Your mom told you to forgive. And most religions encourage forgiveness. Plus, it’s just a nice thing to do, right?
People who genuinely forgive tend to be healthier and happier, science suggests. For example, a recent University of California, San Diego study found that participants who thought about a hurtful event experienced lingering blood pressure spikes that—if repeated over time—could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
In another study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, scientists compared participants who did not forgive a prior perceived wrong with those who did. The participants were then asked to walk to the foot of a hill. The forgivers perceived the hill to be considerably less steep than those who held a grudge, suggesting that forgiving can lead to optimism.
So, how do you go about forgiving—especially if you have tried, but still dwell on past hurts?
Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a leader in forgiveness research, and a founding member of the International Forgiveness Institute. In one of his books on the subject, Forgiveness is a Choice, Enright breaks forgiveness into five steps:
1. Admit you’ve been treated unfairly.
2. Express your anger.
3. Recognize the wrongdoer is a person who is more than the offense at hand.
4. Accept that your pain may never go away completely.
5. Find meaning in the experience and grow from it.
Forgiveness is not for everyone, argues psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, author of How Can I Forgive You?
“Traditionally, we’re taught that forgiveness is good for us, and good people forgive,” Spring says. “But a lot of people gag on the notion that they should forgive when the other person is not sorry or [is] unwilling to make amends. Then, the only option is not forgiving, and that is not healthy either. The hurt person is left dwelling on how he or she was wronged, and that will make you sick.”
When forgiving seems too generous but you recognize you must move on, Spring suggests taking these steps:
• Let go of your preoccupation with the slight. Move on.
• If you find yourself ruminating over the painful event, pause and say aloud: “Stop!” Redirect your thoughts to something pleasurable.
• Don’t make it all about you. “When someone feels wronged, they often feel shame and shattered,” Spring says. But sometimes insensitive behavior stems from the other person’s own hurt, life challenges or a misunderstanding.
• Protect yourself from further hurt. “Decide what level of relationship makes sense with this other person so you are no longer in harm’s way,” Spring says. Cutting yourself off entirely is rarely the healthiest option. Instead, establish boundaries that will protect you from repeat offenses.
Donna Jo Huffman
I was only 19 years old when my boyfriend of over four years committed suicide. We had been broken up less than a year at the time. He always told me that if we were not together, it would end his life. It took me five years to finally come to terms with the shock, loss and guilt. First I blamed myself for his suicide. Then I blamed him for making me live with guilt. I finally realized I needed to forgive. I came to understand that he struggled with bipolar disorder, and suffered drug and alcohol dependency issues—neither of which I could control—that ultimately contributed to his death. Eventually, I forgave myself for not helping him more, and I forgave my boyfriend for taking his life. Once I was able to do this, I felt so free! Not long after, I found a healthy relationship and happiness, something that never would have happened if I had not dealt with past hurt.
54; Edmonton, Alberta
My father and I were never emotionally close. I didn’t catch a glimpse of him as a man until later in life when he was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. He faced his own struggles growing up—he didn’t have a father figure, as his own dad passed away when he was very young. I also learned he had very gentle and kind ways. Dad has since died and I still have regrets for not truly knowing him. I have been able to forgive, accept and move on in my own life through writing. I have written many articles about caregiving and senior issues, as well as two guidebooks for caregivers. Helping others has been my own way of dealing with never really knowing my father.
64; Tampa, Florida
I was on disability for four years because of systemic lupus with organ failure. In 2003 I took a low-stress job at a church to build a music program for young people. I was so happy to get this job. The pastor trusted me to build an amazing program, and I fully expected to stay in this blissful situation until I retired. But that priest left the parish, and the new priest and I did not get along. Before long, he fired me. I was angry and hurt. I fantasized about going to the center and smashing display cases with a baseball bat. In fact, I bought a baseball bat, went to the parking lot of my condo, found a huge old live oak tree and whacked the crap out of it while screaming! Eventually I found a new position in teaching. But it required I interact almost daily with the priest who fired me. I have no need to forgive. For me, the best approach is detachment and letting go of the past without conditions. This is how I have been able to move on.
Related: The Power to Let Go
This article appears in the April 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.