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Forgiveness

Forgiveness: Reflections From History and Current Research

A CBT therapist's suggestions on the worth and "how-tos" of forgiveness.

Key points

  • People may restore feelings of self-worth and emotional safety by vilifying and distancing themselves from someone who has hurt them.
  • People who have trouble forgiving and blame others for their problems experience greater health difficulties.
  • Some research suggests that forgiveness must be unconditional to confer health benefits.
  • Forgiveness is not the same as condoning what happened, having no feelings about it, or reconciliation.
Source: Photo credit: Jon Stokes, © Christie's Images/Bridgeman, used with permission
A collection of 130 Roman "curse tablets" has been recognized by UNESCO in its Memory of the World register.
Source: Photo credit: Jon Stokes, © Christie's Images/Bridgeman, used with permission

The most striking aspect of a trip I took to Bath, England was learning about the "curse tablets" found in archeological excavations of the local Roman baths. The sole legacy of a number of people who lived 1600 years ago is their rage at others, memorialized in curses inscribed on copper or lead.

Often, the curses were directed at unknown others; for example, people who stole clothing or other personal effects while the writer was enjoying the baths. Frequently the curse writer wished for the intense suffering or death of the thief, or that the thief be rendered infertile or poor. Translated from the Latin, examples include, "Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their mind and eyes in the Goddess's temple" and "So long as someone, whether slave or free, keeps silent or knows anything about it, he may be accursed in his blood and eyes and every limb and even have all his intestines quite eaten away if he has stolen the ring or been privy to the theft."

Anger and vengeance are as old as time, of course. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that the self-protective mechanisms of grudge-holding and mistrust have sometimes kept our ancestors physically safe from repeated harm by the same offender. On a psychological level, at times we may restore feelings of self-worth and emotional safety by vilifying and distancing ourselves from someone who has hurt us.

However, most people have experienced the pain and seeming purposelessness of maintaining an unforgiving state over time. Versions of the quote, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die” have been attributed to Saint Augustine, Nelson Mandela, and others. Indeed, people who have trouble forgiving and who blame others for their problems experience greater health difficulties, including increased cardiovascular risk and cancer-proneness (e.g., Lawler et al., 2003).

Meanwhile, forgiveness turns out to be a powerful psychological construct in its own right. Forgiveness generally involves decreasing negative judgments and hostility while simultaneously increasing positivity in the form of compassion or generosity. Importantly, some research suggests that forgiveness must be unconditional in order to confer health benefits. Toussaint et al. (2012) measured “conditional forgiveness,” the degree to which people require specific words and actions on the part of the offender in order to forgive, and found this construct to be positively associated with mortality risk. It may be that placing conditions on forgiveness maintains an unhealthy “victim” status in which the offender rather than the injured party is perceived to be in control.

Fred Luskin’s book Forgive for Good echoes cognitive therapy; he suggests that trying to take offenses less personally and challenging "grievance stories" and an excessive attachment to “unenforceable rules” can help us thrive. Taking things less personally, Luskin notes, involves noticing that the nature of our hurt isn't that special—many other people have been hurt in the same way. Also, often the person or people who hurt us didn't fully intend to do so. It may help to think of forgiveness as an empowering act and as something that we do for ourselves rather than for the other person. Forgiveness is not the same thing as condoning what happened, having no feelings about it, or reconciling with the offender.

A forgiveness exercise

Is there someone you wish you could forgive, and if so, is there a way you could change your thinking to allow this to happen? Is there a way you could see the hurt as less personal (even though it was personally impactful)—or a way that you could take more responsibility for the feelings you currently have about what happened?

Is there someone you wish would forgive you?

References

Lawler, K.A., Younger, J.W., Piferi, R.L., Billington, E., Jobe, R., & Edmondson, K. (2003). A change of heart: Cardiovascular correlates of forgiveness in response to interpersonal conflict. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 26, 373–393.

Luskin, F. (2002) Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Toussaint, L., Owen, A., & Cheadle, A. (2012). Forgive to live: Forgiveness, health and longevity. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 35, 375-386.

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