Forgiveness is about clearing space for YOU to thrive
Updated: Jul 25
You cannot change what's done so it's not about forgetting, but we can minimise the pain and the emotional effect the situation had on us.
This article was adapted for "Health & Wellbeing" Magazine
Holding resentment hurts us
A Buddhist saying on this topic is that holding onto resentment is like holding onto a hot coal waiting to throw it at someone…you will still be getting burned. A more colloquial one – of which I don't know the origin is – resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.
We only have a finite amount of time and energy – time is 24 hours in a day, energy is approximately 6 hours of focused work flow which is really effective. Swedish studies have found that nurses who worked 6 hours (although paid for 8) offered their patients much better care, and reductions in a working day to 6 hours has shown productivity benefits in many anecdotal business cases.
A focus on something else not only disrupts the state of flow, but if that “something else” is causing us stress, it can narrow our focus even further on “that thing” not even allowing us to benefit from the time where we could be, not just doing what we want/doing something for US – but doing it well.
To digress for a moment, the “stress response” which is a physiological reaction to a “threat” (real or imagined) where the heart rate goes up, we might start to sweat , we become focused on the “issue” – is not discerning – the body will react that way to a lion or to the thought of one chasing us… Resentment can generate these same feelings of unease and thus “take up” the energy and time we may have to work on tings to benefit ourselves.
It is why people often use the metaphor that when we hold on to resentment, it is also like we are continuing to let someone who doesn’t care about us still have power over us.
How resentment affects the body
If hostile feelings continue to generate the stress response, then the “stress response” will also play out as it would for any threat:
- The body resists as long as it can
- …then it falls into exhaustion.
Along the way collateral damage can include:
- Social effects:
o Snapping more at loved ones
o Over consumed with the issue – and people don’t react well to that negativity
- Physical effects:
o Stomach ulcers due to worry
o Lack of sleep which could result in great anxiety or weight gain amongst other effects
- Psychological effects:
o Not being able to think about anything else
o Obsessing about “getting back at them”
o …which can all “teach” the chemical pathways in the brain to look for the negative
- Emotional effects:
o Feeling down
o Feeling anxious
o Being teary
The Power of Forgiveness
The thing to remember is that forgiveness is NOT about forgetting. It is about reducing the emotional impact the experience has on us.
First of all we cannot erase what has happened, and secondly, when the emotional effect is reduced we might be able to learn from our experiences. Forgiveness is about releasing some of the emotional control that event has over us and no longer allowing it to impact on our growth. When we forgive we do it to release the negative control others have over us - we do not do it to condone, nor forget.
In Hawaii, many use the prayer "Ho'oponopono" for healing relationships with family, with deities, with people passed: Think of the thing/person you wish to forgive and say:
"I'm sorry, please forgive me, Thank you, I love you”
…and I would venture that this is a lovely meditative reflection or affirmation you might wish to use for yourself as we often need to forgive ourselves too.
However another exercise adapted from CBT you might try for forgiving others may be:
- Identify who is the source of the resentment/hostility
- Observe the emotions, thoughts and sensations this generates
- List the reasons for those emotions, thoughts and sensations (this is important because no-one is saying your feelings are invalid)
- Reflect on tangible benefits of holding on to those emotions, thoughts, sensations
- Reflect on tangible benefits from letting them go
Then letting go becomes your choice, but in being able to hold the emotion a while as we do the cognitive work, we can reduce its impact, and already that can help us emotionally and mentally.
How do you forgive yourself?
Forgiving oneself is important for all the physiological reasons above, but also it can help us develop better self-compassion
Dr Kristen Neff wrote a wonderful short article on the difference between boosting self-esteem and self-compassion. https://self-compassion.org/why-self-compassion-is-healthier-than-self-esteem/
I urge you to read the piece in full, but in summary she states that:
- Research indicates similar benefits of self-compassion as with self-esteem (eg. greater happiness, better management of depression) and it is better correlated with feelings of self-worth
- Self-compassion is a way we relate to ourselves, rather than based on comparison with others or what we achieve – so it is more stable when things don’t go well for us
- Self-compassion focuses on our worth as humans, not when we are “special” or “recognised” or “above average in skills or talent.”
In short – Self compassion kicks in at our lowest – the time self esteem has left us!!
So, rather than focusing on building self-esteem, I would like to challenge you instead to nurture your self compassion:
Reassure yourself through self-compassion rather than self-esteem statements
When something doesn’t go your way, or if you have said or done something you regret try:
I’m proud of xxx elements because I worked hard on them/I contributed creatively/I pushed my boundaries
I did xxx better than everyone else
I’m sad that I lost my temper, but I realise what triggered me and I can watch for that sort of comment in future
I’m sad I lost my temper – but x provoked me
And a phrase I love – especially when you are facing a difficult situation:
“I KNOW this is hard right now/this sucks/it’s awful, but you’re ok, and I love you”…and the one I use more frequently in exactly the same tone I speak it to my dog who is blind and sometimes nervous on her walk "You're ok, you're ok!"
Speaking in a supportive manner to oneself is particularly helpful because so often when we are frustrated and stressed (often with others – we are almost always looking to them to do something to alleviate our frustration/overwhelming emotions…but that phrase “I know it sucks, but I’ve got you” – can make some headway in healthy self-soothing, and might even be enough to clear some of the “tunnel vision” to think of a different solution.
Try this: Compassion Focused Intervention
Compassion Focused interventions ask you to reflect on your response to threat – are you better supported through “Soothing” actions or “Driving” ones?
Soothing includes relaxation, going for a walk, meditation, massage…
Drive is more active – it might be accomplishment, physical movement, or socialising or trying something new.
The reason for doing this is so that at a time of stress/resentment/frustration…you know what will best and most effectively help YOU regain your sense of emotional balance.
There is a very subtle difference, but self-compassion focuses on you and your response – it is quite empowering; self-esteem focuses on praise and even acceptance, but in the context of comparison with others.
Should we be considering Christmas as a "good time" to forgive?
I am personally a little wary of saying that there’s a “good time” for forgiveness – and the narrative from many of the Christmas Films almost romanticises Christmas as “that time”…and this can really make things worse for people who just aren’t ready to forgive because you now add guilt and “should” into the equation.
What I would say is that as January is often a time we want to focus on a fresh start – then perhaps it becomes easier to let go of past resentment – again not so that it is forgotten, but so that the emotion affect on us is lessened and the impact on or growth is much reduced…
And perhaps December/Christmas is also a time when logistics/practicalities mean you have a greater opportunity to see those people you might consider forgiving.
The time to forgive is when you are ready, the only think I would add is that by knowing the impact resentment can have, and knowing that it might affect our own ability to thrive – this might better motivate us to let go - for us.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt