In Part One of this three-part series, we explored what forgiveness means. In doing so, we also cleared up some misconceptions about forgiveness as well as separated it from reconciliation. Now that we have identified what it means, let’s explore the number of potential benefits to forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t excuse their behavior. Forgiveness prevents their behavior from destroying your heart” (author unknown).
Remember, forgiveness is about you, not the offender. Forgiveness can impact us emotionally and physically. There are relational benefits as well, but because those are often associated with reconciliation we will not address them in this series.
Groups such as college students, men, women, the elderly, survivors of sexual abuse, and veterans of war have all been studied in order to identify the positive effects of forgiveness. The most significant benefits seem to involve our personal, emotional experiences. Those include:
- Increased hope
- Increased self-esteem
- Decreased feelings of depression
- Decreased feelings of anxiety
- Decreased negative emotions such as anger, bitterness, and resentment
- Decreased tendency to project anger onto others
- Positive attitude towards self
- Increased optimism
- Enhanced sense of well-being
An enhanced well-being has important consequences. It can lead to a greater sense of confidence and competence. Among other benefits, we can have a better sense of personal boundaries. In addition, we become more effective problem solvers because we are more capable of assessing challenges and implementing effective coping strategies. These strategies include taking personal responsibility, seeking accurate information about identified problems, developing action plans for solving problems, having an optimistic view of our problem-solving abilities, and feeling more personal control.
Research also identifies some potential costs to unforgiveness. These include:
- Increased levels of aggression
- Excessive feelings of defensiveness and blame
- Decreased ability to recognize our own flaws and limitations
- Decreased self-acceptance
- Decreased sense of purpose
Our body tends to respond physically to these negative emotions by activating our sympathetic nervous system. Heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol production increase. In addition, insulin production increases while digestive activity decreases. When we chronically ruminate about past hurts, we risk long-term exposure to these changes. This can lead to problems with our physical health or aggravate already existing conditions.
Studies have compared people who had forgiven past hurts to those that still held on to strong feelings of unforgiveness. The results are interesting. Overall, it seems that those who struggle with forgiveness are more likely to experience weakened immunological and cardiovascular functioning. This is understandable, given the impact that emotional states like anger can have on things such as cortisol production and blood pressure. On the contrary, some of the characteristics of those who practice forgiveness include:
- Lower heart rate
- Lower blood pressure
- Less reported symptoms of physical illness
- Less medications for somatic symptoms and illness
- Lower levels of fatigue
- Better sleep quality
Let me be clear here. Forgiveness does not guarantee the presence of these benefits. Many things influence our physical health. However, research does indicate that our willingness to forgive can increase the likelihood of their presence. These beneficial symptoms were found in a wide variety of people, indicating that their presence can be explained by more than just age and lifestyle.
Perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t ever think about those past events anymore.” Simply not thinking about the past is not the same as forgiveness. Those past experiences can still significantly impact our view of self and others. Consider the following illustration.
Right now, your current focus is reading this article on your computer. However, there are other programs running in the background, such as antivirus software, email programs, etc. You are less aware of them, but they affect the performance of your device, especially the more you have open and running. Have you ever felt frustrated with your computer’s speed and fixed it by closing other open programs? As you close those programs, your computer becomes more responsive.
We operate in a similar way. Just because we are not always thinking of the past, its impact is still there. It does affect our performance. As we work towards forgiveness, we effectively “shut down” those past hurts. Like your computer, we then run more effectively and efficiently. The emotional and physical benefits we discussed earlier begin to surface.
I hope this has helped provided some insight – and even incentive – for working on areas of forgiveness in your life. As you can see, it can make a significant impact. In Part Three, we will examine some steps you can take towards achieving forgiveness.