How Our Inability To Forgive Can Affect Our Wellbeing
Can you think of times when you’ve felt anger or disappointment toward the actions of others, or even actions of your own? Maybe someone was supposed to help you out when you needed them the most, but bailed on you without giving a reason. Or maybe you were overwhelmed with problems of your own and forgot about the needs of a friend.
Maybe you now feel insulted and disrespected, or conflicted and guilty. These are all normal emotions and natural reactions, but did you know that holding on to these feelings can hinder us spiritually, physically, and psychologically?
Scientists found that holding resentment inside can result in cognitive impairment, harm the immune response, increase heart rate, and raise blood pressure. These effects can build up over years, and if our issues remain unresolved, there can be a snowball effect on our health in the long term.
But don’t worry, there are many ways to get ourselves on the right track!
How Forgiveness Can Improve Our Wellness
In contrast to the negative outcomes just mentioned, a discussion by Harvard Health Publishing sheds some light on a few of the positive effects of having a forgiving nature. They assert that “forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility; reduced substance [use]; higher self-esteem; and greater life satisfaction.” Forgiveness can improve our lives, not just in the sense of having an unburdened heart, but it can also reduce the risk of compulsive behaviors, make us more confident, and improve our overall happiness. In other words, while it was unfortunate that your friend couldn’t help out when you needed them, it’s not the end of the world. Resentment won’t change anything, and on top of that, it may hurt both of you.
Forgiveness is also directly and statistically linked with relationship-related wellbeing, especially for those experiencing issues in their personal relationships. Here’s an example: Say you drop your partner’s favorite cup, as I did recently, and it smashes once it hits the floor. Apologizing and making amends can make things better for your relationship in many ways. It can help to resolve the issue at hand, and it can also help to develop empathy within both you and your partner. The following week your partner might accidentally spill their coffee on your treasured bonsai tree, causing it to wilt dramatically. You could say to yourself that it was an accident, just like how the destruction of their favorite mug was an accident, and, with this, take the first step toward cultivating more empathy. It’s all about developing our ability to put ourselves into another person’s shoes. Trying to be more forgiving can help with conflict resolution, and it can have the added effect of teaching you the valuable skill of self-forgiveness.
When we talk about self-forgiveness, we mean being able to forgive ourselves without needing the approval of whomever we’ve wronged. It’s important to make amends, of course, but it’s also important to bear in mind that sometimes the option of forgiveness isn’t there. It may be helpful to approach self-forgiveness by first accepting that we’ve done something wrong. As soon as I’d dropped my partner’s beloved mug, I knew I’d made a mistake. However, I told myself that it was an accident, and instead of wallowing in self-pity, I chose to forgive myself. I did this by thinking of ways that I could resolve the conflict and make it up to my partner. I went out and got a new mug, and then apologized profusely! They forgave me after a short period of grief, but that self-forgiveness was an important step to help us both move on.
Not only is this a healthy way for our relationships to function, but self-forgiveness is also very important for our physical and mental health. Science shows that cognitive performance and wellbeing decline faster in people who have higher levels of hostility, and that these effects are reduced in people who have higher levels of self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is crucial because learning to be kind to yourself is a valuable tool for improving self-esteem and even mental health. Sometimes the pure acts of acknowledging that we’ve made a mistake, trying to resolve things, and attempting to learn from our mistakes can have a great impact on our psyches. Self-forgiveness is an amazing way to boost self-acceptance, as well as improve mental health, self-esteem, and holistic wellness. So, how can we bring more self-forgiveness into our lives?
Developing Empathy and Forgiveness
It’s all well and good knowing the science and benefits of forgiveness, but life isn’t always as straightforward as simply forgiving someone else or ourselves. Sometimes the best way to get on the right track is by starting small. Even small acts of forgiveness can have a great effect, and proactively forgiving the little things can train our minds to be more receptive to empathy, thereby improving our long-term wellness.
Maybe the barista in your local coffee house always misspells your name on your coffee cup, even though you’re a regular, maybe someone cut you off in traffic, or maybe the dog did something unspeakable on your nice, new carpet. In situations like these, it can be helpful to take a breath and accept that everyone is on their own journey, and cutting some slack can make things a little easier. Making an effort to allow for small moments of forgiveness in daily life can train our minds to avoid negative reactions, and help with other, greater, issues in life.
One potent way to introduce more empathy and forgiveness to our lives is through meditation. The Oxford Mindfulness Center explains how meditation can help us to develop mindfulness, and as a result, help us to forgive. Professor Williams claims, “Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go [of], and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: ‘‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?” He says that practicing meditation can allow a person to develop skills to take a step back and analyze negative thought patterns, teaching themselves in turn to develop more compassion, which has a plethora of perks for our wellness.
So, I’d like to share a meditation practice that I learned in my religious studies class as a teen. The teacher walked the class through the following guided meditation, and I found it so effective that I noted down the steps. The exercise is all about understanding our feelings and finding ways to analyze them at a distance, and with some practice, learning to transform those feelings. The following meditation exercise is not tied to any religious denomination and is merely a suggested guideline.
- Begin by practicing breathing and mindfulness. Get into a comfortable position and breathe in for eight seconds through your nose, and then out for eight seconds through your mouth. Try to clear your mind. I like to imagine a straw broom sweeping away all the clutter in my head.
- Once you’re relaxed and in a calm state, the next step is to try to picture someone or something that you love. Hold that image in your mind as you continue the breathing exercises, and analyze the feelings that you experience. Think about what these feelings do to your mind and body.
- The third step is to think about someone or something that you feel neutral toward, someone or something that evokes no emotional response at all. Try to hold that image in your mind and then see if you can transfer those earlier feelings of love onto this neutrality. This may be difficult at first, but with practice, it can start to feel natural.
- The fourth step is only to be taken once you have gotten a firm grasp of the first three steps. What you can try to do now is think of something or someone that you dislike. Don’t shy away from the emotions you begin to experience; hold them in your mind like you held onto those feelings of love. Examine these feelings. Try to look at them as if you were looking at someone else’s feelings. Try to understand what effect they have on your mind and body.
- This step is the most difficult but also the most rewarding. You don’t have to attempt this one if you don’t feel up to it, but I have found it to be quite helpful. Try to take those feelings of love and compassion and then transfer them onto who or what you resent. Forgive that person or thing for all of those reasons that you dislike it. Often in life, negative situations, or even people, exist only because of the circumstances that have led them to be what they are. Holding on to that resentment can only hurt you. You may not succeed in this step the first time, but if you keep trying, you may find the results to be incredibly therapeutic.
Mindfulness and meditation have helped me with breakups, social faux pas, and even irritating customers in the hospitality industry. Imagine if everyone took the time and energy to bring a little bit more compassion and forgiveness to daily life, especially in this modern world, where everything is recorded and immortalized online. Forgiveness is vital to nourish our mental, physical, and social health. If we could all take a little more time to connect with our spiritual and empathetic sides, everything might just be a little bit easier. A better, more empathetic life begins with you. Start with the small stuff and work your way up. Continue on your Holisticly journey to continue boosting your empathy, self-awareness, and overall spiritual health!