The anger radiated from him in waves. It was almost visible. An inappropriate thought made its cheeky presence felt, and I struggled to keep it hidden momentarily. I imagined him as a cartoon character: clouds of steam spurting from ears and nostrils, surrounded by thick black smoke radiating away from him in waves. This man was angry – and with good reason. A so-called friend, taking advantage of his trusting good nature, had cheated him of his life savings.
“What about forgiving him?” I asked, holding my breath in case he exploded. He looked at me like I was crazy.
“Forgive him? After what he did to me? You’ve got to be kidding!” he exclaimed in angry disbelief.
“Actually, forgiveness is your gift to yourself,” I told him. “Think about it.”
The Physiology Of Forgiveness
Researchers have long suspected that holding onto anger and unforgiveness has negative impacts on a person’s physical health, and as it turns out, they were right. Hanging onto anger and unforgiveness affects us in many ways, and the longer we live in this state, the more likely we are to suffer from chronic diseases. Our bodies are not designed to live under these conditions in the long – term. Indeed, forgiveness is your gift to yourself – for your health’s sake, if not for other reasons.
- Anger produces stress hormones, among them adrenaline – which is great for a quick “fight or flight” response. But living in a state of high adrenaline for long periods of time can lead to chronic stress, which has negative implications for most systems of the body. Adrenaline particularly affects the cardiovascular and respiratory systems as the heart works harder, and the lungs work harder in response to the stress situation.
- High levels of cortisol are also associated with the chronic stress caused by anger and unforgiveness. Over time, too much of this hormone in the body can lead to chronic health problems such as diabetes, obesity, suppression of the immune system, a decrease in libido, and an increase in blood pressure and blood sugar.
- Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline in its task: it stimulates and arouses when there is danger. But it tends to linger in the body, and when released as a response to anger, it can take several hours to a couple of days before the body returns to its normal resting state. When someone is experiencing anger on a regular basis due to unforgiveness, it makes it very hard for the body to ever be completely at rest. Needless to say, this is not good for long-term health and well-being.
- Mental health suffers as the enjoyment of the present moment is eclipsed by negative feelings and memories from the past.
- A person who is holding onto anger and unforgiveness is more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
- Unforgiveness often produces feelings of hopelessness and despair, and people are more likely to become socially isolated, fearful, and lose relationships.
- People who hold onto spiritual beliefs and are in a state of unforgiveness often feel that they are not living up to what they believe.
What Is Forgiveness, Anyway?
Many people struggle with exactly what defines forgiveness. It’s natural to think that forgiveness is allowing the offender to “get away with it” and that he or she should pay. But the reality is, the one who is paying is the one who is carrying a grudge. In many cases, the offender is long gone from the scene of the crime. The victim is the one left to pick up the pieces – but moving on is impossible without forgiveness. Valarie Harper defines forgiveness this way:
Forgiveness is giving up the wish that things could be different.
Forgiveness Is Your Gift To Yourself
Forgiveness is not about denying that wrongdoing occurred. It is not about excusing the offender or accepting the wrong as right. Forgiveness IS about letting go of the past in order to make the most of the future. All too many lives are blighted by unforgiveness and fail to reach their full potential. Ask yourself how you want to spend the rest of your days – being all you can be, making the most of what life can offer? Or would you rather spend it in a prison house of anger – and potentially miss the best of the future?
When you can see that forgiveness is your gift to yourself, letting go of past hurts takes on a new purpose. It becomes a journey that you are on – a path that takes you from the misery of the here and now to something better in the future. Use it to plant hope in your heart – hope that you can be happy again, enjoy life, and find meaning and purpose in your existence. Remind yourself that the offender has no right to control your future, and doesn’t deserve the space in your mind. Nor does he/she have the right to the time and energy spent on anger and unforgiveness. There are plenty of other things you can do with it! Also, remember that you are the only one who can evict the wrongdoer from your mental space – take control and refuse to allow the past to define the present.
What About When The Offender Is Me?
Sometimes, it just so happens that I am my own worst critic. Or perhaps I just can’t get past something that I’ve done that has hurt someone else. The other person might have forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself. How do I deal with me?
If this sounds like you, the solution applies to you even more: forgiveness is your gift to yourself.
- Identify critical self-talk, and take decisive action to replace it with positive thoughts. If you need to, place visual reminders where you can see them. There is enough negativity in the world without us beating ourselves up – learn to be your own best cheer squad.
- Don’t confuse something you did with who you are – be specific about what it is that needs forgiveness. Being obese, handicapped or not good at sports is who you are. Treating someone unkindly for being one of those things is what you do. Make sure it is your actions you are judging, not the person you are.
- Recognize that forgiving yourself doesn’t mean that you are accepting something you did is right. You’re not letting yourself “get away with it.” At the same time, you need to be careful that you aren’t using your hurt and resentment as a wall to keep others away. Ask yourself why you are hanging onto pain and anger at yourself. Is it a defence mechanism against further hurt?
- Acknowledge the emotions that go with the source of your guilt and anger, and release them. Tell your body that you are letting go of anger, resentment, self-criticism, and fear.
- Reframe your perception of the thing that you did, whether it was something that hurt someone or something stupid that embarrassed you. Rather than allowing it to define who you now are, see it as a stepping stone in your journey, and learn from it.
- Retain the lesson you learned from this experience, but let go of the emotions that are hurting you, and avoid recalling memories that bring these emotions back.
- Remember that forgiveness is your gift to yourself.
Pain With Purpose
Your pain doesn’t have to be without a purpose. Once you are free of unforgiveness, you can use it to help others. Many people are suffering from the wrongdoing inflicted by others, and many don’t really know what to do about it. Use your story to inspire others, so that they too can be set free. Show them that forgiveness is your gift to yourself, and help them to believe that they can also receive this gift. Use your story to bring healing and a caring touch to someone else’s story.