4 Reasons Why Forgiveness is Worth It
It’s Monday morning. Time for blueberry pancakes with my ex-husband.
He is my ex-husband because, after 43 years of marriage, he dumped me for some miscreant he lives with (sorry). He brings the pancakes, steaming with hot berries and dripping butter and syrup. We talk about our weeks. We notice new things about each other.
Some of you may be thinking, “Girl, what the hell are you doing?”
I’m walking the long road toward forgiving him.
As a psychologist, I know the research.
Why am I learning to forgive him?
Because I can’t afford not to.
Psychologists define forgiveness as the conscious, deliberate choice to let go of anger and vengeance toward a group or person who has harmed you, whether or not they deserve it.
1. Forgiveness is good for you.
People who forgive are more satisfied with their lives. They have lower levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD than people who don’t. Holding on to grudges is bad for the immune system. People tend to feel more relieved and positive about the future when they forgive. This seems to be something we know, even if we can’t do it.
In fact, in a study by the Fetzer Foundation, 62% of Americans say they need more forgiveness in their lives. And 82% wished for more in their communities, with 90% feeling that there needed to be more forgiveness in the United States, and the world in general.
The burden of anger is like a shroud that obscures our access to the healthy, happier parts of our lives.
All of those things “that are protective” happen over the long term. Feeling hot, crazy, angry can feel pretty good in the short run. When I was breaking dishes or writing explosive e-mails that, fortunately, never saw the light of day, I felt momentarily powerful.
My rage empowered me, but it never lasted. And it always kicked me back. It was as if I were re-living it all. Like I was somehow adding misery to pain I already felt, and didn’t deserve. It was exhausting. And it was like I was standing in place, stuck to the floor.
Forgiveness is about letting go of the weight of anger, resentment, victimhood.
It is much more about the forgiver than the forgiven.
Over time, you can mentally separate the fact that your anger is righteous from the power surge that smacks you every time and ends up smacking you down. You can continue to see things as wrong, and mean, and rotten and but not have to feel them.
You do it because it’s better for you, not necessarily for them. You can forgive someone who didn’t even ask for it. If it’s hurting you, let it go.
In my practice as a therapist, it was clear to me that it was easier for people to forgive if they themselves had the experience of being forgiven. This has deep roots in childhood, when we constantly transgress, break, speak impulsively, are total screw-ups and ingrates.
Parents differ wildly in their ability to take these things in stride, to avoid personalizing them, to correct, and then forgive them. If you don’t have that experience or example, forgiveness will be harder.
2. You don’t have to be a saint or a sucker.
If I had to wait until I stopped having angry or hurt FEELINGS towards the person who wronged me, I’d be howling in a cave somewhere. When my husband betrayed me, he inflicted pain so deep, so excruciating, that it will leave a permanent lifelong brand. Three years ago, it was a gaping, searing wound. Today, the scar tissue is forming and I don’t wake up each day in pain.
Forgiveness can take us to a sense of control in a situation in which everything was out of our control.
Powerlessness is such a flattening feeling. It can creep into other areas of yourself, unannounced and uninvited. When we think about forgiveness, we call the shots. We are no longer the victims.
Charles Enright, a researcher on the steps to attain forgiveness, includes two ideas that are important. The first is to truly become able to tolerate the pain that person has caused you. You can’t forgive someone for pain you haven’t confronted yet.
The other one, that hit me really hard, is to develop empathy for the other person and the context in which they hurt you. Having a sense of the “person” who hurt you can enhance forgiveness. The first time I read that, I did a, “Yeah, right.”
However, there is research that people who are given a hypothetical situation in which they were wronged differed in the degree to which they could resolve the situation. Those who did it to their satisfaction had higher levels of activity in the neural circuits in the brain that are associated with empathy.
3. Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. You decide.
You can forgive someone and be ready to do the work of mending a relationship that seems salvageable. We hurt each other all the time, and in many instances, we find a way to come back together, to heal wounds that could have separated us for good.
Sometimes the relationship takes a different form. There are times when you were really hurt, but you and the person had the wish and the guts to address it. Believe it or not, but that can actually lead to a deepening of the relationship.
In many other situations, you can forgive and never see the person again. That’s it. Sometimes people think that forgiveness is a matter of accepting someone’s apology and saying, “Oh, OK, you’re forgiven. Now it’s back to normal.” No! “Normal” took a left turn the moment you were hurt.
We don’t just snap back like rubber bands, to the same place we were when we were injured. Whatever the injury was that hurt us so much, our emotional landscape has been changed, and we get to decide whether we want that person back in our lives or not, and under what conditions.
There are situations in which a person is better off holding onto some of the anger. Sexual abuse, for example, is an example of an assault in which some people do better when they hang on to some of their anger. There are things that are unforgivable and to labor under the illusion that we should “rise above” all transgressions is a crock.
4. Forgive and forget. Holding a grudge.
I can remember Jimmy Shea smacking me down to the mud in third grade. I haven’t forgiven him. Who cares? He doesn’t occupy much space in my head. But I can remember the humiliation I felt in front of the other kids. I recall the way he made me feel: shocked, frightened, and victimized.
That stays with me, probably because it is my earliest memory of someone hurting me. His recognition of my tearful response added insult to injury, when he loudly called me a “baby.” He never apologized. I fantasized about how I could hurt him back. It was a prototype for all of those kinds of situations to come.
Jimmy Shea has a proper place in my “Deserves nothing but contempt” category. But now, years later, he is probably a priest, or a volunteer in Sudan, which makes me feel ridiculous and petty. But we always remember our first.
We remember things that have strong emotional weight for us. You can choose to forgive the person who caused you pain, without forgetting what those things were. Forgetting is what protects us from repeating the same patterns. You can be vigilant for those signs that warn you to proceed cautiously. If you choose to keep that person in your life, remember one of the things my graduate research professor constantly said,
“The best predictor of the future is the past.”
There are times when another person hurts us, and it is an aberration. It’s not consistent with what we’ve known of them. But other people pop back up with more hurt and pleas for third and fourth chances. Go ahead and forgive… but you’re a fool if you forget.
How it goes in my real life
My husband’s infidelity is the worst betrayal I have known. It happened after a lifetime’s marriage. My whole life is forever changed. That is his responsibility. I will never be willing to take him back. But I have sorted out how to salvage the good parts of our relationship that I refuse to give up. I claim them as mine. No more, no less.
I have slowly unburdened myself of the screaming heartache and explosive anger. It has helped me to allow him into my life. I have come to some understanding of the context of our break-up. I am forgiving him. But in the middle of the night, when my hand brushes the empty side of the bed, I remember how hard that is. And I register the amount of effort it takes.
I remind myself that forgiveness is a process, not an event.
It’s a journey, not necessarily a destination. And it’s always a lot easier when I let down some of the heaviest baggage that weighs me down. And I leave it by the side of the road.