Benefits and barriers of forgiveness

Forgiveness is good for your mental and physical health.

A person with long brown hair and a white shirt holding their hands over their heart.

Did you know that forgiveness can improve your mental and physical health? Research on the aspects of forgiveness can provide help for managing our relationships. Dr. Fred Luskin, author of "Forgive For Good" and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, suggests that forgiveness can improve your mental and physical health. It is about healing yourself and turning your attention away from the offender. Luskin states that forgiveness can reduce depression and increase hopefulness. Moreover, forgiveness is a choice, and forgiving is a skill that anyone can learn.

People can practice forgiveness in everyday occurrences. For example, people forgive when someone is late, did not change the toilet paper roll or forgot to take out the garbage. Instead of taking it personally and holding a grudge, forgiving people realize that no one is perfect. They also remind themselves that in some instances, others may not always have their best interest at heart, and the other way around.  

There are barriers to forgiveness. Sometimes people are not ready to forgive because they fear being hurt again. It can be helpful to consider the benefits of forgiveness and realize those benefits are for you, not for someone else. Forgiveness does not mean condoning another’s bad behavior. You can still hold people accountable for their actions and forgive them. Another barrier is self-protection. You have the right to set and enforce boundaries in your relationships to avoid being hurt. You may even decide to end a relationship with someone who has offended you. In addition, sometimes people choose not to forgive because they are worried about the perception of looking weak. Surrounding yourself with positive friends, family and colleagues can help you create or regain your positive sense of self.

Some common myths about forgiveness include that forgiving means you cannot get angry, or you just need to forget about it. Researchers Fabiansson and Denson explain that how angry you get when you remember a past anger-inducing event can depend on how you process it. If you do not take the time to regulate angry emotions when they occur, it can lead to violence, social dysfunction, and poor mental and physical health. These consequences of unregulated anger can interfere with the process of forgiveness.

Fabiansson and Denson also describe three different ways people process anger events: cognitive reappraisal, analytical rumination and anger rumination. Cognitive reappraisal involves using the reasoning part of your brain to reframe an event by considering the facts, instead of the emotions surrounding the event. Rumination refers to repetitive or ongoing negative thoughts. Analytical rumination is working to find the meaning of an anger event by considering causes and consequences, without involving intense emotions. Both cognitive reappraisal and analytical rumination help to decrease anger and physical stress responses, like high blood pressure, and can increase self-regulation.

Anger rumination is the third type of anger event processing. Anger rumination refers to keeping a continuing focus on negative, distressing, and angry emotions as well as harboring thoughts of revenge. Compared to analytical rumination, anger rumination leads to more anger outbursts, aggression and negative physical responses. Therefore, anger rumination also interferes with the process of forgiveness of self and others.

You can move closer to becoming a more forgiving person by considering how you process anger events. By practicing rethinking (cognitive reappraisal) and considering causes and consequences (analytical rumination), you can create a calm space that will help you to reduce your anger and improve your mental and physical well-being. Other useful ways to work on forgiveness include finding healthy ways to release intense negative feelings, such as practicing mindfulness, daily physical exercise, journaling, counseling, classes or group support.

Beginning a journey of forgiveness starts with small steps and can take a long time. Only you can decide if or when you start on a path to forgiveness. If you decide to begin, remind yourself that forgiveness is for only you and it is well worth your improved mental and physical health. In “The Book of Forgiving” by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, they share this: “Until we forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.”

Michigan State University Extension has classes to help you learn skills for dealing with anger and stress which can help you on your forgiveness journey. Consider signing up for RELAX: Alternatives to Anger and any Mindfulness for Better Living program, available online and for no cost.

Did you find this article useful?