Many years ago, two soldiers were taken prisoner by enemy troops. The soldiers spent years in a tiny cell, where they barely had room to walk. During those years, they became great friends, talking often about their families and supporting each other to survive.
Every so often, one of the guards would take them out of the cell and into an interrogation room, where they sometimes resorted to torture to try to get them to reveal relevant information about their army.
The soldiers never confessed, but they spent hellish years, suffering ridicule and humiliation, in addition to all kinds of shortcomings. That guard had become their worst nightmare.
One fine day, the war between the two countries ended and they were released. The two soldiers gave each other a big hug goodbye and each one took their course.
After ten years, the soldiers met again. One looked visibly recovered, almost happy. The two men caught up on their lives.
However, they couldn’t help but look back on the years they had spent together in captivity. One of them asked:
– Have you forgiven that guard?
– Yes, it cost me, but I have finally managed to turn the page – replied the former soldier who looked happier.
– I couldn’t, I still hold a grudge against him. I will hate him as long as he lives!
– Then he still has you prisoner – his companion only answered sadly.
This story perfectly reflects who is harmed by hatred and resentment. And it shows us how forgiving sets us free.
Anger and resentment turn against those who feel them
Forgiveness. This short word contains all of our inner angels and demons. Unfortunately, its use over the centuries has led to misinterpretations of its meaning, to the point that many people do not even want to hear about its existence.
Those who do not want to learn to forgive react with indignation, rejection and anger at the very idea of forgiveness. Of course, you cannot force anyone to forgive. But anchoring in anger, resentment and rage is not a “punishment” for those who hurt us but for ourselves. Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like holding onto a burning coal with the intention of throwing it at another; but you are the one who burns”.
A meta-analysis of 25 studies conducted at University College London revealed that there is a strong correlation between sustained anger and hostility over time and the risk of heart attacks. These emotions have also been associated with other health problems, such as cancer.
It is not weird. Another study carried out at the University of California in which 332 people were followed for five weeks, found that the level of stress was directly proportional to the amount of resentment and anger, while it decreased when people forgiven.
Another study conducted by these same psychologists with 148 people, found that those who accumulated more life stress had poorer mental health. Interestingly, people who were able to forgive, although they also had difficult experiences, did not have poor mental health. This means that forgiveness is able to erase the negative impact of stress and anguish that some events generate.
Forgiving is not excusing or minimizing the negative act
Many people understand forgiveness as an act by which the harmful event is excused or minimized. Some even think it means forgetting what they have done to us. Nothing is further from reality.
Forgiving exclusively means remembering the offense from a new point of view that does not arouse such negative feelings, freeing the victim in our mind and allowing the damage not to perpetuate within us. Forgiving is not an act of liberation for the one who committed the evil, but for the person who suffered it.
In fact, to forgive it is not even necessary to “reconcile” with the person who hurt us. It is not about becoming friends. Forgiveness is an intimate act that allows us to regain control over our life and well-being that we had lost because we were victims of these negative emotions.
The 6 rules of Forgiveness Therapy
1. Forgiving is not the same as forgetting. Forgiving does not mean forgetting what happened. A person who has been the victim of abuse, who has been abandoned or who has been caused great harm, will not forget what happened and does not need to do so because he or she can use those experiences as “fuel” to build resilience.
2. Forgiving is not minimizing the experience. Forgiving does not mean saying “What happened is fine, it wasn’t so bad after all.” In fact, to forgive it is necessary to assume that what has happened has been terrible and has left us wounded. But it also means letting those wounds heal rather than continually pouring salt on them.
3. Forgiving it is not a sign of weakness. Forgiving is not a sign of weakness, naivety or stupidity, it is a great sign of intelligence and psychological maturity because it means that, despite everything, you have decided to move on, not letting the past determine your future.
4. To forgive it is not necessary for the aggressor to apologize. Aggressors don’t always acknowledge the damage they have caused, but that is no reason to get stuck in hatred. To forgive, you do not need to receive an apology or compensation. Forgiveness is an internal act that benefits ourselves, we do not need the one who hurt us to repent.
5. Forgiveness is a process. Forgiveness is not all or nothing, black or white. It is a process and, like any process, it can have setbacks and ups and downs. From time to time, anger may resurface and we may not be able to fully forgive some damage, but on a scale of 1 to 10, we can approach a 7 or 8, which is sufficient for certain heinous acts.
6. Forgiveness is for your health and well-being. Holding onto anger and resentment is toxic to you. It leads to depression, chronic anger, and bitterness. Forgiving is not an act that you do for the one who hurt you but for your own good. You do not forgive the other to do him or her a favor, but to do a favor to yourself.
The 4 steps of Forgiveness Therapy
When we are unable to forgive a negative event that has happened to us, we begin to nurture feelings of revenge, anger, and emotional pain. Often, a process of victimization is triggered together with ruminative thoughts about the event. Forgiveness Therapy tries to stop this harmful process.
1. Express emotions. Whatever damage has been done to you, you should know that it is perfectly understandable and normal for you to feel bad. You can experience different feelings, from anger to sadness or pain. It is not convenient that you try to repress and hide those feelings but that you express them. What is repressed continues to affect you from the unconscious, generating more suffering and anger.
The empty chair technique is an excellent tool to bring out all those emotions. It consists of sitting in front of an empty chair and imagining that the person who has hurt you is there. Tell him or her everything you want, from the damage he or she has caused you and why, how you feel about it. It is usually a very cathartic technique and, if you have a lot of resentment, you can apply it several times.
2. Understand why. The brain is a control freak, so when we get hurt, we always try to explain it. The problem is that, in many cases, following our reasoning we will not understand it. Sometimes that search for an explanation can turn into an unhealthy process that turns against us.
In many cases, we simply have to accept that there is no explanation beyond chance. There are terrible events that happen because we were at the wrong time in the worst possible place. Accepting that explanation is the first step to closing that dark chapter of our life.
3. Rebuild security. To forgive, you must have a reasonable amount of security, which means knowing that the act will not happen again. Of course, we can never be 100% sure, but if we harbor too much fear, it will be impossible for us to forgive. Sometimes, rebuilding security is not a process that depends on external conditions but on ourselves, and it depends on rebuilding our self-confidence.
4. Let go of. This is usually the most difficult step. It is a decision that must be made consciously and that, in a way, implies promising ourselves that we will not hold a grudge for what happened. That letting go also means abandoning the role of victim and regaining strength. For this, it is essential to let go of the anger that we always keep, to prevent that anger from continuing to exert a harmful influence on our life.
Full forgiveness implies acceptance and understanding
Forgiving is a complex process that demands profound transformations in the conceptions we have about the event. These are important changes that affect both the cognitive and affective areas.
In fact, full forgiveness, according to Bob Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin and one of the first to research forgiveness, does not simply mean turning the page and moving on. It goes much further because it involves viewing the person who harmed us as a multidimensional being whose actions were wrong. Writer Emma Goldman said “before we can forgive each other, we have to understand each other.”
Full forgiveness not only offers emotional reassurance but even understanding towards the person who hurt us. From that point of view, the negative event stops hurting us and we can regain the emotional balance that we had lost before forgiving.
Toussaint, L.L. et. Al. (2016) Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process Study. Ann Behav Med; 50(5): 727-735.
Toussaint, L. et. Al. (2016) Effects of lifetime stress exposure on mental and physical health in young adulthood: How stress degrades and forgiveness protects health. J Health Psychol; 21(6): 1004-1014.
Chida, Y. & Steptoe, A. (2009) The association of anger and hostility with future coronary heart disease: a meta-analytic review of prospective evidence. J Am Coll Cardiol; 53(11): 936-946.
Wade, N. G. (2014) Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: a meta-analysis. J Consult Clin Psychol; 82(1): 154-170.
Reed G. L. & Enright, R. D. (2006) The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. J Consult Clin Psychol; 74(5): 920-929.