The other day I wrote an article on the health benefits of gratitude. I mentioned new science showing that gratitude is one of a cocktail of positive practices that can improve your physical and emotional health.
Forgiveness is the second such practice I would like to mention.
“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.“ Anne Lamott
The negative effects of unforgiveness
I would like to re-word Annie’s quote to say that it’s like drinking the rat poison over and over and over again. Every time you call the wrong to mind and go over in detail how you were wronged, it is like drinking more rat poison. The more traumatic the event(s), the more potent the poison. We call it being re-traumatized.
Scientific studies clearly tell us our bodies don’t know the difference between an imagined event and one that is happening now. Even when we just think about a time someone harmed us, adrenaline and cortisol flood the body to put it on full alert. Our pulse and our blood pressure go up, ready for whatever fight or flight response we choose – except we are in no danger, except of chronic disease.
The positive benefits of forgiveness
- Forgiveness restores your sense of being in control of your life that you lose when you think of yourself as a victim. You don’t have to let that wrong define your future.
- Forgiveness stops your threat chemicals from dominating your body and causing disease.
- Forgiveness sets you FREE to live and love, fully and joyfully.
What do I mean by forgiveness?
First, let me say what I do NOT mean.
- I do not mean becoming a doormat and removing boundaries you have wisely set up to keep you safe. Forgiveness does not mean having to let him or her back into your life.
- I do not mean ignoring reality and just forgetting/repressing what happened. Your body knows better and may still punish you with bothersome psychosomatic symptoms.
What DO I mean?
- I mean getting to a place of FREEDOM where you don’t have to carry the fear and resentment around with you, weighing down your life, ruining your health and stealing your joy.
- I mean putting aside all the acid phrases and labels you use to describe the person. He/she is a __________________. Such name-calling only reinforces your victimhood and keeps you down.
- Hurt people hurt people, you know. I mean putting the harm in context of the other person’s life experiences.
- I mean being willing to wish good things for that person, and being able to hear their name without tensing up.
Step One – Make a decision to forgive. It happened. Bad things happen to people every day. Absolutely nothing we can ever do will change the past. But we CAN change the effect that past will have on our future. Are you WILLING to move forward in life?
Step Two – Create a plan. HOW do you want to proceed, keeping your goal in mind? You may wish to see a therapist or a spiritual counselor, but do be sure they know your goal” forgiveness and release. Some choose to work with them around step three below.
Step Three – Keep a FREEDOM (forgiveness) journal.
- Need to vent? Of course you do. There is good research that says that if you have had a bad experience, journaling about your deepest feelings for 20 minutes every day (no more) for three (3) months can improve both your physical and your psychological health. Set an alarm to know when to stop.
- Buy a brand new journal you like. Start with thinking for a few minutes about what happened and how what happened has affected you and your life. Then write your deepest and most honest feelings for 20 minutes.
- This is a stream of consciousness exercise. No one is reading it but you. Don’t stop to correct your grammar and try not to censor and correct what you wrote.
- Create an emergency plan. How you will handle any emotional distress that may pop up? Over time, the distress should diminish and disappear.
- Shift Perspective. After you have gone as far as you can go with sharing your experience and the effect it has had on your life, try a writer’s exercise : change the point of view and write as much as you know about the other person’s life.
- Understand your final goal. You want to reach a place where you harbor no ill will the one who harmed you and can genuinely wish for them the happiness you wish for yourself.
Congratulations! Now you have worked the issue all the way through. You have not hidden or repressed your feelings, you have safely expressed them, but with the goal of forgiveness and freedom. You have evicted every tentacle of their influence from your mind and your body, although you may have to do further work down the line if they slip back in.
How to begin forgiving
First, a shift in perspective
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” C.S. Lewis
“I guess forgiveness, like happiness, isn’t a final destination. You don’t one day get there and get to stay.” ― Deb Caletti