How to forgive others and set yourself free.
Let bygones be bygones. Forget and move on. Kiss and make up.
Forgiving is easier said than done.
Most people believe that forgiveness means condoning an event. But it’s not. Blame ties us to the past and makes our heart and mind smaller — both literally and metaphorically. Forgiving, on the other hand, means realizing that resentment and hatred add more pain.
Science shows that forgiving is good for your health.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. It’s not accepting, justifying, or overlooking an event either. It’s choosing to let go of resentment or the need for revenge — we eliminate the suffering, not the wrongdoing. The offender might not deserve your pardon, but you deserve to be at peace.
When you forgive, you set yourself free.
Why Forgiving Is Hard (Though It’s Healthy)
“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” — Paul Boese
There’s a causal relationship between forgiveness and your health, according to science.
Unforgiveness causes us additional harm. When we don’t forgive, we release all the chemicals of a stress response.
You can’t change the past. There’s nothing you can do to remove the harm others might have caused you. However, not forgiving damages our mood — we see our lives through a lens of vengeance, hostility, resentment, anger, and sadness.
Forgiveness was traditionally seen as a religious ideal; science has turned it into a skill that everyone can (and should) develop. From 1998 to 2005, the number of empirical studies on the topic has increased from 58 to 950. There’s been a lot of progress understanding the science behind forgiveness.
Holding a severe grudge raises our blood pressure and increases our chances of a heart attack. Unforgiveness intensifies mental problems, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
An fMRI study by Italian researcher, Dr. Pietro Pietrini, showed that anger and vengeance inhibited rational thinking. Conversely, the tasks involved in the process of forgiveness activate the areas of our brain linked to problem-solving, morality, empathy, and cognitive control of emotions.
Forgiving is not easy — the need for taking revenge is hardwired in our system. In the past, that’s how we prevented other people from causing us harm. Revenge activates the same brain area than our desire for chocolate or sex — that’s why it tastes sweet.
However, forgiveness is equally innate — reconciling after a fight is something most mammals do, not just humans. Reconciliation has an upside too. Research by the Stanford Forgiveness Project shows that forgiving elevates our mood and increases optimism.
You can choose between instant gratification or long-term healthier living.
Set Yourself Free from Blaming Others
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” — Louis B. Smedes
Unforgiveness is engrained on blame — we let a past event define our present.
Blaming is a way of running away from the truth. By not forgiving, we focus on the perpetrator instead of facing the event. We get stuck feeling a victim rather than accepting what happened and moving on.
I’ve learned through time and experience that resentment gets us nowhere. I usually don’t hold a grudge on people — I don’t want to be a prisoner of someone else’s behavior.
I understand if you feel skeptical.
Researching for this article, I stumbled upon some compelling human stories. Some people went through the hardest experiences you can imagine. Yet, they were not only able to forgive but actually came in good terms with their wrongdoers.
Eva Kor, an Auschwitz survivor, publicly forgave the perpetrators who killed her parents and two older sisters at the camp. Eva even traveled to Germany and embraced Oskar Gröning, one of the Auschwitz officials.
Phyllis Rodriguez’s son was killed in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. Aicha el-Wafi’s son was convicted of a role in those attacks and is serving a life sentence. In hoping to find peace, these two moms have formed a powerful friendship born of unthinkable losses.
Back in 1995, Azim Khamisa’s son was killed in a gang initiation ritual. The deadly encountered sent him and Plex Felix, the grandfather of the murderer, down paths of meditation to forgive and be forgiven. In time, they became friends.
Unforgiveness is fueled by rumination — we keep rehashing bitter experiences. We get stuck on delated emotions. Resentment, hatred, hostility, fear, and anger guides our lives.
Blame turns us into a victim — we feel helpless. If people who went through tragedies, as described above, forgave their offenders, why can’t we?
A meta-analysis of forgiveness research brings light to effectively moving on. It requires two key steps:
- Decisional Forgiveness: A behavioral intention statement to forgo revenge and avoidance (unless it is unsafe). It’s releasing the offender from the social debt incurred by his/her wrongdoing.
- Emotional Forgiveness: To replace negative emotions with positive ones. It leads to a reduction in the uncomfortable or negative feelings associated with unforgiveness — it might even develop positive regard toward the perpetrator.
Forgiveness moves us from being a victim to being valuable.
As Buddhist Sakyong Mipham says, “We can see that the person we are blaming needs help, and so we help him. Helping him reduces our desire to blame and increases our desire to be of benefit.”
Azim Khamisa and Plex Felix went beyond reconciliation. These two brave men tour the world, teaching kids how to meditate — they are on a mission to prevent violence and hatred.
To let go of resentment, we must stop seeing the other as our enemy.
Forgiveness Others Requires a Method
To forgive others, we require more than just the intention — we need a precise method to overcome blame and fixation to a past event.
Dr. Frederic Luskin, the co-founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, runs a ‘Forgiveness Training’ to help people develop their core skills. The first step consists in tearing apart “your grievance story” — the expert believes that, when we blame someone, instead of holding them accountable, we get stuck in victimhood and inaction.
Another interesting challenge participants must deal with is to “find the impersonal in the hurt.” Realizing that many others have experienced a similar offense, helps depersonalize the event. It doesn’t remove the harm but trains our minds to not being attached to the incident.
“Forgiveness is a trainable skill, just like learning to throw a baseball,” writes Luskin in his book Forgive for Good.
Robert Enright, a psychologist from the University of Wisconsin, is a pioneer in the study of forgiveness. Together with his colleagues, he developed a four-part Process Model:
- Uncovering anger: Through self-awareness and understanding, we learn how the wrongdoing has compromised our lives, and reveal the suffering and harm it caused.
- Deciding to forgive: You make an explicit commitment to forgiving. This doesn’t your feelings are gone — it’s the first step toward moving on.
- Working on forgiveness: In this phase, we reframe our view of the offender. We focus on understanding their backgrounds and motivation. Once again, we are not condoning or justifying — we want to understand the other person’s behavior and driver.
- The Deepening Phase: Discovery and release from the emotional prison. We start to find meaning in the suffering we experienced. We might feel the need to help others who went through similar experiences. We transcend our pain by turning it into something meaningful.
Enright and his colleagues have observed positive results in drug rehabilitation participants, victims of domestic violence, and terminally ill cancer patients. Their approach decreased anger and resentment, providing a more positive outlook.
Having a method makes forgiveness seem easier.
The Courage to Forgive Will Bring You Peace
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
― Abraham Lincoln
Time can help us heal, but forgiveness interventions work better, according to multiple studies.
There are three fundamental goals to achieve true forgiveness: empathizing with the offender, committing to forgiveness, and overcoming feelings of unforgiveness.
Forgiving requires understanding.
Empathizing with the offender is good for you. It helps you repair the relationship with the event — though that doesn’t mean rebuilding the bond with that person.
Forgiving is an act of courage.
Like any behavior change, it requires a genuine commitment to succeed. The explicit decision to forgive someone is a critical step to move toward overcoming negative feelings.
Forgiveness sets you free from the past — you don’t just make peace with the offender; you are at peace.
That’s how Azin Khamisa wraps up this moving TED talk: “Peace is possible. How do I know that? Because I’m at peace.”