We all make missteps. It’s part of human nature and seeing as no one is perfect, we’ve all likely been wronged at different points in our lives. These offenses can leave lasting impacts; therefore, it can be tough to say and truly mean the words “I forgive you.” That is why the importance of forgiveness cannot be understated.
Choosing to forgive is not straightforward because of the internal conflict between the moral values of justice and forgiveness. The granting of forgiveness is at odds with the desire for justice, and this cognitive dissonance makes forgiving challenging.
Generally, psychology defines forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.
According to Wikipedia, forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process of changing feelings and attitudes regarding an offender. And then overcome the offense’s impact, including negative emotions such as resentment and vengeance (however justified it might be). It is an essential virtue to put into practice if we desire wholesome and intentional lives.
I will be delving deep into the topic of the importance of forgiveness and exploring it through behavior and neuroscience. I will enlighten you on the need to forgive and show practical steps you can take to increase your capacity to forgive.
The importance of forgiveness through storytelling
The forgiveness project tells the stories of the people who have been hurt and offended by others — parents, friends, family members, and strangers alike — who have learned to forgive. A few that shared their stories include Charlie Ryder, who was physically and verbally abused as a child by his father. Paul Kohler, who was savagely attacked in his own home. Simon Wilson was the victim of a hit-and-run car crash that left him disabled, and Anne Marie Hagan’s father was brutally murdered by a schizophrenic neighbor.
All these people struggled with forgiving their offenders and, in the case of being the offenders, forgiving themselves. But through the project’s intervention, they’ve come to accept that they needed forgiveness at different points. For each, the journey towards forgiveness didn’t come easy, as they’ve experienced varying emotions from anger to rage to sadness, bitterness, self-pity, seeking revenge to fear, and so on. And only some have made it to that exact place of wholeness through forgiveness.
Individually we can all relate to times when we’ve been offended, whether in seemingly little ways, like someone cutting the line in front of us, or grievous ones, like someone causing physical harm to a loved one or us. In these everyday cases, forgiving the offender can be very difficult, but it can be done.
The neuropsychology of forgiveness
For a long time, forgiveness was viewed through the disciplines of religion and philosophy. But now, it is being scientifically studied. Researchers have discovered a link between forgiveness and the brain’s structural and metabolic features. While the brain’s structure in relation to forgiveness is intriguing, the brain’s metabolic function and how it pertains to forgiveness provides an entirely new level of comprehension.
A 2013 study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the cortical effective connectivity and regional brain activity related to forgiveness and unforgiveness. Volunteers were asked to either forgive their imagined attacker, stoke animosity and/or imagine revenge after engaging in scripted mental imagery of a personal transgression. The study found forgiveness was associated with positive emotional states compared to unforgiveness. Forgiveness was linked with activations in a brain network involved in empathy and controlling mood through cognition.
The different brain structures linked to a propensity to forgive raises the possibility that forgiveness is a personality characteristic that people are born with. Furthermore, the tendency to forgive is correlated with changes in metabolic brain activity, which suggests that this attribute may change throughout a person’s lifetime and can be directly influenced by varying life experiences with people. Whichever the case may be, forgiveness is an attribute that can be learned — as proven in the research of Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University and the author of the book Forgive for Good.
Professor Robert Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin and a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness, emphasizes that forgiveness is more than just letting go or moving on. He says, “True forgiveness goes a step further by offering something positive — empathy, compassion, understanding — toward the person who hurt you.” That element makes forgiveness a virtue and a powerful construct in positive psychology.
Why is it hard to forgive?
Saying “I forgive you” and meaning it are two entirely different things. When we are hurt by someone, it can cause anger, hurt, and confusion. When you dwell on painful events or situations, resentment, vengeance, and hatred can take root.
This is further complicated by certain factors, which include:
- The level of pain the offense causes
- The unrepentance of the offender
- The offender and the offended’s relationship
- The fear that others will perceive you as being weak
- The fear of being hurt again
Considering all these factors, people are more inclined to harbor a grievance and refuse to forgive the person/people who caused that grudge. But even if you’re a grudge holder, you can learn to be more forgiving.
Why you need to forgive
We are all imperfect people with individual shortcomings. People who are hurt often end up hurting others. The wounds from an offense can leave you with lasting feelings of bitterness, anger, and vengeance — all negative emotions that could hurt you the more.
Experts concur that true forgiveness entails letting go of firmly held negative feelings — even though some disagreement over whether it necessitates favorable thoughts toward the offender. This allows you to acknowledge the hurt you’ve been through without letting it define who you are, allowing you to heal and move on with your life.
But you need to realize that if you don’t put forgiveness into action, you are likely the one who will suffer the most. You must learn to forgive and let go of bitterness for your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.
In a nutshell, giving forgiveness does the following:
- Enables healthier relationships
- Improves mental health
- Reduces anxiety, stress, and hostility
- Improves physical health.
- Improves self-esteem
Among many others.
Five powerful ways to forgive
Experts who research or teach forgiveness make it quite clear that doing so does not minimize or downplay the gravity of an offense committed against you. Forgiveness does not imply forgetting, nor does it excuse or justify wrongdoing, so it is normal for you to get angry and harbor resentment toward the offender.
While forgiving someone helps mend a broken relationship, it doesn’t compel you to absolve them of responsibility for their actions.
Forgiveness is not a quick or easy thing to do. It is a process with many steps that often proceed nonlinearly. However, as difficult as it is, it is well worth the effort. The following are five practical ways to increase your capacity to forgive.
Acknowledge the pain you feel and express your emotions in healthy ways.
The first step to forgiving someone is to accept the depth of the hurt they’ve caused you. Don’t pretend that you’re not hurt or try to numb the pain. If you do this, you won’t be able to adequately address the harm, and no matter how free you might try to convince yourself that you are, you will still have the baggage of the hurt somewhere in you. You simply can’t wish it away. You have to come to terms with the reality of what has happened.
After fully acknowledging the depth of your hurt and expressing your pain in healthy ways to find emotional healing (as I talked about in a previous episode), you can properly begin the journey to genuinely forgiving your offender.
Be empathetic and understanding.
Scientists have investigated the neurological processes involved in forgiveness. They have found that when people correctly picture forgiving someone (in a hypothetical setting), their neural pathways for empathy become more active. This demonstrates how empathy and forgiveness are related, and it is a crucial step in the process of forgiving someone.
Recognizing the wrongdoer’s humanity and the need to show kindness, compassion, and love despite their actions is what forgiveness is all about. They don’t have to ‘deserve’ it for you to forgive because in some cases, the offender might not even be remorseful for their action. But forgiving them will loosen the grip they have over you. Forgiveness is simply a gift you give to them and ultimately to yourself.
Change your perception
Perspective is everything, for it determines the realities of life. In a previous Passion Struck podcast episode on changing your perception for the better, I broadly discussed the impact of your perception on your reality. Situations are simply what they are, but how you perceive them and their impact is something you choose.
By changing how you view the harm done to you, you can find meaning in the pain. You could use your story to heal someone else or, by forgiving the offender unconditionally, help them change for good. Don’t let your pain go to waste. Channel it to something positive, and you will gain the strength you need to let go of the offense.
Focus on your future
Popular speaker, life coach, and author Tony Robbins said, “Where focus goes, energy flows.” You keep your attention on the very thing that will get most of your energy and shape your reality. If you focus on hurtful situations, you will continue to relive them and end up even more bitter, sad, frustrated, and angry. The only way to move beyond your pain is to keep your attention on the future.
I am not saying you have to forget an offense committed against you. My emphasis is on shifting your attention from that memory to positive thoughts about the future.
The past is simply the past, and you can either allow it to linger or move forward. Make up your mind today to keep your eyes fixed on what is ahead, and let go of your limiting past.
As earlier said, forgiving someone can be a really hard thing to do, and there are times when you might need support and encouragement from someone else. You don’t have to go alone on the journey toward forgiveness. You can use the assistance of other people who have been on similar journeys and are more knowledgeable on how to go about it.
Talk to someone you’ve discovered to be wise and compassionate, such as a spiritual guide, a mental health professional, or a loved one or friend who you can trust to be objective and understanding of your peculiar situation. You can also consider counseling or joining a support group. Whichever way, just make sure you find support and help when you realize you need it.
When discussing the topic of forgiveness, we often focus on the forgiveness one person gives another. But a vital aspect of forgiveness that is less talked about is self-forgiveness.
There are times when we all find ourselves doing things that we are not proud of and where we have hurt others. It is normal to feel guilt, regret, and shame, but we mustn’t remain in that state.
Most of us struggle to forgive ourselves and may even begin to self-loath. This hatred of oneself may lead to harmful behavior such as physically harming oneself, overeating, oversleeping, smoking, abusing alcohol or drugs, and other self-punishing behavior. Therefore, you must acknowledge this reality and take conscious steps toward forgiving yourself.
Reflect on what you did, be remorseful for it, make amends to the person you’ve hurt or to yourself in any way you can, and renew yourself to engage in more positive and kind behaviors. When you do this, you can genuinely forgive yourself and get all the attached benefits to your physical, emotional, spiritual, and your overall well-being.
The power of forgiveness is always a choice.
After South African anti-apartheid activist and former president Nelson Mandela was released from prison — having served 27 years for his role in fighting for the rights and equality of his people — he said, “As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I would still be in prison.”
Mandela knew that choosing not to forgive would keep him stuck in the past and prevent him from moving forward. What happened was out of his control, but his response and the forgiveness that he showed were in his control.
Understandably, most of us don’t want to forgive because it brings back the pain and makes us confront our scars. But moving into wholeness requires this process. We can only find healing, peace, and the freedom to carry on living intentional lives if we can forgive one another and ourselves. Forgiving someone else or yourself will undoubtedly take time, but make sure you keep moving on in that journey until you reach the point of forgiveness. No matter how hard it may seem to be.
The importance of forgiveness is essential. No offense is too grievous to forgive, and there is no time when it is too late to forgive. You can even still forgive someone who is no longer alive. Make a conscious decision to forgive today, and step into the wholeness awaiting you.