“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong,” Mahatma Gandhi wrote. Probably because forgiving is hard work, especially when some deeds don’t seem worthy of forgiveness. But the difficult work is worth it: Decades of research from the field of positive psychology has found forgiveness can improve depression, anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Related: How to Forgive
Forgiving can bestow personal peace and even improve physical health. How? Because forgiveness is not about making other people feel better about their transgressions. It is about lightening the burden that their transgressions have left upon you. This lightening effect isn’t just metaphorical. In a 2014 study published in Social Psychological & Personality Science, 160 participants were divided into three groups. One group wrote about an incident in which they had been deeply hurt, but chose to forgive their offender; another group wrote about a time in which they had not yet forgiven an offender; and a control group wrote about a neutral interaction with a friend. All of the participants were then guided through a mock fitness test in which they had to jump as high as they could five times. The participants who had written about forgiveness jumped significantly higher than those in the unforgiving set.
Are you ready to lighten up? In his seminal book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, Robert Enright, Ph.D., co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute in Madison, Wisconsin, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, divides the process of forgiveness into four steps:
Be honest with yourself about your anger and hurt, and assess the full damage the injustice has caused in your life. If a parent made you feel inadequate growing up, does your self-esteem still suffer? Do you look for love and validation in unhealthy ways?
You must make the conscious decision to forgive your injurers, as Enright calls them, and give up any vengeful behaviors on your part. If a co-worker once stole an idea, say, and you’ve been denying him or her credit on other projects ever since, it’s time to change your tactic. The negativity and anger you cling to won’t do you any good in the long run, Enright says.
It takes effort to understand and empathize with someone who has hurt you. Enright suggests asking yourself a few questions: What was life like for this person while growing up? What psychological wounds might he or she be nursing? What extra pressures or stresses was the person experiencing at the time he or she offended you? Then think of a small gift you could offer this person. It might be a smile, a handshake, a returned phone call or simply more tolerance the next time you are with him or her. Keep in mind, though, that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. If you were or are in an abusive relationship of any kind, your forgiveness can and should come from afar.
Find meaning and purpose in what you have been through, Enright encourages. How can you help others who might be hurting? If you’ve been a victim of racial bias, for example, you might decide to become more active in civil rights causes. In the emotional relief of letting go, Enright says, you might discover the paradox of forgiveness: “As we give to others the gifts of mercy, generosity and moral love, we ourselves are healed.