With the reduced stigma related to caring for mental health, there has been increased attention paid to strategies that can be helpful for promoting psychological well-being. While self-care seems to be the focus of most recommendations, there are other ways to improve your overall mental health. For some people, practicing forgiveness can alleviate distress and improve mental health functioning.
The Importance of Forgiveness
There have been varying definitions of forgiveness in the psychology literature, but in general, forgiveness refers to replacing negative thoughts and emotions about an offending party with more positive thoughts and emotions. Forgiveness also requires a person to do away with any ill will they have toward someone who has hurt them.
It is believed that forgiveness can help people to better regulate their emotions, which can reduce distress and improve psychological well-being. On the contrary, refusing to engage in forgiveness can be thought of as a stress reaction, that brings with it a number of negative emotions.
What the Research Says
A number of studies have explored the relationship between forgiveness and mental health. Those studies concerned with the effects of not forgiving others have found that when we don’t forgive, we’re more likely to be angry, anxious, and dissatisfied with life. On the other hand, choosing to forgive is associated with lower levels of anger, depression, stress, anxiety, hostility, fear, and rumination.
Psychologists believe that the primary mechanism by which forgiveness benefits mental health is through stress relief. Forgiveness can also set us free from toxic levels of anger, which is long-lasting and can have a negative impact on the entire body. Doing away with long-lasting anger relaxes the muscles, reduces anxiety, and improves energy levels and immune system functioning.
Finally, forgiveness can come with benefits to our self-esteem. When someone has wronged us, and we ruminate about the injustice, we often end up disliking ourselves in the process.
How to Practice Forgiveness
The truth is that some people simply have a more forgiving disposition. This is called trait forgiveness, and it refers to people who have a forgiving personality. While some of us may have higher levels of trait forgiveness, we can all practice being more forgiving, arriving at a higher level of what researchers call state forgiveness.
Some people may have a difficult time with forgiveness, because they believe it means letting someone get away with wrongdoing. Others believe that forgiveness simply means moving on, but as psychology researchers explain, it’s more complex than that. First, forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re seeking justice or getting even. It simply means that you have developed empathy and understanding for the offending party, and you’re no longer holding on to anger and resentment toward the person.
Forgiveness doesn’t always mean you have to reconcile with the offending party, either. For instance, if a former partner has subjected you to significant abuse, forgiving them doesn’t mean that you will return to the relationship; it means that you’ve developed some compassion for them and are willing to move forward in life without holding onto the anger surrounding their mistreatment.
If you’re having trouble forgiving, the following tips can be helpful:
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Empathy is one of the key components of forgiveness, and developing empathy requires you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If someone is rude or dismissive toward you, they may be experiencing something in their personal life. That doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but taking another’s perspective in this way can increase your compassion and help you to let go of your anger.
Try prayer and/or meditation.
There is evidence that those who are more religious or spiritual tend to be more forgiving. If you’re having a hard time letting go of resentment, saying a prayer for the person who has hurt you can help you to forgive. It can also be helpful to engage in meditation, which can help you to become more accepting and empathetic.
Seek counseling or therapy.
If you’re struggling to forgive, and you find yourself stuck in a rut of anger and resentment, you might benefit from talking to a mental health professional. There are specific forms of therapy developed to help cultivate a more forgiving attitude. Forgiveness therapy can help you to develop a sense of peace toward yourself and the offending party. A specific form of therapy called Worthington’s REACH Forgiveness Model helps people to develop compassion for the offender so that they can move toward lasting forgiveness. Working with a therapist can help you to develop stronger skills related to forgiving, and reaching out for help can be especially important if your pain and anger is interfering with your daily functioning.
Forgiving someone who hurt you isn’t always easy, but developing a more forgiving disposition is likely to have a positive effect on your mental health and overall well-being. If you’re struggling to forgive, remember that “getting even” or “establishing justice” isn’t the point of forgiveness. Rather, the goal is to develop some compassion for the offender so that you do not hold on to anger and resentment, which ultimately only creates more stress for you.
For those struggling with forgiveness or living with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or trauma related to a stressful event, mental health therapy or counseling can be beneficial. Working with a therapist can help you to change distorted or negative thinking patterns and develop healthier coping skills. If you’re in the Southern California Region, Mission Harbor Behavioral Health offers outpatient services, with offices in both Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Contact us today to speak to our admissions team.