In the conflict resolution course I am currently teaching, forgiveness features as an empowering strategy to deal with conflict and reduce emotional and physical distress.
The following two quotes by Gautama Buddha highlight the negative effects of holding grudges:
- “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
- “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Most of us know that holding grudges and being reluctant to let go of anger is detrimental to our well-being as it takes up a lot of energy to maintain resentment towards others. On top of that previous studies have shown that holding grudges also harms our physiological health.
Dutch Researchers Witvliet, Ludwig and Vander Laan (2001) found that empathic perspective taking and forgiving thoughts towards real-life offenders prompted greater perceived control and comparatively lower physiological stress responses. Similarly, it was found that forgiveness had beneficial effects on cardiovascular health (Lawler-Row, Karremans, Scott, Edlis-Matityahou, & Edwards, 2008). Forgiveness resulted in significantly fewer medications and less alcohol use, lower blood pressure and heart rate above and beyond the effects of just releasing anger. Forgiveness may also help lower pain in chronic pain sufferers. Correlational analyses showed that patients who had higher scores on forgiveness-related variables reported lower levels of pain, anger, and psychological distress (Carson, Keefe,Goli, Fras, Lynch, Thorp, & Buechler, 2005).
As David Whyte said “All intimate relationships—close friendships and good marriages—are based on continued and mutual forgiveness. You will always trespass upon your friend’s sensibilities at one time or another, or your spouse’s. The only question is, Will you forgive the other person? And more importantly, Will you forgive yourself?”
So what does it take for us to forgive and what holds us back?
- Is it pride?
- Not wanting to deal with uncomfortable feelings?
- Not having to look within?
- Is it to you to be right instead of resolving a conflict?
Forgiving someone who has truly hurt or upset you is easier said then done. But considering the harming effect holding onto anger has on your physical and emotional health you may realise that there are no benefits to refraining from letting go.
Forgiving does not mean that you are condoning the other person’s harming behaviour towards you but it puts the control back with you and enables you to step out of the victim’s role. As Deutsch (2014) states: “Nursing hate keeps the injury alive and active in the present, instead of permitting it to take its proper place in the past” (p. 49).
Steps you can take:
- Accepting what has happened and that it cannot be undone.
- Acknowledge your hurt, anger or any underlying feeling that has been triggered within you.
- Express your feelings through journal writing, drawing or talking to a friend or counselor.
When you are ready and it is an unjust but safe situation speak to the person who has offended you. Try to use I-statements to inform the other person that their behaviour has caused you anger or pain.
If you can, emphasize with the other person and where they were coming from. That doesn’t mean you are justifying their behaviour but it may help you understand it. (Having said that there are transgressions where forgiveness is unrealistic and may put survivors at risk. In these situations it is more appropriate to find ways of drawing a line over the event so it no longer takes up most of their energy.)
Consciously choosing to forgive also doesn’t mean that you are trusting the person who offended you again or waiting for an apology because you may never get it. When you’re waiting for someone else to act, you are giving away your power and sense of control. Letting go of the grudge is about looking after your own health and well-being. Forgiving releases anger, pain, resentment and thoughts of revenge that keep you stuck in the past.
Carson, J. W., Keefe, F. J., Goli, V., Fras, A. M., Lynch, T. R., Thorp, S. R., & Buechler, J. L. (2005). Forgiveness and chronic low back pain: A preliminary study examining the relationship of forgiveness to pain, anger, and psychological distress. The Journal of Pain, 6(2), 84-91.
Deutsch, M., Coleman, P. T. & Marcus. E. C. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. (3rd edn.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley.
Witvliet, C. V. O., Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12(2), 117-123.
Lawler-Row, K. A., Karremans, J. C., Scott, C., Edlis-Matityahou, M., & Edwards, L. (2008). Forgiveness, physiological reactivity and health: The role of anger. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 68(1), 51-58.