What is the impact of forgiveness on ourselves or others? How do we forgive when there is no apology or amends? How do we open our hearts to forgive when we are still in pain?  Where does forgiveness come in when the harm is still being done? Does forgiveness change behaviors? Does forgiveness provide relief to pain? How does forgiveness impact our lives? These are the questions that provide a platform to study forgiveness. 

The common definition of forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a person changes feelings and attitudes regarding an offense; letting go of negative emotions such as anger, resentment, vengefulness or desire to punish the offender, although it’s justified; and then replacing those emotions with compassion, love and positive regard. It does not equate to condoning or excusing behavior. Forgiveness requires gratitude and compassion.  

The Stanford University Forgiveness Project’s study defines forgiveness as primarily of taking less personal offense, reducing anger and blaming of the offender, and developing an increased understanding of situations that lead to hurt and anger. This understanding may lead to greater empathy. Forgiveness is not granted because a person deserves to be forgiven, instead, it is an act of love, mercy, and grace. 

According to the Greater Good Science at UC Berkeley, forgiveness provides a healthy physiological, emotional, psychological and spiritual impact contrasting with the harmful effects aligned with being unforgiving of others, which include depression, high blood pressure, muscle tension and an increased heart rate. Our ability to enjoy and be present in the moment is an outcome of forgiveness, while unforgiving practices can reduce confidence, comfort and lower self-esteem. Possessing the strength and willpower to embrace forgiveness will not only reduce these harmful traits, it can also create a renewed sense of hope, inner peace, gratitude and happiness. 

There are three kinds of forgiveness that are all interrelated. There is self-forgiveness, which enables us to release our guilt and perfectionism. There is the forgiveness we extend to others and receive from them. And there is the forgiveness of God or our higher power or our universe that assures us of our worth and strengthens us for this practice.

All the spiritual traditions raise up the value of forgiveness, but many people still find it to be a nearly impossible ideal. Just start somewhere. Look truthfully at one hurt you have not been able to forgive. Identify any associated feelings you might have, such as anger, denial, guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Imagine what it would be like to live without feeling this offense. Then let it go.

According to Web MD your heart health and mental health may depend on your ability to reduce hurt and anger at yourself. The significant impact of the health benefits of forgiveness led Stanford University Forgiveness Project to look at how we can teach it as a practice, rather than a concept. The project is currently undertaking a study to learn how forgiveness can enhance health and relationships and even prevent disease. Part of that study has found that we forgive others with greater ease than we forgive ourselves. I speculate that until we master self-forgiveness, authentic and complete forgiveness of others cannot occur, thus anger still lingers underneath our conscious awareness. According to Juliana Breines, PhD, from Brandeis University, the lack of self-forgiveness is linked with suicide attempts, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse. Self-forgiveness and learning the practice of self-forgiveness may be the cornerstone to lasting personal wellness. 

So how do we forgive ourselves or others? Dr. Frederic Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, has identified four stages to forgiveness. 

Stage One: We recognize we feel self-justified anger. We may feel wounded or convinced that the offense is so great that it does not deserve a pardon. At this stage there usually is both active and submerged anger, as well as a great deal of pain.

Stage Two: We realize that our hurt and anger does not feel good and may be causing health and life balance challenges You may wish to repair the damage to the relationship and take steps toward forgiveness. You no longer feel activated by anger. This process of forgiveness can be applied to anger at oneself or others. 

Stage Three: As we start to experience the results of forgiveness – less stress, hurt and pain; we choose to let go of a new grievance more rapidly. In this stage, you choose to feel the hurt for a shorter period and then work to either repair the relationship or not see the situation as a problem. In either case, you are aware that you control the time and energy spent on the grievance and you decide to forgive because you have had more practice with it and see the clear benefit in your life. 

Stage Four: The fourth stage of forgiveness involves the choice to reframe the world and your experiences. You prepare to forgive in advance of a trigger such as anger or pain. You recognize that your time in anger may be wasted time or have a negative impact on your health and wellness. You recognize that you can forgive yourself, others, your circumstances and God. 

Much like playing piano or baseball, forgiveness takes practice. It takes mindful awareness of identifying a grievance and chosing your response. It requires self-reflection, observation and gratitude. It is a practice, that like exercise or healthy eating, will have a positive effect on your health and wellness. It is worth the effort and self-forgiveness is where it starts. 

Forgiveness does not require an apology or amends. It is ours to provide and practice.  Forgiveness changes our behavior and it has the potential to change a situation that harms, into a response that increases our self-esteem, improves our physical health and opens the door to overall wellness.

Contributed by Patty Blum PhD, CPRP, Crestwood Executive Vice President