To forgive, or not to forgive? It is a question that we ask ourselves more, and that becomes more salient, as years pass.As we grow older, it is “very, very common to review your life,” says Berit Ingersoll-Dayton, professor and director of the joint doctoral program in social work and social science at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. It’s a process that inevitably will bring up “things that we feel good about—and that we don’t.”
In the absence of forgiveness, an offense that was committed against us, or some pain that we caused others, can replay in our minds, causing continuing anger or remorse that is often a recipe for bitterness and bad health. A wealth of research has linked the isolation and loneliness that can result to increased health problems and higher mortality.
It is tantamount to “suffocating” yourself emotionally, says Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The effects on one’s health from bottled-up anger and resentment can range from anxiety and depression to higher blood pressure and increased risk of heart attacks, he says.
Forgiveness, by contrast, allows one to focus on more positive thoughts and relationships. “It allows you to free up the real estate in your brain” taken up by negative thinking, Dr. Sood says.
An alternative stance
One study suggests that forgiving others may benefit women more than men in certain situations. Researchers at the University of Missouri found that forgiving others helped protect older women from depression, even when they felt unforgiven by others. Men, however, felt worse when they forgave others but didn’t feel forgiven.
Ashley Ermer, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student, says more research is needed to tease out the reasons behind the differences. Some experts say it isn’t always possible to forgive, especially when an offense is more severe, or when the offender shows no remorse.
“If the other person isn’t sorry and hasn’t made meaningful amends, the hurt party often can’t and won’t forgive. They are left not forgiving, and hurting and hating,” says Janis Abrahms Spring, a clinical psychologist in Westport, Conn., and author of “How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To.”
Rather than be “entombed” in those raw feelings, Dr. Spring says, people in pain can find relief and resolution through an alternative stance she calls “acceptance.” This strategy entails moving forward from the incident on your own terms, recognizing the magnitude of the violation, but no longer allowing its unfairness to obsess you (possibly with the help of psychotherapy), and choosing a level of relationship with the offender that serves your best interest.
“This can be accomplished by the hurt party alone, even if the offender isn’t remorseful or willing to make meaningful amends,” she says.
“When you forgive,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Sood, “it isn’t saying that the other person is right. It isn’t justifying or condoning what the other person did.” Forgiveness, Dr. Sood says, is acknowledging that you have decided to forgo anger and resentment, and that any future relationship with the offending party will be on your own terms.
Michigan’s Dr. Ingersoll-Dayton says she has helped run forgiveness-therapy groups in which participants often have found it helpful to write letters describing their struggles with rage and hurt. Rather than send the letters to the offending party, the group’s members read them aloud and discuss them.
For one woman in her 60s, this led to the realization that the person with whom she was most angry was herself. She began the program feeling angry at her emotionally abusive ex-husband, but after listening to the other group members, she realized she was most angry at herself for staying with him as long as she had, says Dr. Ingersoll-Dayton. This insight allowed her to begin forgiving herself for not being able to leave sooner.
To seek forgiveness, or to offer it, requires being prepared to be rejected or rebuffed, warns Dr. Spring. But, she believes, “the healing that takes place…is more deeply cleansing and healing than anyone can accomplish by themselves.” She emphasizes the importance of “creating opportunities to make good” and “having the courage to address and redress old injuries in a constructive and healing way.”
That can be especially pertinent as we age because time is ticking, she says. If you take the hurts and misunderstandings to the grave, Dr. Spring says, “no one profits.”
By contrast, taking a risk on forgiveness can yield unexpected benefits. A psychotherapist from the Northeast recalls how after her divorce, she and her ex-husband’s mother, with whom she had been quite close, didn’t speak for 20 years. Finally, upon learning that the older woman had lost her husband, the therapist decided to call her. She was “thrilled,” says the therapist, who during the reunion that followed, told the older woman she was sad they were no longer friends.
It took five minutes to clear up the misunderstanding, she says, after which they began to see each other again regularly. The reconciliation had a ripple effect, as well. The psychotherapist’s elderly father patched up his own relationship with the mother-in-law, so two octogenarians who had each lost a spouse regained an old friend. And when the older woman died, she left a favorite sculpture to her former daughter-in-law, a gift personally delivered to her by her ex.
Forgiveness was long in coming, but arrived in time for all to benefit.
Ms. Cole is a writer in New York. Email her at email@example.com.