The Healing Power Of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is not a light switch that you can flip on and off, but in certain cases is a necessary step on the path to inner peace.
When Alaina Leary, a Massachusetts-based writer, found that her father had overdosed on pills in her apartment in 2016, she felt overcome by emotions.
“I was really furious and sad,” she tells RUBY. Having already lost her mother too young, and dealing with PTSD as a survivor of rape, she felt betrayed by her father’s actions. This damaged her relationship with her father for months to come until she was eventually able to begin a process of “radical forgiveness” that helped to relieve her of a “pile of raw, painful emotions, like anger and blame.”
Anger and blame are common feelings when a person has suffered some kind of betrayal.
“Anger is such a sneaky emotion,” says Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, author of Loving Bravely and clinical assistant professor in Northwestern University’s department of psychology. “It’s oftentimes the tip of the iceberg we use to protect ourselves from something more vulnerable.”
Solomon finds that many people struggling to forgive blame others because the alternative is blaming themselves. “It’s either ‘I hate you, or I hate me,’” she says.
Chronic anger is hard on the health – it triggers your fight-or-flight response, which impacts your heart rate, blood pressure and even immunity, according to Johns Hopkins Medical Center. “Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.”
While forgiveness cannot be forced, Solomon finds that her clients often begin the process once they’re exhausted from holding on to negative emotions. Though she never pushes survivors of abuse or assault to forgive their attackers, in relationships where people still hope to maintain a connection or achieve closure, “Forgiveness is really integral and essential, something we need to be able to wrestle and reckon with.”
Forgiving someone doesn’t always mean the relationship between you will stay the same, either, but she finds that “a lack of forgiveness can become very toxic.”
However, getting to forgiveness can take time that involves feeling the sadness and hurt at the root of the issue, seeking support, professional and otherwise, and depending on how safe, trying to speak with the person who hurt or betrayed you.
“Forgiveness is not a light switch you can flip on or off,” Solomon says, comparing it instead to the process of mixing white paint into a bucket of darker paint a little bit at a time to lighten its color. “It’s a process of transforming.”
Once Leary knew that her father was getting treatment and help, she reached out to him. “I needed to know he respected and understood my boundaries, and was willing to have a fair, equal and healthy relationship with me where his emotional needs are not my burden,” she says.
Strong boundaries may be necessary when beginning a journey to forgiveness.
“There are times forgiveness is easier when you don’t put yourself in a situation with that person,” Solomon suggests. This is particularly true if that person isn’t hearing you, or isn’t offering acknowledgement of their part in the hurt. She suggests that in those cases, it’s useful to empower yourself by mentally acknowledging to that person, “‘I’m not going to make my healing contingent on your awareness or awakening. I release you to your own journey, whether you ever understand how you hurt me.”
Forgiveness is very much “present-moment work,” Solomon says. When you do the work, you stop “the anxiety of fast-forwarding into the future, and the sadness, despair and anxiety of rewinding” to the past.
After forgiveness, Leary says, “I can go about my life without holding on to negativity.”
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of seven books. Her articles and essays have appeared widely in such publications as The Atlantic, DAME, GOOD magazine, Ozy, The New York Times, mental_floss, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, The Washington Post and more. Follow her on Twitter @jordanrosenfeld.