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Holding on to past grudges can overwhelm the mind with negativity. Photo: iStockphoto
Holding on to past grudges can overwhelm the mind with negativity. Photo: iStockphoto

Forgiveness: why it’s important

Forgiving can be both cathartic and transformativeand can have a ripple effect, radiating positivity. But remember, self-awareness has to precede forgiveness

Resentment, rancour and rage are synonymous with retribution. When we are slighted or treated unfairly, the urge to get even stirs up like a snake inside us. A friend deceiving you, a doctor being dismissive, a boss retracting the promised promotion, a stranger ramming your car—each of these transgressions evokes negative feelings, albeit to differing degrees. When we are at the receiving end of a raw deal, a slew of destructive emotions overwhelm us. Even though we may not take revenge through word or deed, angry thoughts simmer in our minds. And we become victims of our negativity.

Multiple emotional benefits

While some people cool down fairly quickly, others hold on to peeves and grudges. Often, people feel that if they let go of their displeasure, they will not get justice. Research, however, suggests that we are only hurting ourselves in the process. Freeing ourselves of dark feelings and actually forgiving our offender can have immense benefits not just for us but all those around us. Forgiving can indeed be cathartic and transformative—and the art can be cultivated by anyone who is willing to pardon the transgressor.

In his 2015 book, 8 Keys To Forgiveness, psychologist Robert Enright cites research to demonstrate the power of forgiveness. In a study conducted with fellow psychologist Suzanne Freedman, he found that incest survivors who underwent a 14-month programme to forgive their perpetrators were free of depression one year after the programme ended. The study was published in the Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology in 1996.

In another study, published in the Psychology & Health journal in 2009, Enright and his colleagues worked with men who were admitted to the hospital with cardiac problems. After undergoing forgiveness therapy, which involved 10 weekly sessions of identifying and forgiving those who had wronged them, the men not only exhibited reduced levels of anger but also had healthier hearts.

Intriguingly, Enright has even found that students who were unable to concentrate in school owing to anger issues benefited from forgiveness counselling, so much so that they actually raised their grades from D to C, were able to focus better and had more amiable relationships with others. This study was published in the Journal Of Research In Education in 2008. Thus, forgiveness can have a positive ripple effect, wherein mercy extended to one person radiates to others.

How to forgive

A 2006 brochure published by the American Psychological Association, the most influential professional body of psychologists in the US, shows that forgiveness therapy can be extended to real-world conflicts that have taken a toll on human life. For example, mothers on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland who had lost their sons were brought to Stanford University in the US for a week to receive forgiveness training, which included storytelling and guided imagery and stress management to help them pardon their offenders. During a six-month follow-up, the women showed reduced levels of stress, depression and anger.

If forgiveness, then, can have such a positive impact, how can we practise it more often? As Enright says, forgiveness goes beyond saying “I forgive you". In fact, the words do not even have to be uttered; rather, they have to be felt. In its essence, forgiveness entails “extending goodness towards those who have hurt you". It involves acknowledging the inherent worth of every human being. And, as we all know, this can be hard even at the best of times, and can become a Herculean task when we have been wronged grievously.

Become ‘forgivingly-fit’

Enright, however, says that we can become “forgivingly-fit" with practice. By first forgiving people whom we love for minor misdemeanours, we can gradually graduate to forgiving those who have injured us in more heinous ways.

The first step, says Enright, should be to find the source of our pain. Self-awareness has to precede forgiveness. We also have to remember that absolving someone does not, in any way, imply that we overlook or forget what was done to us. We still recognize the fact that we were treated unjustly, even savagely, yet we are willing to see our offender with their frailties, despite what s/he did. We may even find renewed meaning in the suffering we endured.

Forgiveness, however, does not mean that we should bear the brunt of another’s cruelty stoically. For example, if a woman is in a physically abusive relationship and her husband refuses to seek help to curb his violent outbursts, the wife is perfectly justified in walking out of the marriage. However, while recognizing the brutality of what she endured, she may still work on forgiving her partner and view him as a human being with weaknesses. When she undergoes the process of forgiveness, she will realize that her husband does not haunt the recesses of her mind any more.

Finally, forgiveness should not be mistaken for weakness. As Mahatma Gandhi aptly put it, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.

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