How Our Inability To Forgive Can Affect Our Wellbeing
Can you think of times when you’ve felt anger or disappointment in the actions of others, or even in your own? Maybe someone was supposed to help you out when you needed them the most, but flaked without giving you a reason. 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 those 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, a discussion by Harvard Health tells us about some of the positive effects of having a forgiving nature. They claim, “forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility; reduced substance abuse; 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 addictive behaviors, make us more confident, and may improve our overall happiness. In other words, while it was unfortunate that your friend couldn’t help 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 with those experiencing issues in their personal relationships. Here’s an example a little closer to home: say you drop your partner’s favorite Star Trek mug, as I did the other day. 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 your and your partner’s empathy. Say the following week your partner accidentally spills their coffee on your treasured bonsai tree, causing the poor thing 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. This can be a step towards 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 whoever we wronged. In other words, when we do something bad, we may not always have the option of being forgiven. It’s important to make amends, but sometimes the option isn’t there. It may be helpful to first accept that we’ve done something wrong. As soon as I’d obliterated that poor Star Trek mug, I knew I’d made a mistake. 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 psyche. Self-forgiveness is an amazing way to boost self-acceptance, improve mental health, self-esteem, and holistic wellness.
So how can we bring more self-forgiveness into our lives?
How Can We Develop 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. The Harvard School of Public Health says that even small acts of forgiveness can have a great effect, and that proactively forgiving the little things can train our minds to be more receptive to empathy, and can therefore improve our long-term wellness.
Maybe some barista always misspells the name on your coffee cup, even though you’re a regular (I’m looking at you, Jessica), maybe someone cut you off in traffic, or maybe the dog did something unspeakable to 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 giving some slack can make things a little easier. I’m sure Jessica has other things on her mind, and I still like the way the coffee tastes. 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 to develop mindfulness, and as a result, can 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, and teach themselves 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, which has helped me many times. It’s all about understanding our feelings and finding ways to analyze them at a distance, and with some practice, to even transform those feelings. The following meditation is not tied to any religious denomination and is merely a suggested guideline.
- Begin by practicing breathing and mindfulness. Take up a comfortable posture 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 picture this as a straw brush sweeping away all the clutter in my mind.
- 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 examine the feelings that you experience. Think about what that feeling does to your mind and body.
- The third step is to think about something or someone that you feel neutral towards. Something that stirs 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 must do now is try to think of something or someone that you dislike. Don’t shy away from those emotions, hold them in your mind like you held onto those feelings of love. Examine those 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. Now, try to take those feelings of love and compassion and then transfer them to what you resent. Forgive it 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 onto that resentment can only hurt you. You may not succeed in this step the first time but if you keep trying you may find that the results are incredibly therapeutic.
Mindfulness and meditation have helped me with breakups, social faux pas, and even with 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!