Why Should We Forgive?
What Beyoncé got right about forgiveness according to science
Posted April 29, 2016
Unless you live under a rock, by now you've likely heard a lot about Beyoncé's latest triumph Lemonade, a visual album that artfully captures a raw emotional evolution. The album is bold in its head-on dealings with themes of betrayal, each track seeming to trace a progressive path from fury to forgiveness. Throughout, Beyoncé herself appears to ride on ceaseless waves of strength and vulnerability, two qualities that are arguably crucial to her ultimate sense of peace. Much has been said about Lemonade's specific implications regarding infidelity, but amidst its many powerful themes lie a crucial message about forgiveness.
In her last tour, Beyoncé's stage lit up with the quote, "Forgiveness is the final act of love." Maya Angelou called it “one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself” while Gandhi named it “the attribute of the strong.” For centuries, great minds and artists have sung the praises of the practice of forgiveness, and now science seems to have caught up with what the soulful have long suspected: forgiveness is good for us. It is an act of love and strength - a gift from which no one benefits more than ourselves.
So, what do we gain from forgiving? In his research, Dr. Frederic Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good, has uncovered illuminating findings about the personal rewards of forgiveness. These benefits include reducing anger, hurt, depression and stress, while increasing feelings of optimism, hope, compassion, physical vitality, self–efficacy, conflict resolution skills and confidence. Forgiveness can even improve our physical health with some studies suggesting it reduces hypertension. One article published in IDEA Fitness Journal showed study results indicating that “people who are forgiving tend to have not only less stress but also better relationships, fewer general health problems and lower incidences of the most serious illnesses--including depression, heart disease, stroke and cancer.”
With all the seeming upsides of forgiveness, the question quickly becomes not if we should forgive, but how? Why are we resistant or afraid to let go of our grievances? One reason has to do with one major, albeit common, misconception about forgiveness, which is that forgiving is for someone else. As Dr. Luskin has explained, the primary purpose of forgiving is actually to aid our own healing and well-being. Even the expression “holding a grudge” has a burdensome weightiness to it that falls on us. Think of the dark downward spiral we enter when we bear the heavy emotions of hate, resentment and rage over that which we cannot change. Forgiveness is about freeing ourselves of that burden. It’s about us and not the offender. The objective of forgiveness is not to forget or deny hurt nor is it necessarily about reconciling with the one who’s done wrong. It’s about taking power over how we will respond. As. Dr Luskin says, it’s about becoming the hero rather than the victim in our lives.
Whether we’re reacting to the early rejection of a parent, the infidelity of a partner or the traffic violation of an obnoxious driver, we cannot control the past or the actions of others. What we can do is choose how we will construct our own narrative. We can move away from the stories we tell ourselves that get stuck on repeat and impair everything from our mood to the quality of our lives. To do this, we must interrupt a destructive thought process known as the “critical inner voice.” This negative internal dialogue will feed us a steady stream of thoughts that keep us miserable. It will bark at us, “You were wronged. You’ll never be back to your old self. You’re damaged. You can never be free of the pain. They’ve ruined you. You’re not strong enough. This can’t be fixed. Hold on to the anger. Never let go.”
When we inundate ourselves with these messages, we force ourselves to keep living in our pain, to relive the troubling memories of our lives, rather than creating new, positive ones. We may even start to feel that the event or circumstances we endured were bigger than they were or allow them to wound us over and over again. “Choosing your story is central to the forgiveness solution,” said Dr. Luskin. “I remind people: Don’t lie; don’t minimize the pain, but don’t harp. After you have grieved, try to change your story from a victim story to a hero story. Construct a story that reflects the way you want your life to move forward, not linger in the past.”
Learning to forgive helps us to control our story and our feelings to avoid unnecessary pain. As powerful individuals, we can choose between living in a victim mode or an adult mode. In the latter state, we acknowledge and feel the full pain of what happened to us without getting stuck in a triggered state in which we feel it is still happening. We can feel our feelings without letting them overtake us.
It can feel vulnerable to give up anger and hate, but these emotions bend us out of shape far more than anyone else. If there are feelings stirred up that seem to bubble to the surface, the answer is not to repress them, but to find healthy, adaptive ways to deal with the core, primal emotions. This may very well mean getting angry in a safe setting where we’re releasing the feeling rather than being drowned by it. Ideally, this work can be done with a therapist or a trusted friend who helps guide us toward relieving rather than riling up our emotions.
By letting go in this way, we are not saying that what happened to us was okay. We’re just making the choice to not be ruled by what happened. We can learn that no matter what we cannot be ruined, and our whole life will not be ruined by these events. We’re allowing ourselves to break free from the parts of our past that still hurt us in the present. We’re recognizing that the emotions that get triggered may come from our history, and we can gently separate them from our current experience.
It’s helpful to remember this process of forgiveness is what Dr. Luskin calls a trainable skill, one which he will be discussing directly in the online talk “The Power of Forgiveness.” Because our lives will inevitably include sorrows beyond our control, forgiveness is also an invaluable skill to carry with us on our journey. As Dr. Luskin said, “I have been surprised by the amount of pain and horror in the world… Within that hurt, people still have a remarkable capability to heal. Within this deep and terrible suffering, we have an ability to recover, make peace and move on.” When life gives you lemons... Given this reality, what could be a more powerful tool for healing than to forgive?
Join Lisa Firestone and Fred Luskin for the online talk “The Power of Forgiveness.”
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org