Why Learning to Forgive is Important to Your Health

Stacked rocks; Why Learning to Forgive is Important to Your HealthMADISON - Parents often teach their children to say, "I'm sorry" when they've done something wrong, but they don't necessarily teach them how to forgive, or what that actually means.


At a recent Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Advisory Group (PHOAG) meeting, Gayle Reed, RN, PhD, adjunct professor with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, shared why it is important to truly forgive, and how not forgiving can have a negative impact on one's overall health.


Reed, who is also a personal counselor with Forgiveness Recovery, LLC, described how research from the University of Wisconsin has shown that internalizing, or holding on to, hurt and resentment can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress, increased anger, anxiety, illness, drug and alcohol abuse, sleep- and even eating disorders.  But the challenge, she said, is that simply saying "I forgive you" isn't enough. True healing can come only when a person has committed to the process of forgiving.


"Forgiving is a response to a moral injustice," said Dr. Reed. She continued by explaining that the wrong a person experienced could have happened years ago, and perhaps not even to the individual him- or herself. "You may hold anger when someone you love has been wronged," she added.


There can often be barriers to forgiveness, including family or group pressure to make forgiving obligatory - something one has to do - to confusing forgiveness with denying or minimizing the wrongdoing. It's not about forgetting the wrong, or condoning it by saying it was just one time, or even seeking compensation for the wrong.


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"It can feel like we'll let the person off the hook if we forgive them," explained Dr. Reed. "But, forgiveness is not about making the other person aware of their wrong."


True forgiveness is freely given - reaching a point emotionally and even spiritually where one can let go and show the wrong-doer compassion and love. And ultimately, it is recognizing the intrinsic value of the other - their human worth.


"It's about moral love," said Dr. Reed. "I may not need to like you, but I love you and want the best for you as a fellow human being."


She was quick to point out that the act of forgiving does not even have to occur with the wrong-doer's knowledge or presence.  They don't even have to be alive.


"A person who was wronged in childhood can still work through the forgiveness process, even if the individual that caused the hurt is no longer living," Dr. Reed said.


Dr. Reed cautioned that the process of forgiving doesn't happen overnight, and may in fact take a few years. While the process varies from person to person, there are four essential phases:


The Uncovering Phase


It's natural to experience anger when a person feels he or she has been hurt.


"Good anger can be a motivator," said Dr. Reed. "We can't change what happened, but can change how we deal with it."


According to Dr. Reed, during the uncovering phase a person recognizes he or she has been hurt and next has to decide what to do about it.


The Decision Phase


During the decision phase, a person has a change of heart and commits to a process of forgiving.


"This is the phase when a person starts to look for the individual they're going to become," said Dr. Reed.


Work Phase


During the work phase, a person begins to "bear and grieve the pain," explained Dr. Reed. She likened the process to facing waves.


"Pain is like a wave," she said. "If you stand and plant your feet, it can wash over you and dissipate."


It is also during this phase that a person can begin to reframe the wrong and look at the bigger picture.


"You begin to recognize [the wrong-doer's] humanness while also recognizing they're culpable for the pain they caused," explained Dr. Reed.


Eventually, towards the end of the work phase, an individual is able to let go of his or her pain and begin to feel empathy, and even compassion for the wrong-doer. And, while holding goodwill towards the other person is an important step in the process, that doesn't necessarily lead to reconciliation with the other.


"Forgiveness is not reconciliation," clarified Dr. Reed, "While reconciliation is a goal of forgiveness, you're not in charge of the other person's response."


She continued to explain that true reconciliation is when both parties come together out of mutual respect for one another. And it may not be possible for a variety of reasons.


"Sometimes, you can simply pray or meditate and hold good thoughts about the person," said Dr. Reed. "Perhaps it is even indirect, such as speaking well of the individual in social circles, for example."


Discovery or Deepening Phase


During this phase, a person may actually start to find meaning in the suffering he or she faced. Sometimes, individuals may even find a new or renewed sense of purpose or calling in life. This could apply, for example, to a domestic abuse victim who goes on to counsel other victims.


"Forgiveness works because we're no longer a prisoner of the past," Dr. Reed concluded. "Through the act of forgiving others, we actually heal ourselves."


For individuals interested in exploring the process of forgiveness, and for parents wanting to teach their children about the concepts, Dr. Reed recommended two books by Robert E. Enright, Rising Above the Storm Clouds: What It's Like to Forgive and Forgiveness is a Choice. Social workers, counselors, members of the clergy and chaplains are also valuable resources.




Date Published: 10/27/2010

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