Where to begin in this “new” science of forgiveness that now is in the spot due to the multiple effects that has in people’s life, to start having a deep and powerful reflection, we need to begin with a definition, forgiveness is redirecting your motivations towards a transgressor and letting them go, is dissolving the burden of emotions and feelings toward the person that harm you whether he/she deserves it or not.
I dare to say that all of humanity has suffered at some stage of their lives with the crossroad of forgiveness, we’ve all experienced some hurt from someone and accumulated those negative feelings towards the person, first of all because we firmly believed they did it with the purpose of harming us (that sometimes is too complex finding out that the primary motive was not hurting). From the perspective of religion and just taking some quotes to illustrate some important points we all have read and being motivated to forgive:
Ephesians 4:31-32 (Bible)
“31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice”
“32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”
“Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, But because you deserve peace”
“To understand everything is to forgive everything.”
Yet forgiveness is a lot more easy or complex, depending on your perception to achieve, but for sure the emotions generated by not forgiving are a real poison to ourselves in terms of the chemicals that you release, the incoherence that you generate in your heart and the mental concussion that you have in your mind.
To start going deep I’ll begin talking about the effects of forgiveness and unforgiveness in your body.
Forgiveness and Physical Health.
Forgiveness, as noted, is commonly defined as a reduction of unforgiveness plus an increase of positive states, such as empathy, compassion, or hope (1).
Positive affect may influence health through several different paths: “(a) direct effects of positive affect on physiology, especially the immune system, (b) the information value of emotional experiences, (c) the psychological resources engendered by positive feeling states, (d) the ways in which mood can motivate health-relevant behaviors, and (e) the elicitation of social support” (1).
When we allow ourselves to experience forgiveness, we almost immediately feel a sensation of lightness, a feeling of hope additionally we start seeing life with a greater positive outlook, this feeling as supported by research start releasing powerful chemicals that will inundate your brain such as serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turn will allow to lighten up your prefrontal cortex, seeing things more clearly, generating a feeling of trust in yourself and your ability to overcome challenges and of course as we all have experienced this will generate a positive vibrational state where you will attract and receive support from your social environment.
Fredrickson and Levenson (1998) found that certain positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions in the laboratory setting. Many studies have been conducted examining associations between both positive affect and negative affect with blood markers of immune functioning, especially secretory immunoglobulin A (1).
Developing feelings of empathy for the perpetrator is considered to play a pivotal role in turning the victim away from unforgiveness and beginning the forgiveness process. Empathy involves thinking of the offender’s humanity (rather than defining the person solely in terms of the offense) and trying to understand what factors may have influenced the offending behavior. When victims engage in this sort of perspective taking, the resulting empathic compassion reduces the intense arousal and negative valence of hurts and grudges and introduces more positively valent emotion for the victim. Empathy is also thought to shift victims’ facial expressions and reduce their stress responses in the cardiovascular and sympathetic nervous systems (2).
In addition to what we mention of our emotional outlook, as mentioned above your immune system starts upregulating its function and recovering its homeostasis as when you decide to forgive someone you start generating feelings of compassion, empathy and love that have been proven to lower your cortisol levels allowing the threat or stressful response to diminish or completely shut it down. Meaning all of your functions and organs impacted through the sympathetic nervous system which include the immune functions are reestablished to a normal function. We can also say that developing this kind of feelings positive feelings will even allow you to repair some of the damage produced by the toxic chemicals you were harboring due to unforgiveness, anger and resentment.
Chronic unforgiving, begrudging responses may contribute to adverse health outcomes by perpetuating anger and heightening SNS arousal and cardiovascular reactivity. Expression of anger has been strongly associated with chronically elevated blood pressure and with the aggregation of platelets, which may increase vulnerability for heart disease (2).
Pietrini and colleagues (2004) reported cortical differences between forgiveness and unforgiveness using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). In this regard, this study involved exposure to an actual hurtful event rather than fictional scenarios used in the studies described above. Findings revealed that forgiveness was associated with activation of brain regions involved in emotion regulation and moral judgment, including the MPFC, amygdala, anterior cingulate, and striatum (3).
Your Heart health, your Brain Health as depicted above is being also deteriorated due to unforgiveness and maintaining resentment, grudge and anger inside of you, something that many of us in a more colloquial scenario have experienced.
When we feel that someone hurt us with intention, we start feel a pain in the chest, as if someone was pinching us with a pointed device, it is an acute pain, followed by a feeling of frustration, disempowering feeling hopeless, which you can recognize because you feel tired, your body has move already plenty of its energy supply to defend you from a threat, meaning you start preparing yourself to fight or flight, which is pretty much the next thing you feel, a rising sensation of anger, that of course goes together with an upregulation of your heart beats, additionally your brain starts clouding itself with images of the past where someone else did something similar or something a friend/family member told you it happened to him or her that relates to the event, those events then start recruiting more and more past mind pictures that reinforce your indignation, anger and totally shut down your ability to think or see the things clearly or objectively.
All the events narrated before will trigger a chemical cascade of cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline that will keep the toxic cycle for as long as you keep feeding it with more reasons to support the story that your brain and past memories have created for you.
Careful, I’m not saying at any moment or point that sometimes, bad things happen to everyone of us, and of course during those exact moments is very difficult to find peace, compassion or to empathize with the person that hurt us, moreover if there was an emotional or physical damage tor any of our loved ones or to our integrity.
Nonetheless, maintaining this toxic cycle of negative emotions is clearly supported, researched and pinpointed to let you that the reality is that only one person is losing its health, its peace of mind and even its coherence of the heart, and that person is you. The offender/perpetrator or whatever you want to name it, is sometimes free of the burden of negative emotions, and I here on purpose use “sometimes” because there are some isolated cases where this kind of people have already a brain damage that doesn’t allow them to feel guilt for what they did, and if we are objective with the argument, even if they feel guilt that won’t change the damage that they already did.
All this scientific supporting evidence is there to help you realize that there’s another path for you, for the person that suffered the damage, and for your own sake is the path you should start working on, if you’re still stuck in the negative feelings of unforgiveness or worst you’re still building up resentment towards anyone in your life.
How to walk the path of forgiveness with an enlightened path?
Another great road and polemic path embedded in the concept of forgiveness is of course where and how to begin the healing process?. For that, there’s also supported evidence that will hopefully help you find to start walking the path of forgiveness and alleviating all the negative emotions and toxicity that you probably have been building up for days, months or even years.
Emotion schemes (syntheses of emotion, cognition, motivation, memories, and action tendencies) are formed as the product of learning and experience. Once formed, they produce complex, bodily felt responses that are not the result of purely innate responses to specific cues. Because emotion schemes emerge from one’s lived experience, they may be either adaptive or maladaptive (1).
Forgiveness and unforgiveness are both complex, bodily felt responses. In the feeling of unforgiveness, the cognitive component involves a sense of being unfairly wronged and rightfully deserving of revenge or restitution. There is also an affective component of corrosive anger, a smouldering type of resentment, coupled with feelings of sadness and possibly shame and pain. In contrast, forgiveness reciprocally involves soft affects such as compassion and lovingkindness, and the ability to see and understand the unfolding of events surrounding the injury from the other’s perspective. It involves acceptance of what happened instead of continuing to fight against the unfairness of it and a letting go of the desire to retaliate. Forgiveness involves a giving out of something, sending out positive feelings of compassion, and a feeling with and possibly even for the other person rather than feeling against the other (1).
Putting the evidence in context, when you start working towards forgiveness I would say that the first element to begin is your will to do it, why? Simply because if you’re still ruminating with the fact that you need revenge, with those toxic desires of wishing someone ill or bad, then your mind and body (heart) will be in opposition/contradiction, and the path although it can already be walked it will a lot more harder that if you allow yourself to control your will and really get involved in letting the event or hurt go.
After working with your will and assuming that you really want to engage in the process, we can start building a powerful model towards forgiveness, and we’ll begin trying to gather or assume the possible causes of why the other person did the things, careful that doesn’t mean obsessing yourself with imaginary options or reasons, it just simply means trying to empathize with the offender’s motives to do what he/she did;
Let’s use a trivial example for this step, imagine that your boyfriend cheated on you with your best friend, walking the path of forgiveness (which doesn’t mean getting back with him) would start going back to some things that might trigger the event, if they can be corroborated with him of course they will be more accurate, if not just try to see if you might did something that “pushed” him to do it, please take into account we are not defending or justifying the behavior, we’re jus trying to see the possible real motives, you can also start recalling some of his family background if it was a pattern that he saw in his family or if he suffered an abandonment as a child, etc. Try to narrow your list of possible or real reasons to 3-5 so you don’t fall in an obsessive detective behavior;
Then allow yourself to see those reasons as strong as they were for that person to behave the way he/she did it, again is not about justifying, it’s about understanding, and of course during this step, you might think inside of yourself that those wouldn’t be reasons for you to act in the same manner as he/she did. That’s completely normal and it is also the way our primitive brain works, it works with a defense mechanism, with comparison and it works with excuses. But let’s push harder here and allow our prefrontal cortex, evolved brain, to expand and see the light, see with clarity and with objectiveness the facts. Anyone of us will react identically or will be triggered for the same reasons as we don’t have the same past experiences or environment as the other person, and in some cases it also has to do with a brain chemistry deficiency that triggered the behavior. Once you have achieved empathy by seeing the things objectively and “reasonable” for the other person to do what he/she did then you’re already on the lane of healing, and you will start feeling how the burden starts to dissolve;
Taking that momentum on your favor, you will immediately feel compassion for the person, that many times can be felt at the beginning as pity or sorry for the other person, careful that doesn’t mean letting your ego drive you to feel superior, it only means that might the beginning of how compassion is presenting, to develop let’s say into a mature emotion of compassion you will finally detach your anger, resentment, or revenge feelings and you will start developing love for that person, allowing yourself to find peace within you and almost on the verge of letting go the event, the pain and the hurt;
Now, here it comes the grand finale, after compassion is felt inside of you then it as mentioned above it will followed by love, use that feeling as your primary fuel to let go, to release the event, to fully understand the person’s reasons whether they seemed strong or weak, relate to the bond of energy we all share as human beings and most of all see all the benefits that by this stage you have achieved for yourself, you no longer have negative emotions, you release a huge burden or weight on your shoulders, you were able to prime your brain to see objectively the facts, meaning you will no longer be triggered hopefully by similar events, or at least it will be a lot less powerful those triggers, you will be able to let them pass, without rumination or without feeling related to the event, you will able to repair and recover your inner health and in just a matter of time you will start witnessing that in palpable and visual evidence within yourself and your outlook towards life!
In summary, forgiveness is your gift, is reclaiming your power, is repairing and recovering your health, is giving back the clarity to your brain, is allowing yourself to see life with all the colors that it has, with all the amazing things that you’ve been missing due to the cloudiness inside your brain, is changing your lenses to see the light that you own within, is sparking within you positive emotions, compassion, empathy and love that will not only allow to move from that spot of darkness but they will also perform magic effects within you and for sure they will make you stronger to face any challenge that you might have, because life is not only made of the happy and positive, it is also made of those sour or bitter moments that will create resilience inside of you!! But hopefully if you keep following the path of forgiveness they will become the steps where you will gain momentum to thrive!!
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Everett L. Worthington, Jr., editor. Handbook Of Forgiveness. New York :Routledge, 2005.
Witvliet, C. van O., Ludwig, T. E., & Laan, K. L. V. (2001). Granting Forgiveness or Harboring Grudges: Implications for Emotion, Physiology, and Health. Psychological Science, 12(2), 117–123.
Larkin, K. T., Goulet, C., & Cavanagh, C. (2015). Forgiveness and physiological concomitants and outcomes. In Forgiveness and Health (pp. 61-76). Springer, Dordrecht.