Forgiveness is a active process, and it’s something we do internally. It usually includes the external goal of restoring connection in a relationship, but it is not limited to this. Forgiveness as a process involves allowing yourself to feel the negative emotions you have towards an offense, and really putting the wrong into words in a congruent and authentic truthful way. Requisite to the process is the release of these cognitions and emotions, actively choosing to let them go and replace them with peace, empathy and compassion. Forgiveness is first cognitive, then emotional. When someone truly forgives they no longer experience negative feelings towards the person or situation.
“People, on rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the harmful act or acts, has no right)” (Enright, 2015).
There are two types of forgiveness.
Decisional forgiveness: the experience of granting forgiveness without eliminating the emotion, but in this, resentment may continue. It involves a cognitive model where a person might make the decision to forgive, but fail to process the emotional aspect of forgiveness.
Emotional forgiveness: The offended person demonstrates a shift in emotion and motivation toward the offending person.
Both are necessary to complete the act of forgiveness.
Several studies have shown that:
Decisional forgiveness can reduce hostility, but it is only marginally effective in improving stress levels or emotional health (Elliot 2010 citing Baskin and Enright 2004, Worthington 2007). This means that decisional forgiveness combined with emotional forgiveness is the true goal of forgiving.
Why should we care about forgiveness?
Forgiveness isn’t merely a moral duty or a “nice thing to do.” Forgiveness has consequences to human health that have been researched, and the act of forgiving can bring about real change in experiencing long-term physical health.
Here are the studies:
People who live with depression and a history of maltreatment have an upregulation of their inflammatory response compared to those with no history of maltreatment (Danese et al. 2007 as cited by Elliot 2010)
Unforgiveness is reflected in specific cortisol levels, adrenaline production, and cytokine balance (Elliot 2010 citing Worthington 2005)
Cause-effect relationship between pain and anger is similar to the anger-depression relationship. some studies show that just the anticipation of pain is associated with anger. (Okifuji 1999)
Chronic pain often arises from injury, or accident, thus anger is directed usually at the one responsible, or oneself. (Greenwood 2003)
General intensity of anger is important, but also specific targets of anger seem to be essential factors in understanding adaptation to chronic pain. Some research has shown that inward anger is more common in those with chronic pain vs. those individuals with different targets of anger. A study using the MPI (multidimensional pain inventory- a 60-item self-reported inventory to assess different aspects of chronic pain) showed that 88 people endorsed anger at themselves and scored 0.38 on the anger inventory. Those that endorsed anger at other targets all scored below 0.30. Anger should be viewed as a multifactorial construct in chronic pain. (Okifuji 1999)
What is bitterness?
When someone continues to hold on to unforgiveness, they can become what we would call “bitter.” Bitter people are exactly like that word describes—so steeped in resentment that they become unpalatable.
Clues that someone may be bitter:
Do they continually replay past hurts over and over?
Do they hold onto the pain?
Do they try to avoid someone?
Do they quickly get angry with someone?
Do they speak unkindly or verbally malign someone?
Do they find that their bitterness is more associated with the proximity of the person who wronged them than the magnitude of the event?
What percent of their emotional energy is spent on this topic?
* Recurrent resentment affects all relationships and takes up room in one’s emotional life.
What does the research say about bitterness?
Ten years or more after a divorce, ½ of women and ⅓ of men are still intensely angry at their former spouses, and anger becomes an ongoing, dominant presence in their children as well (Wallerstein).
Forgiving people have been found to have lower blood pressure at baseline. (Larsen 2012)
“Recalled experiences of betrayal that were less forgiven were associated with greater cardiovascular reactivity as indexed by greater diastolic blood pressure, mean arterial pressure, and rate-pressure product…higher trait forgiveness was negatively associated with lower resting blood pressure and better post-stress recovery.” (Lawler 2005 citing Lawler 2003)
Those who measured high in hostility, 20-25 years later, had higher rates of heart disease (Shekelle 1983, Barefoot 1983).
When discussing the narrative of injustice, those who understood forgiveness showed fewer angry expressions (Tina Huang, “Cross-Cultural and Real-Life Validation”).
The positive effects of forgiving.
Changes anxiety into inner peace and reduces symptoms of depression, anger, and paranoia (Dr. R. C. Hunter, 1978).
Genuine acts of forgiveness lead to an overall improvement in the person’s emotional maturity and increase the capacities for courage, nurturance of others, and love (Dr. Morton Kaufman “The courage to forgive” 1984).
Reduces fear. Impulses of anger and revenge subside and are replaced by more appropriate expressions of anger (Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons).
Hypertension may be reduced (Huang 1990).
Patients with fibromyalgia who were taught forgiveness education had a significant decrease in symptoms (Lee, 2014).
Incest survivors showed significant improvement after a 1-year forgiveness education process (Robert Enright, 1994, 1995).
A study that looked at 20 psychologically abused and divorced women, some who had remarried and some who had not. All participants who scored above 41 on the Psychological Abuse Survey were considered indicative of a present and severe pattern of emotional abuse randomized between forgiveness therapy (FT: based on the Enright model) with an alternative treatment (AT: anger validation, assertiveness, interpersonal skill building). The study found that the FT group showed a greater improvement in forgiveness, self-esteem, state anxiety, trait anxiety, depression, environmental mastery, finding meaning, and post-traumatic stress symptoms all determined by pre-and-post surveys and questionnaires. The FT group had an effect size of 1.79 and represents a shift from below normal levels to normative levels. (Reed 2006)
Some patients highly value their faith in God. God is the author of forgiveness and asking God for the grace to have the willingness to forgive might be key for those of faith. They can give God the opportunity to work in their lives in that way. Some have had powerful forgiveness experiences with God and letting go of bitterness has been transformative. Examples include Corrie Ten Boom, who forgave the Nazis after losing her family in the Holocaust, or Marietta Jaeger who was able to forgive after her daughter was kidnapped and brutally murdered. Not all instances have to do with personal trauma, the point is, anyone can forgive, even when the person who wronged them is unknown or dead.
Enright, Robert D. Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001.
Knight JR, Hugenberger GP. On Forgiveness. Southern Medical Journal. (2007). 100(4):420-421.
Larsen BA, Darby RS, Harris CR, Nelkin DK, Milam PE, Christenfeld NJ. The immediate and delayed cardiovascular benefits of forgiving. Psychosom Med. (2012) Sep;74(7):745-50.
Lawler, K. A., Jarred W. Y., Rachel L. Piferi, Rebecca L. Jobe, Kimberley A. E, and Warren H. J. The Unique Effects of Forgiveness on Health: An Exploration of Pathways. J Behav Med Journal of Behavioral Medicine (2005). 28(2): 157-67. Web.
Lee YR, Enright RD. “A Forgiveness Intervention for Women With Fibromyalgia Who Were Abused in Childhood: A Pilot Study.” Spirituality in Clinical Practice. (2014). 1(3):203–217
Lichtenfeld S, Buechner VL, Maier MA, Fernandez-Capo M. Forgive and Forget: Differences between Decisional and Emotional Forgiveness.PLoS One. (2015) May 6;10(5):e0125561.
Reed GL, Enright RD. The Effects of Forgiveness Therapy on Depression, Anxiety, and Posttraumatic Stress for Women After Spousal Emotional Abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. (2006). 74(5):920 –929.
Strang S., Utikal V., Fischbacher U., Weber B., Falk A. “Neural correlates of receiving an apology and active forgiveness: an fMRI study.” PLoS ONE. 9:e87654 (2014). 10.137.
Witvliet CVO, Phipps KA, Feldman ME. Beckham JC. “Posttraumatic mental and physical health correlates of forgiveness and religious coping in military veterans.” J. Trauma Stress. (2004) 17:269–273.
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