The Power of Forgiveness: Why Revenge Doesn't Work
Learn the benefits of compassion and how to experience forgiveness.
Posted September 8, 2011 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
In my new book, I emphasize the importance of forgiveness and why revenge doesn’t work.
Forgiveness is the act of compassionately releasing the desire to punish someone or yourself for an offense. It’s a state of grace, nothing you can force or pretend. There are no shortcuts.
Mistakenly, some of my patients, wanting to be “spiritual,” have prematurely tried to forgive after someone emotionally knifes them in the gut.
First, you must feel anger before you can begin to forgive. I gradually guide patients to the large-heartedness of forgiving injuries either caused by others or self-inflicted.
Revenge is the desire to get even when someone does you wrong. It’s natural to feel angry, to say “I’m not going to let that **** get away with this,” whatever “this” is. However, revenge reduces you to your worst self, puts you on the same level as those spiteful people we claim to abhor.
Additionally, studies have shown that revenge increases stress and impairs health and immunity. Sure, if someone hits you with a stick, you have the impulse to hit them back—the basis for wars. To thrive personally and as a species, however, we must resist this predictable lust for revenge, and seek to right wrongs more positively.
This doesn’t make you a pushover; you’re just refusing to act in a tediously destructive way antithetical to ever finding peace. As Confucious says, "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves."
What I’m suggesting is a version of “turn the other cheek” yet still doing everything to preserve what’s important to you. The hard part, though, is watching someone “get away with something” when there’s nothing you can do about it. Yes, your wife left you for the yoga instructor. Yes, your colleague sold you out.
With situations like this in my life, I take solace in the notion of karma, that sooner or later, what goes around comes around. Also know that the best revenge is your success, happiness, and the triumph of not giving vindictive people any dominion over your peace of mind.
Forgiveness refers to the actor, not the act. Not to the offense but the woundedness of the offender. This doesn’t mean you’ll run back to your battering spouse because of compassion for the damaged person he or she is. Of course, you want to spare yourself mistreatment.
However, from a distance, you can try to forgive the conscious or unconscious suffering that motivates people. Our desire to transform anger is a summoning of peace, well worth the necessary soul-stretching.
To experience forgiveness, try this exercise from Emotional Freedom:
Emotional Action Step: Be Bigger Than Anger—Practice Forgiveness Now
- Identify one person you’re angry with. Start with someone low on your list, not your rageaholic father. Then you can get a taste of forgiveness quickly. After that, you can proceed to tackle more challenging targets.
- Honestly address your feelings. Talk to friends, your therapist, or other supportive people, but get the anger out. I also recommend writing your feelings down in a journal to purge negativity. Then, decide whether you want to raise the issue with someone.
- Begin to forgive. Hold the person you’re angry with clearly in your mind. Then ask yourself, “What emotional shortcomings caused him or her to treat me poorly?” This is what you want to have compassion for, the area to forgive. Definitely, don’t subject yourself to shabby treatment, but reach for compassion for the person’s emotional blindness or cold heart.
Here’s how forgiveness can work in a range of situations where you’d have every right to be angry. It establishes a kinder mindset, whether or not you decide to confront someone.
- A good friend acts inconsiderately when she’s having a bad day: Remember, nobody’s perfect. You may want to let the incident slide. If you do mention it, don’t make this one-time slight into a big deal. Give your friend a break--forgive the lapse.
- A coworker takes credit for your ideas: Do damage control, whether it means mentioning this situation to the coworker, your boss, or human resources, and don’t trust her with ideas in the future. However, try to forgive the coworker for being such a greedy, insecure, mean-spirited person that she has to stoop so low as to steal from you.
- Your mother-in-law is needy or demanding: Keep setting kind but firm boundaries, so over time you can reach palatable compromises. But also have mercy on the insecurities beneath her neediness and demands—perhaps fear of being alone, of aging, of being excluded from the family, of not being heard. This will soften your response to her.
- You suffered childhood abuse. The healing process of recovering from abuse requires enormous compassion for yourself and is facilitated by support from other abuse survivors, family, friends, or a therapist. Still, if you feel ready to work towards forgiveness of an abuser, it necessitates seeing the brokenness and suffering that would make the person want to commit such grievous harm. You’re not excusing the behavior or returning to it, but grasping how emotionally crippled he or she is, a huge stretch of compassion, but the path to freedom.
Forgiveness is a paradigm-shifting solution for transforming anger. It liberates you from the trap of endless revenge so that you can experience more joy and connection. Forgiveness does more for you than anyone else because it liberates you from negativity and lets you move forward. Forgiving might not make anger totally dissolve but it will give you the freedom of knowing you are so much more.