your life mentally with the person who did you wrong.
Step 5: Alter your personal perspective
To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to hang onto it. —Oriental Proverb
Your perspective reflects your brain’s opinion. It will be as unique as your brain is unique—there isn’t another on the planet exactly like yours. Forgiveness doesn’t change what happened. Rather, it is designed to help you alter your perspective. It’s the old 20:80 rule. Only 20 percent of the negative effect to your brain and body can be laid at the door of the event or situation. About 80 percent of the negative effect involves your personal perspective, i.e., the weight you give to what happened and the importance you place upon it. You may not be able to do anything about the 20 percent; you most certainly can do almost everything about the 80 percent because it involves your own brain’s opinion, and you can alter your opinion. Use whatever works in your life to help you to expand and reframe your personal perspective.
Step 6: Stop ruminating and rehearsing
If you repeat your negative memories in your mind and feel self-pity, then YOU are both the abuser and the victim - not those who wronged you in the past. Your present and future will be happier if you take control of your thoughts. ―Maddy Malhotra
When you ruminate you tell your story to yourself over and over. When you rehearse, you tell your story to others repeatedly from your own perspective. Usually you include only the bad, sad, angry, and hurtful aspects. In the process, you may trigger the release of adrenalin (receiving a momentary shot of energy) and, as adrenalin levels increase, so do dopamine levels, which help you feel better for a brief period of time. The human brain can become addicted to the adrenalin and dopamine released during rehearsal.
In addition, because the brain wants congruence, while you are rehearsing, your brain will search for other memories involving times when you felt the same way: sad, angry, or hurt. This can begin to snowball until you really feel quite rotten.
In general, the female brain needs to process verbally and talk about what happened, get the story out in front to view. One woman said that she didn’t know what she thought until she verbalized it aloud. If this is your style, you may need to tell your story a time or two. You can walk around the house and talk aloud. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of rehearsing, however, so set a limit that works for your brain. Asking for feedback and listening to another perspective can often help with the process of reframing.
Typically, the male brain tends to process silently and internally, preferring to arrive at a conclusion before it talks about what happened to others. If this is your style, set a limit on internal processing that works for you and then find a trusted friend or counselor to whom you can state your conclusion. Asking for feedback and listening to another perspective may help with the reframing process.
Most award-winning performances require a great deal of rehearsal. Unless you are planning to take your story of injury on the road, stop rehearsing. Instead, spend the time you would have devoted to ruminating and rehearsing the injury on implementing the next step; step seven.
Step 7: Develop a perpetual mindset of gratitude
Forgiveness is not an act; it is a perpetual attitude. —Martin Luther King, Jr.
You can choose to create a forgiveness mindset and hone the requisite skills to change your thoughts from negative to positive. A positive mindset helps the neurons of both brain and body create positive electromagnetic energy. When you do recall the event, quickly focus on something for which to be grateful. It is physiologically impossible to be fearful and grateful at the same time. When an old memory crosses your conscious mind, you may need to take a moment and move through decisional and emotional forgiveness again. Then, embrace an attitude of gratitude.
He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not but rejoices for those which he has. —Epictetus, Greek Philosopher
If gratitude is not something you learned growing up, build it into your adult mindset. Choose, first thing in the morning, to think of one thing for which you are grateful. You might go through the same process at night, just before you fall asleep. If you have difficulty getting started or get stuck trying to think of something for which to be grateful, identify something small and rather ordinary, such as: “(your name) _______, you are grateful for your comfortable shoes. Not everyone even has shoes.” Keep this up and you will have developed the attitude of gratitude before you know it!
Every human being goes through times of discouragement. Working through forgiveness for a particularly egregious injury may be one of those times. If you are fortunate, a close friend may reach out to encourage you. Each person can be forever grateful to friends who have shared their spark. Part of gratitude may encompass looking for ways to share your spark with others—a way of passing thanks forward.
At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. —Albert Schweitzer
Studies have indicated that when a person witnesses abuse or evil actions, mirror neurons behind the forehead fire as if what is being observed is happening to you. The brain absorbs the abuse or evil vicariously. This points out how critical it is to avoid watching abuse and evil actions on multi-media sources.
You may say, “Well, it didn’t happen to me. I just watched it or heard about it. Who do I need to forgive?”
Studies have shown that when you watch another person being abused, mirror neurons in your brain experiences that vicariously, as if it were happening to you. In any situations where a person is person is abused mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially, sexually, or you name it, the effect to their brain and body of the observer is similar to that of the “target individual.”
If you had no choice but to close your eyes and ears, there may be nothing for you personally to forgive. In that case, it will likely be less about forgiveness and more about simply acknowledging that “it was what it was” or “it is what it is.” You didn’t cause it. However, you can choose to consciously think about happier and positive things and not rehearse in your own mind what happened.
On the other hand, if you have been choosing to watch negative behaviors electronically, you may need to forgive yourself for subjecting your brain and body to the observations and avoid watching such behaviors in the future. For every action there is a reaction. A desirable goal is to choose actions and behaviors that result in positive, rather than negative consequences, to your mind and body.
Expectations are part of being human. There are genuine and helpful expectations as well as those that are erroneous and unhelpful. You have expectations for yourself, appropriate or unrealistic. You also have them for others—often unhelpful because you cannot control another’s choices or behaviors. Expectations often raise their head in the area of forgiveness.
First, when you forgive someone, that does not necessarily mean that you continue to want them in your life—or that it would even be safe to do so. If you do want them in your life, then carefully evaluate when, how much, and under what circumstances. If you do not, then carefully plan how you will separate. You may need to tell them, “I need some space, and I’ll let you know when I’m ready to spend time with you again. Then we’ll see where we both are and negotiate what works for both of us.
What is they do not want you in their life? Grant them the right to select who they want to spend time with and who they don’t—even as you make similar decisions for yourself. It may have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. You cannot force someone to like you, to love you, or even to want to be with you. You are the only person who will be with you for your entire life so if you forgive yourself or if you refuse to do so, you are still with “you.”
Unrealistic expectations have sunk relationships and burned bridges that could never be repaired or rebuilt. Ordinarily if a human being appears healthy on the outside, it is typical to “expect” them to behavior like a healthy person. If, however, you see someone on crutches or in a wheelchair, the brain tends to automatically readjust any expectations you might have had for that individual. The problem arises when the individual is unhealthy on the inside, but you cannot “see” this in the way you would if the person were on crutches or in a wheelchair. Consequently, your brain likely does not adjust expectations—and because they are damaged, you may be “hurt” when they do not meet your expectations.
According to global estimates, anxiety is the number one mental illness on the planet, followed closely by depression. You may not be able to “see” this internal unhealthiness. It may be evidenced in behaviors that you experience as “hurt.” What types of behaviors might give you a clue about internal damage?
- Signs of anger, bitterness, or resentment
- Unkind or ugly remarks in person or electronically
- A tendency to distance from you
- Triangling—passing along messages through a third person or manipulating a relationship between two parties by controlling communication between them
- Threats—if you do this then I will do that
Develop a “visual metaphor” to help you alter your expectations as needed. For example, when dealing with a person who is unpredictable or who has exhibited hurtful behaviors, picture them with a blood-stained bandage around their head. That can remind you that they may not be thinking clearly—perhaps they are downshifted or profoundly angry or depressed. Mental conditions can and do alter brain function. If you know that a person has experienced a loss, picture a blood-stained bandage over their heart. This can help you recognize that their behaviors reflect their level of pain and dysfunction. You can alter your expectations and set your boundaries accordingly.
When you say, “I forgive you,” you’re also saying, “I want to be healthy.” The act of forgiving allows the body to turn down the manufacture of catabolic (stress-related) chemicals and instructs the subconscious to banish negative feelings from the mind. —Doctors Arnold Fox and Barry Fox , Wake Up! You’re Alive!
Here are reasons for embracing forgiveness:
- It’s the right thing to do since all humans make mistakes.
- To receive forgiveness. You often receive back what you send forth.
- To preserve your health.
- To avoid wasting energy and to keep your energy levels positive.
- Because you benefit the most (a form of healthy selfishness).
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. —Mark Twain
Anger and unforgiveness are hungry parasites that gorge until there is nothing left for the brain or heart to eat. —Arlene R. Taylor, PhD
Caveat: Studies suggest that the brain is innately spiritual but may not be innately religious. Affiliation with religion, at least in adulthood, represents a choice. Typically, individuals who are very spiritual tend to forgive at both decisional and emotional levels. Those who are rigid in their religious views but are not very spiritual, tend to be less forgiving and more critical, judgmental, and vindictive. Examples of situations abound down through the centuries. They include at least the crusades, Middle-Ages persecution, racial or religious conflicts, Israeli-Palestinian wars, Iraq-Iran issues, India-Pakistan problems, and others.
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner is you. —Lewis B. Smedes
“But I don’t feel like forgiving,” you may say. Everett L. Worthington Jr, PhD, devised a five-step program known as REACH to help people learn to forgive.
Step 1: Recall the hurt objectively, without blame and self-victimization. Step away mentally, outside of yourself, and imagine how a third person, uninvolved in the event and looking on, might perceive it
Step 2: Empathize by trying to imagine the viewpoint of the person who wronged you. It may give you a new perspective and help you see the big picture.
Step 3: Altruistically think about a time you were forgiven and how that felt. Choose to give that gift to others whether they know about it or not. Your brain and body will know.
Step 4: Commit to forgiving, doing both Decisional and Emotional forgiveness.
Step 5: Hold tight to forgiveness and forgive, as necessary.
Do you need to forgive yourself for something? Is there someone in your life you need to forgive? How healthy do you want to be?
Forgiveness is a choice, a gift you give you. It may be the quintessential example of healthy self-care. The path to genuine forgiveness is rarely easy. It is, however, a prescription for health. Yours.
The willingness to forgive is a sign of spiritual and emotional maturity. It is one of the great virtues to which all should aspire. Imagine a world filled with individuals willing both to apologize and to accept an apology. Is there any problem that could not be solved among people who possessed the humility and largeness of spirit and soul to do either or both when needed? —Gordon B. Hinckley