"The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget." — Thomas Szasz
In everyone’s life, there are great and small moments when we feel victimized. From our partners not doing their share of the chores, to infidelity, mass murder, and everything in between, there are so many times when we must decide whether to forgive (or not). Forgiving someone who has hurt us may go against our natural instincts for survival and self-preservation: Doesn’t forgiving someone just give them a pass they don’t deserve and minimize the harm they have caused? Won’t they, or others like them, be more likely to repeat the offense? If we don’t forgive, whom are we really hurting? By dwelling on the incident and keeping bitterness alive, aren’t we building a mental prison of our own making?
Each of us has to make his or her own decision about who to forgive, when, and for what. When making this deeply personal decision, here are 6 research-based facts to consider:
Many studies have shown that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who do not. Holding on to grudges can harm your health by acting as a chronic stressor. If you are unforgiving, you get a burst of the stress hormone cortisol every time you think about the offending event. Ruminating about the harm that’s been caused can raise your blood pressure and put a strain on your heart. Over the long-term, this can make you more vulnerable to disease and take attention away from maintaining your health and happiness in the present. You may also become less likely to trust and engage with other people who can bring you love and pleasure.
2. ... But Beware of the “Doormat Effect”
The benefit of forgiveness in close relationships depends on how the perpetrator responds to the forgiveness. If they continue to disrespect you or ignore your wishes, you will eventually feel like a doormat, which lowers your self-esteem. I see many clients dealing with narcissists who end up feeling resentful and demoralized after spending years trying to forgive a spouse, sibling, or parent for repeated bad behavior. Research on couples shows that when one partners doesn't change or show remorse, the other partner's forgiveness actually lowers the forgiver's self-esteem. Forgiveness increases self-esteem in those whose partners take responsibility and work on changing the behavior.
A very wise person once said, "A happy marriage is a union of two good forgivers.” Everybody messes up sometimes and it’s better to let the small things go than get into a negative cycle. Research shows that couples who don’t forgive get competitive and focus on “being right” and winning arguments, rather than working together in a cooperative way. Emotionally close and committed couples are more likely to forgive. When we have more to lose, like time with kids, money, a house, or a relationship with many positives, we are more inclined to work hard to forgive.
4. Intention and Responsibility Make a Difference
It is much easier to forgive someone who didn’t realize they were causing harm than a person who intentionally hurts others. Also, if we view the act as due to external circumstances, rather than personal choice, we are more likely to forgive. It is easier to forgive your friend or colleague for showing up late if you learn that there was an accident on the freeway. To work on forgiveness, think about all the external circumstances that contributed to the harmful behavior. Was the person under a lot of stress, misinformed, intoxicated, intimidated by others, or mentally ill? Were they abandoned, abused or neglected as a child or teenager? While these conditions do not take away the harm that was caused, they may help you feel more empathy for the perpetrator, so you don’t attribute the crime entirely to their “badness.”
Studies of brain scans show that the emotional centers of the limbic system light up when we consider forgiving. Research shows that negative emotions in general, including angry and hurt feelings, make it more difficult to forgive. For many of us, forgiveness is a process that involves expressing and examining the anger and loss that we feel and understanding the impact of this act on our lives.
Forgiving does not necessarily mean forgetting, or even letting an act go unpunished, although for some people it does. We may forgive someone emotionally, but still feel that they need to experience consequences. Or we may still feel a need to protect future victims. For our safety and wellbeing, we may choose to exclude the perpetrator from our lives or from society. Forgiveness means doing this peacefully, while no longer wishing them harm, wanting them to be miserable, or seeking revenge. For some of us, hanging onto the anger and bitterness means giving the perpetrator continued power over our lives, while letting it go frees us psychologically.
Forgiveness can mean continuing to work for good and be a loving person, even when faced with abhorrent deeds. This can send a personal message that love is stronger than hate and fear.
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and expert on mindfulness, emotions, neuroscience, and behavior. She provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows, and as an expert source in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet.