Key points

  • Forgiveness is hard to understand and hard to do, but the mental and physical health benefits are clear.
  • Forgiveness is done for your own benefit; when you forgive someone, it doesn’t mean you pardon or excuse their actions.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you forget what happened, or that you should.
Maria Marganingsih/Big Stock

To forgive means to “cease to feel resentment against (an offender)” (1). It’s cliché to begin with a dictionary definition, but I believe that when discussing forgiveness, it’s required because forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood concepts in psychology. It is hard to understand and hard to do, but the mental and physical health benefits are clear.

Let’s start our discussion by looking at what forgiveness is and is not. First, what it is:

  • Forgiveness is letting go of a grievance or judgment that you hold against someone else—or yourself. Without it, the original wounding event can continue to tie up your attention and keep you bound to the past.
  • Forgiveness means accepting the reality of what happened and finding a way to live in a state of resolution with it and go on productively with your life.
  • Forgiveness is done for your own benefit. When you forgive, you free yourself from resentment, pain, and overabsorption with the past. By forgiving, you can live fully in the present.

What forgiveness is not:

  • Forgiving is not the same as pardoning. When you forgive someone, it doesn’t mean you pardon or excuse their actions.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t or can’t have any more feelings about the situation, and it doesn’t mean that there is nothing further to work out.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you should forget what happened. There is no need to forget because you can see the value in what you experienced.

Forgiveness isn’t something you do for someone else’s benefit. This is perhaps the most important thing you need to know about it. Forgiveness is good for your health, but there are many reasons why you may not do it. First, you might want retribution or revenge. By withholding forgiveness, you feel in control of the situation, and you may fear that forgiving would mean losing that. Second, you don’t know how to resolve the situation, so it’s easier to hang on to the resentment. Third, you want to stay connected to the person who hurt you, and while anger and resentment aren’t positive, by not forgiving you can keep the link going. Fourth, it’s a way to keep distance. You feel safer when you are emotionally detached from the person who hurt you. Fifth, you are hooked on the adrenaline resentment and anger can provide. Sixth, you may derive part of your sense of self from being a victim. And the last, but perhaps the most important reason: You don’t know how forgiveness will benefit you.

According to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, “Greater lifetime stress severity and lower levels of forgiveness each uniquely predicted worse mental and physical health” (2). The study showed that “developing a more forgiving coping style may help minimize stress-related disorders.” In another study, the authors showed that “greater forgiveness is associated with less stress and, in turn, better mental health. Strategies for cultivating forgiveness may thus have beneficial effects on stress and health” (3). The authors of the study, “The impact of forgiveness on cardiovascular reactivity and recovery,” (4) published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, found that “forgiveness may be related to overall reductions in blood pressure levels and may aid in cardiovascular recovery from stress.”

I could cite more research, but I think you get the idea: Stress increases your chances of poor physical and mental health, feelings of anger and resentment increase your stress, and by not forgiving others, you hold onto anger and resentment.

When you forgive, you accept what has happened, understand how and why it happened, and see all that has come out of it—both the obviously bad and not-so-obviously not-so-bad. You recognize and accept our common humanity with all its flaws. And you enjoy the mental and physical health benefits of processing and letting go of negative, damaging emotions. To put it in the simplest way possible: Forgiveness is good for you.


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