The Psychology of Forgiveness
A how-to guide on the science behind learning to forgive.
Posted September 16, 2014 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Forgiveness is a loaded word. It's been tossed around self-help circles for years, but little has been made of what the science behind forgiveness can teach us about our own lives.
Let's start with what forgiveness is not. Much of the self-help world has suggested that forgiveness does not mean you become best friends with the person who wronged you. Forgiveness is not saying what happened was ok. Forgiveness is not saying you accept the person who wronged you. Instead, forgiveness is choosing to accept what happened as it happened rather than what could or should have happened. Forgiveness can mean that you let go. Forgiveness can mean you love from a distance. Forgiveness can mean you step into your present rather than anchoring in the past.
Forgiveness is the cornerstone of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. We assume people see life the way we see life. However, there are as many perceptions as there are people in this world. Our lack of understanding of other people's perceptions can create gaps built on miscommunication, anger, animosity, and emotional disconnection. However, our relationship with forgiveness can help bridge these gaps.
We can intellectualize what forgiveness is as long as we want, but it's a process that takes time for most. When betrayal and miscommunication inhibit our ability to forgive, it's ok to feel those feelings. Shock and anger often comes before forgiveness. We must first deal with the hurt feelings before moving into forgiveness. Let us respect that process - a process that can happen without us even realizing it. Sometimes by simply exploring the situation and acknowledging the impact of the betrayal, the reasons and context behind the betrayal can be the beginning blocks of forgiveness.
Some people can forgive at the drop of a dime while others need their time. The act of forgiving is one of realizing that holding onto the anger and resentment no longer carries the same weight on us. Instead of seeing something as good or bad, we begin to see things with full acceptance, as they are, however that is.
Although there are a variety of definitions of forgiveness, research has suggested they all have three common components:
- Gaining a more balanced view of the offender and the event.
- Decreasing negative feelings towards the offender and potentially increasing compassion.
- Giving up the right to punish the offender further or to demand restitution.
Both research and experience have suggested that one roadblock people face with forgiveness is the idea of being seen as "weak" and saying that what the offender did is excusable. However, let's reevaluate the definitions of forgiveness described above. In many ways, it actually takes more strength to forgive. Staying angry and bitter is easy a lot of times. We can accommodate and get used to our angry feelings. It takes a lot more work to forgive. So to suggest that forgiveness equals weakness is actually false, forgiveness is powerful.
And the truth is that forgiveness is more powerful than you might think. Just like with anything in life, there are costs to your choices. Staying angry, resentful, and vengeful comes at a price. All these feelings can have a detrimental impact on your physical and emotional health as well as your relationships (Seybold et al., 2001; Gordon et al., 2009).
Psychologically, when people reported higher levels of forgiveness, they also tended to report better health habits and decreased depression, anxiety, and anger levels. Even in betrayed couples, greater levels of forgiveness were associated with more satisfied relationships, a stronger parenting alliance, and children's perceptions of parenting functioning. Physiologically, higher reported levels of forgiveness were associated with lower white blood cell count and hematocrit levels. White blood cells are an integral part of fighting off diseases and infections. Together, these results highlight the importance of forgiveness—not for the other person, but for you. Don't allow your mind and your body to go through another day feeling vengeful and angry.
The next logical question is how do you begin the process of forgiveness? The truth is that you've already started by reading this post. As you move through this process, you will see that forgiveness can involve drawing boundaries for yourself and simply figuring out what that boundary is. The biggest aspect will involve going through the impact the betrayal had on your life. When we don't forgive, it's easy to stay in the anger. However, when we stay angry, we can avoid going into those harder places that involve the impact of the betrayal. The same way a war veteran is traumatized in combat, a person can be traumatized by someone they cared about. You cannot get to a place of acceptance without going through these hard parts. This can involve understanding what the factors were contributing to the betrayal and coping with what that means for having a future relationship. Letter writing is often a powerful tool in doing this work. Many people don't even send the letter, but the act of writing can help clear things up in your own head.
Forgiveness Essential Reads
The last key to all of this is to understand that it is a process. Not everyone feels this enlightened state that they feel like they can "forgive." It can take time. And the truth is that immediately forgiving someone isn't always the best idea. We don't want to deny ourselves the right and the opportunity to feel the feelings of hurt and betrayal. We can only work through that which we first acknowledge.
I want to leave you with one last quote from Oprah Winfrey, who said, "Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different."
I want you to begin to think about forgiveness and how you can incorporate it into your life. Who can you forgive? Are you ready to forgive? Sometimes the person you need to forgive the most is yourself.
Dr. Rubin Khoddam is a Clinical Psychologist currently working in private practice in Los Angeles, CA as well as at the West Los Angeles VA as the Team Lead in the residential rehabilitation program for individuals dealing with issues related to substance use and homelessness. Dr. Khoddam currently provides individual, couples and family therapy, as well as group therapy. He also runs the IMPROVE: Outpatient Substance Use Treatment Program, a low-demand, harm reduction substance use treatment program for individuals hoping to decrease their substance use or examine the impact of their substance use in their life. For more information, visit his site www.DrRubinKhoddam.com and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.