Forgiveness is a Win-Win Gift

It is common for people who feel wronged, maltreated, disrespected or harmed to feel hurt, become angry and develop resentment t6oward the perpetrator of these actions. The encouragement to be forgiving seems unnatural and instinctively unsafe. Yet, evidence suggests that forgiveness is the healthy avenue for the wronged individual’s emotional, physical, and relational wellbeing.

The instinctual need for self-preservation evokes humans’ hurt, anger and wrath prompting the impulse to retaliate upon encountering a perceived physical, emotional or psychological threat. Anger, and outrage are commonly aroused to brace one for a fight to reclaim his/her body, family, property or rights and privileges considered to be his/her domain. For many people, others’ unkind treatment feels inexcusable and thus the animosity one harbors may feel justified and self-protective. Regrettably, this dynamic only further compromises one’s health and wellbeing.

Everett L. Worthington, Jr., a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and an author of 30 books, researched self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others. He found that larger injustices are harder to forgive than smaller injustices and that when the offended chooses to regard the offender as a valued person and forswear vengeance, “The forgiving person becomes less motivated to retaliate against someone who offended him or her and less motivated to remain estranged from that person. Instead, he or she becomes more motivated by feelings of goodwill, despite the offender’s hurtful actions.”

Psychologist Dr. Charlotte van Oyen Vitvliet of Hope College asked people to think of someone who had hurt, mistreated or offended them while she took their blood pressures, heart rate, facial muscle tension, and sweat gland activity. She found that “when people recalled a grudge, their physical arousal soared, their blood pressure and heart rate increased and they sweated more. When they practiced forgiveness, their physical arousal coasted downward. They showed no more stress reaction than normal wakefulness produced.”

This researcher also highlighted her findings that forgiveness is more easily produced when the offender sincerely apologizes and makes restitution to the offended. Dr. Worthington asserts that forgiveness can be learned and helps both the offender and the offended stabilize their emotions and sometimes rehabilitate their relationship as well.

In non-intimate contact one may choose to be safe and withdraw from a hurtful individual. In friendships and love relationships one can more readily assess whether the other person is sincerely apologetic, able to reform his/her ways and is intent on not repeating the hurtful behavior.

Learn to forgive:

  • Understand that many offenders do not intend to hurt or violate your rights or personhood and may truly learn to reform their conduct.
  • Ask the offender to apologize. Accept the apology for your emotional comfort and the offender’s learning opportunity.
  • Be cautious about accepting repeated apologies. They may be insincere.
  • Distance yourself from repeat offenders for your health and wellbeing.
  • Rejoice and affirm an offender who truly reforms his/her unkind conduct.
  • Praise yourself for helping an offender reform his/her ways.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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