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Forgiving and Not Forgiving Can Both Affect Your Health

How do you decide whether or not to forgive someone else—or yourself?

Isobel* was raped by a neighbor when she was a teen. “It was horrible,” she said. “But it wasn’t just that single period of time; it has had an impact on the rest of my life. I can never forgive that man for what he did to me.”

Jeff* was regularly and repeatedly physically disciplined by his father as a child and has not spoken to anyone in his family since he left home as a young teen. “It’s not just my father I can’t forgive,” he said. “But what about everyone else in the family, and in the school system, and in our church, who knew—or suspected—what was happening and never bothered to try to intervene to protect me.” Like Isobel, he feels that his life has been badly damaged because of that experience.

Around the world, violence and physical abuse are resulting from hate, mistrust, and antagonism against those who are different or simply “not one of us.”

In the light of these horrifying experiences, other kinds of hurt sometimes seem insignificant. Yet most of us have been hurt in big and small ways. And sometimes the question is not simply whether or not to forgive the other person, but whether or how to forgive yourself.

Perhaps a friend has betrayed you by sharing something you told her in confidence with someone else. Or maybe you found out that your husband or wife has been having an affair, or a colleague let you take the blame for something that was his fault, or a teacher gave you an unfair grade or a friend hurt your feelings or your boss gave a promotion that you should have gotten to someone else. The list of possible psychological and emotional injuries that come to us daily is perhaps surprisingly long, even when they are not dramatic.

There are many different approaches to managing these injuries. One of them is forgiveness. Another, often less recognized, is self-forgiveness.

The question of forgiveness has long been seen as being a religious, moral, or philosophical matter rather than a psychological one. Yet research has shown that it is also a health question—genuine forgiveness can also bring with it physical and emotional health benefits ranging from lower blood pressure and a strengthened immune system to improvement in cholesterol levels and sleep, a reduction in physical pain, and a decreased risk of heart attack, depression, anxiety, and stress and even better relationships.

But what about when you simply can’t forgive the other person? Does that mean you’re doomed to physical and emotional poor health? Psychologist and author (and PT columnist) Jeanne Safer, who has written beautifully about this question, says no, not at all. Sometimes, she says, giving ourselves permission not to forgive can bring the very sense of stress release and emotional freedom that forgiving can bring. Whether you would be healthier as a result of forgiving or by accepting that you cannot forgive depends very much on how you reach that place and what it means in your own life.

But there’s another aspect of forgiveness that is often unrecognized by many of us: the component of self-forgiveness.

The psychologist Everett Worthington, who was researching forgiveness, was suddenly faced with the subject on a personal level after an intruder murdered his mother in her home in 1996. Worthington had been thinking about links between forgiveness and justice, faith, and virtue, but with the emotional aftermath of his mother’s murder (including his brother’s suicide in 2005), he also began to look at the significance of self-forgiveness.

Researchers have found that being hurt and disappointed by someone else can cause not just emotional and mental pain, but that it can lead to physical changes, including altering your heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. And these changes increase the risk of a variety of physical and emotional conditions, including depression and heart disease.

Worthington has shown that doing something hurtful to another can cause similar physical and emotional stress.

Learning how to ask for forgiveness and to forgive ourselves, when it is done thoughtfully and with genuine meaning, can lower the stress level caused by guilt and self-criticism. But self-forgiveness does not mean taking responsibility for someone else’s misdeeds. A child, no matter what he or she does, is not the cause of parental abuse, nor is an adult victim of sexual or other violence responsible for what the abuser has done to them.

123rf image 108745268 Antonio Guillem
Source: 123rf image 108745268 Antonio Guillem

But all of us have something we need to forgive ourselves for. And sometimes, when you have been able to find a way to accept and own your self-criticism, it is also easier to stop feeling resentment against someone who has done something to hurt us—which is, after all, what forgiveness is really all about.

Forgiveness Essential Reads

So, what can you do to forgive yourself?

  • · Take responsibility

In their workbook on self-forgiveness, Worthington and Brandon Griffin suggest that taking responsibility for yourself and what you have done is a key step toward self-forgiveness. This does not mean blaming yourself for what another person has done. No matter what has happened, the other person is still responsible for his or her behavior, just as you are responsible for your own. Jeff, for example, realized that he needed to take responsibility for moving forward in his life. “I will never get the satisfaction of knowing that my parents were are sorry for what they did,” he said. “But I can take responsibility for living the kind of life I want to live, and for being the kind of person I want to be.”

Once you take that responsibility, you can find a way to be kind to yourself. And that includes the next step of accepting your imperfections.

  • · Accept your own imperfections

All too often many of us cannot forgive ourselves because we have such high expectations for ourselves that there is no space or leeway for mistakes. You are not perfect, just as no one you know is perfect. Forgiving yourself for being imperfect is an important step in healthy psychological development. As one woman I interviewed for my book on friendship told me, “I only started to really be able to be a good friend when I realized that I had to be a good friend to myself—I guess I had to forgive myself for being less than the perfect image I kept holding myself up to.” And in fact, others are often much more forgiving of us than we are of ourselves. Which takes us to my final suggestion.

  • · Accept imperfections in your relationships

Just as none of us is perfect, neither is any relationship perfect (much as we might like to believe in the early stages of falling in love). Finding space for imperfections is part of finding a way to be in a relationship of any sort—friendship, love, work, or family—over the years. I am not suggesting that you should accept harmful or dangerous or even unkind behaviors directed at you. But most of us have trouble, at least sometimes, accepting the imperfections of our relationships. Finding space for imperfections is part of the process of forgiving yourself and the people you are close to. Couples often struggle with this idea. As one man who had come with his wife for couples counseling said, “I had this idea of what a marriage was supposed to be. I guess it was kind of a picture of a perfect melding of two people. I wasn’t prepared for how far from perfect our relationship was. Somehow that seemed to mean it wasn’t a good relationship.” What he gradually came to understand was that even the healthiest marriages require a great deal of work. “The work we put into our relationship doesn’t mean that we’re not good together,” he told me as he and his wife were ending their time in therapy. “I see now that the harder we work, the better the bond between us.”

It’s also important to recognize that behavior that is hurtful, abusive, or dangerous is not simply an imperfection. It is a threat to your wellbeing and you should not accept it.

Like Jeff, Isobel realized that she had been wishing her abuser -- in her case, her rapist -- would take responsibility for what he had done. But he did not and, she realized, never would. So she decided that she would move on. “I don’t know if I’ll ever actually forgive him,” she said, “but I’m letting myself off the hook. I can hate him, or I can forget him, but I’m not going to let his horrible behavior keep controlling my life.”

In the end, perhaps it is not a question of morality, but of psychological well-being that drives the matter of forgiveness. If not forgiving someone continues to create stress for you, then maybe you could try forgiving them. And conversely, if you are too stressed by the feelings that go along with forgiving, then perhaps you should let go of the idea of forgiving. Either way, maybe you could work to forgive yourself—if for nothing else, at least for what might seem to be an imperfect solution to a troubling problem.

What do you think?

* names and identifying information changed to protect privacy



For further reading:

Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not to Forgive by Jeanne Safer Published by Harper Perennial (2000)

Forgiveness and Health: Scientific Evidence and Theories Relating Forgiveness to Better Health 1st ed. 2015 (Springer Publisher) by Loren Toussaint (Editor), Everett Worthington (Editor), David R. Williams (Editor)

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