The Faces of Forgiveness

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It’s not just important to be willing to forgive. Research suggests that how we go about forgiving matters too, and those who forgive more freely as opposed to conditionally may enjoy better overall health.

It’s simply fundamental to the human condition: we hurt one another. We’re flawed creatures. We inevitably do things that injure. Most of the time it’s unintentional. Sometimes, it’s even intentional. But all of us have our various psychological “issues.” So we hurt others — even those we love.

When we’ve been wounded, especially by someone who matters a lot to us or who we care about, it’s often quite difficult to heal. We build up expectations for those we know and trust, and when they appear to have betrayed us, it can really pierce our heart. That’s when it becomes so important to our emotional and spiritual welfare that we forgive.

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you stop caring about what they did to hurt you or about the lessons you might have learned from the experience. What it does mean, however, is that we choose not to carry the additional weight and emotional torture that goes along with the painful memory. When we hang on to hurt we can give our grudges and hostile feelings new and even more painful “companions.” It’s like pouring salt on a wound. Holding onto all such negative feelings only impedes the healing process. You can’t heal a cut by repeatedly reopening it. Forgiveness provides the necessary “bandage” that all allows a deep cut to gradually mend.

It’s not just important to be willing to forgive: research suggests that how we go about forgiving matters too. We can forgive unconditionally or conditionally. When we forgive conditionally, we decide we can only release our negative feelings toward another if it appears they’re appropriately regretful and have done their best to make amends. When we forgive unconditionally, we voluntarily let go of our hard feelings, without any strings. Forgiving unconditionally doesn’t mean we just don’t care anymore about what someone did to us and how it hurt us, and it certainly doesn’t mean we have to put ourselves or keep ourselves in a position to be hurt all over again by an unrepentant injurer. What it does mean, however, is that we meet the hurt with compassion and understanding for the human condition. We simply decide to let go. Doing so lets us get on with our lives without lingering pain from our injury.

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Forgiving means turning away from feelings of resentment and maybe even from a desire for revenge. When we substitute the positive feelings of compassion and understanding for any negative feelings we might have, the quality of our life improves: there’s some evidence that people who forgive do better emotionally over time than people who hold grudges, with forgivers experiencing less stress, depression, and anxiety than their unforgiving counterparts. There’s even some evidence that those who forgive more freely as opposed to conditionally not only enjoy better overall emotional health but also may live longer.

Over the years I’ve counseled many individuals who struggled to forgive those who’d injured them. In some rare cases, this was actually a good thing. (There is evidence that abuse victims who unreasonably tend to blame themselves for their victimization do well to hold on for a time to the negative feelings they have toward the person responsible for the abuse.) But most of the time, it served no good purpose and actually hampered healing when a person couldn’t find room in their heart to forgive. There’s a lot of truth in the old saying that forgiveness is next to godliness — although it also attests to how difficult it is to forgive. Still, it’s only when when we release the negative feelings that come along with someone doing us wrong that we can begin the process of healing. When we forgive of our own accord, without reservation, and without expectation, we increase our chances of living more peacefully, joyfully, and possibly even longer.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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