How could it be a health issue?
It may seem less satisfying than holding a grudge and revisiting our moral high ground, but the evidence in favour of forgiveness is clear. It's an investment in our relationships with rewards for both the forgiver and forgiven. Forgiving ourselves is just as rewarding.
Forgiveness makes us resilient because we recover quickly from conflicts. The result: better relationships. It's an upward spiral. The longest study in the world (at Harvard University) has established that close relationships are the single most important factor in human thriving.
Doing the honourable thing, especially being forgiving, is a key characteristic of successful intimate relationships. Partners who are close find it easier to forgive.
People who forgive tend to see their partner's bad behaviour in context. They don't judge the whole relationship on the irresponsibility or ill-chosen words that have upset them today. (It doesn't stop them insisting on better behaviour next time.)
The research has focused on marriage partners, but surely doing the honourable thing, seeing the relationship in context and moving on from anger and resentment applies to working relationships too.
Forgiving our own shortcomings and moving on from shame, humiliation and guilt brings a wide range of rewards in mental health. The Mayo Clinic and a wide range of other researchers report that forgiving ourselves reduces depression and damage to our immune systems, improves our sleep, reduces fatigue, anxiety and stress, lowers our blood pressure and protects our immune system and heart.
So how do we forgive?
Like so much in the psychology of thriving, it only sounds easy. Forgiveness is something to work at until it becomes a way of life.
If it helps: the Dalai Lama says reliving pain and suffering is optional. Researchers agree and suggest a few strategies...
- Perspective-taking - Try to see your lapses or other people's in a more positive way. Try to see what sparked your humiliation, anger or resentment in context. Is the behaviour out of character? Is it possible you are exaggerating what happened, or its effects?
- Empathy - Try so see the other person's behaviour with understanding and tolerance.
- Avoid assuming that a person's behaviour or your own lapses as a sign of a character flaw. (It's a common error.)
- Be your own supportive friend, not the hostile critic bawling you out. Learning from lapses makes sense. Harbouring a hostile critic urging you to continue feeling bad doesn't. It's the same when you are reacting to other people's lapses.
Embarrassed by something you said or did? Keep in mind that when researchers have set up embarrassing events then asked others about it, most people didn't notice or were empathetic.
Forgiveness seems soft, as if it's an excuse to go easy on yourself and others, rather than demand high standards. But ask yourself this question: Will resentment, anger or humiliation of others or yourself help them or you achieve those higher standards? More likely those emotions will damage your relationships or your health and achieve nothing positive.
Instead, forgive and expect better next time - or just move on.