Why Forgiveness is Good … for You
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. - Lewis B. Smedes
Forgiving those who have hurt us is something we know we probably should do, but few of us are eager to actually put into practice. When someone has robbed you of something precious—your self-esteem, your innocence, your reputation or your faith in humanity—refusing to forgive someone can seem like one of the only ways to get retribution. There is something extremely gratifying in knowing that forgiveness is ours to withhold.
Too often, we see forgiveness solely as an (undeserved) kindness we extend to an oppressor. But forgiveness is also a gift we give ourselves—a gift that provides considerable physical and psychological benefits to the giver.
Yes, it can be satisfying to clutch our resentments close to our heart, to replay the injustices done to us over and over. But often, the offending party is oblivious to our anger, or underestimates the full extent of it. Meanwhile, we become fixated with the wrongs done to us and retreat to the dark corners of our hearts to lick our wounds. The constant rehashing of these wrongs in our minds results in our own torment, but does nothing to punish the injuring party.
Over time, refusal to forgive can lead to mental anguish and even physical suffering. According to the Mayo Clinic, the benefits of forgiveness include:
- Lower blood pressure
- Less stress and hostility
- Fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain
- Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
- Greater psychological and spiritual well-being
- Healthier relationships
Holding on to old resentments is not only unhealthy; it can also hamper our ability to have successful relationships. Bitterness towards one person often seeps into other relationships, causing us to project negative attitudes onto those relationships.
Not ready yet to show mercy to the person who hurt you? Take some time to heal, but understand that forgiveness is ultimately your own best shot at happiness. Refusing to forgive can erode your mental and physical health; it can also compromise your ability to have successful relationships with others. Regardless if you ever receive a satisfactory apology from your offender, choosing to forgive them can release you to live a healthier, happier life.
So how do you unshackle yourself from resentment when someone has done you an unjustifiable wrong? First, you must understand what forgiveness isn’t.
Myths about Forgiveness
Forgiveness requires an apology
Sure, we’d all like a complete, heartfelt apology from the person who hurt us. But sometimes the apology never comes. Or, when the apology does come, it may fall short of our expectations. You cannot make another person feel remorse, much less communicate that remorse effectively. Ask for an apology, if you are comfortable doing so—just understand that your ability to forgive is not dependent on anyone else’s words or actions.
Forgiveness is an instantaneous, one-time event
Particularly for deep-rooted injuries, meaningful forgiveness can take years to achieve. But we can always begin the process of forgiveness and deal with resurgences of anger as they arise. For significant wounds, you may want to enlist the help of a professional therapist.
Forgiveness means you have to like the person
Forgiveness is a demonstration of your character, not proof of another person’s. You don’t have to trust the person you forgive, or even like them. But while you don’t have to like the person, you may find it helpful to remember their humanity. The person who hurt you has likely been wounded by others—possibly in devastating ways. While this does not excuse their behavior, it may make it easier for you to feel compassion towards them.
Forgiveness means resuming a relationship with the offending party
If the person who hurt you is a well-intended person who just made a mistake, be willing to give them another chance. But if the person exhibits a chronic pattern of cruelty or untrustworthiness, it may be best to distance yourself from the relationship. In cases of physical violence, immediately remove yourself from the situation and seek professional help.
Forgiveness means you cannot seek justice through legitimate channels
To forgive is to pardon the emotional debt you feel is owed to you. This is not necessarily the same as clearing any financial or legal debts, especially if a criminal act has been committed. Pursuing appropriate justice through legal channels may prevent others from suffering a similar fate.
Forgiveness requires confronting the person
Often, it is best to confront the person who hurt you. This allows you to articulate how the person’s words or actions hurt you, which may provide a psychological release. It also provides an opportunity for the offending party to clarify their intent, or to express remorse. However, if you do not feel safe approaching the person, do not put yourself in a dangerous situation.
Forgiveness is not easy to dispense, but it is a medicine that ultimately benefits the giver as much as the recipient.