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The Power of Forgiveness

It’s not easy letting bygones be bygones, but it’s a step worth taking for your own health and healing
Written by 
Teresa Dumain
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
April 30, 2014

A former love that broke your heart. A sibling who criticized your parenting skills. A friend who betrayed you. Forgiving those who have caused you hurt isn’t always easy; the emotions you’re experiencing can be complicated and have deep roots. Still, even when it may not seem this way, forgiveness is a choice—one that you can make not to benefit others, but yourself.

That concept can be a confusing one. Isn’t forgiveness letting someone off the hook? Saying that what they did was OK so they feel better? It can be. But forgiveness can also mean making a decision to leave what is done behind you for your own betterment—not condoning, excusing or forgetting what happened, but allowing yourself to finally be freed from the emotional grip that an incident has had on you until now.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you,” said author and theologian Lewis B. Smedes—a profound and often stunning revelation to many struggling with the idea of forgiveness. When someone does you wrong and you harbor anger, resentment or a need for revenge, their action assumes ultimate control over how you feel. However, when you make the decision to let go...to forgive…you reclaim the power to create a happier today and tomorrow. First and foremost, you give yourself the gifts that come with such freedom from the past.

Being able to forgive is a tough skill to master—one that most of us struggle with our whole lives. But it is fundamental to your wellbeing. Embracing forgiveness may help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety; encourage healthy relationships and greater spiritual health; boost confidence and even improve issues linked with stress, like high blood pressure. Thinking of these rewards may help deflate any satisfaction that might come from self-righteousness or holding a grudge.

It can’t be denied that you may find some things easier to let go of than others. Just remember that every step brings you closer to the serenity and happiness you so very much deserve. These suggestions may help you on your way.

Think about the situation carefully. When someone has hurt you, it’s important to take some time to reflect and identify what specifically upset or offended you. You may even want to try a relaxation technique, like deep breathing or meditation, to help you think more clearly. It’s difficult to grant meaningful forgiveness if what you’re focused on is the resulting swirl of emotions, not the act itself.  

Aim for inner peace, if not reconciliation. The main goal of forgiveness is to achieve greater tranquility in your life. You may come to terms with the person who hurt you, or you may not. Forgiveness is possible even when agreement or mending fences isn’t. “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well,” said Smedes.

“Buddhagosa, a 5th century Buddhist commentator said it well: ‘Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You, of course, are the one who gets burned.’ Forgiveness is the choice you make to let go of the hot coal and release yourself from suffering.”

Remember that the only thing you can change is yourself. No matter your effort or desire, you cannot alter history or someone’s behavior. You can choose to accept the pain that may come from allowing the effects of these forces to stay ever present in your life or move beyond them by granting forgiveness.

Focus on the positive. Instead of replaying what happened in your head, make an effort to focus on the good things in your life. Soak up the love of family and friends and appreciate the joys your life has brought you. Doing so may help diffuse negative emotions and put others’ actions in better perspective so you can more easily leave them behind you.

Try to forgive yourself, too. Sometimes, we only need to go as far as the mirror to find the person who caused our hurt. Remember that it’s just as valuable to extinguish self-directed anger over something that you did or said. Say, “I am worthy of releasing myself from my past.”

Special thanks to happiness expert Douglas A. Smith, whose guest lectures at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. contributed to the creation of this article.

“Buddhagosa, a 5th century Buddhist commentator said it well: ‘Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You, of course, are the one who gets burned.’ Forgiveness is the choice you make to let go of the hot coal and release yourself from suffering.”
Reference(s) 
American Psychological Association
Fetzer Institute
Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley
International Forgiveness Institute
Mayo Clinic
About the author 
Teresa Dumain has been covering health for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Reader’s Digest, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and EverydayHealth.com. She’s based in New York City.