Forgiving may be good for the soul, but it's also medicine. Far from just a spiritual issue, letting go of grudges, a growing body of research now tells us, restores the body from resentment's ravages.
In short, nursing bitterness can clog your arteries. That's because hostile feelings release adrenaline, which in turn pushes blood through the arteries more strongly. Over time, too many of these intense blood spurts tear arterial walls, and the body patches the injured areas with artery-narrowing plaque. The stress of unresolved relationships issues also damages the immune system.
Of course, forgiving doesn't mean legitimizing hurtful behaviour, ignoring your personal boundaries, backing away from a needed confrontations or putting up with abuse. But in the name of self-protection, it's best to dispel fury and develop feelings that are at least neutral or at best loving toward those who have done you wrong.
Purging bitterness and vengefulness from your mental repertoire isn't a simple matter - it requires support from folks wise in the ways of personal growth. Just think of it as a life saver.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"In forgiveness we close a conversation about the past and agree not to use the past against the person in the future . Forgiveness is not putting someone on probation. Often, people forgive in a moment of softening of their heart, and then when something comes up, they take it back. We (have to) release ourselves from carrying the weight of judgment in our hearts ."
NANCY PAGAN , life coach, Cambridge, Massachusetts
"To even suggest to survivors of the most severe crimes that they ought to forgive is experienced by victims as guilt-making and a re-victimization. Discussion about victim-offender reconciliation with forgiveness as an issue needs to come from them. But usually in the early stages it doesn't. Yet those of us who do this work see forgiveness as one of the highest possible outcomes. Victims come typically because they feel disempowered by the legal system. Offenders motivated by the right reasons realize they've done harm and want to help in any way they can."
MARTY PRICE , director, Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program Information and Resource Center, Asheville, North Carolina
"Forgiveness is a matter of deciding how much you want some past event to negatively influence your present. You're not forgetting what this person did. It's more that you're transforming the bitterness into a neutral view : 'Yes, that happened,' but the emotional sting is out of it. Objectivity can be an important part of getting to forgiveness. Try to understand the person's behaviour from their perspective and consider it as an expression of them, not a reflection of you."
JIM CHESTON , registered psychologist, PhD, Toronto
"Studies show that if people try to forgive to benefit themselves, they don't benefit as much as when they want to bless the person who hurt them . We have a five-step method for achieving emotional forgiveness, called REACH. If you misunderstand forgiveness and think it's reconciliation and you rush back in there, you can get yourself into a dangerous situation. People can also forgive (in a way that) takes away their desire to make things right in the relationship. Forgiveness (if misunderstood) can disempower the justice motive."
EVERETT WORTHINGTON , chair, department of psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University, executive director, Campaign for Forgiveness Research, author, Forgiving And Reconciling, Richmond, Virginia
"Once the process of self-forgiveness is established, we have the capacity to move on to forgiving others. The most important thing is to acknowledge that there's an issue , that you're being controlled or limited by an experience. When you can admit that you need to let something go , you know that healing has a foot in the door. By not forgiving, we invest in pain every day, and we have so much more to invest in that grows us rather than limits us." LISA TABATA , clinical hypnotherapist, master of Usui Reiki, hospice caregiver, Toronto "Forgiveness is a process, not an event. It takes time and work. A first step is acknowledging hurt and pain. A second is articulating your anger . Only then can healing begin. The ultimate stage is reconciliation. But that's not always attainable. Ritualizing things is a really important part of the process. With a bit of imagination, people can come up with ways to ritualize letting go , the act of forgiveness."
WARREN MCDOUGALL , minister, Bloor Street United Church, Toronto