In a previous article I pondered a question from reader Gisela Cartmill about how we can apologize for our mistakes in less than ideal situations.
“What do you do when you cannot ask forgiveness because that person has passed away?”
Unable to apologize, Gisela says she struggles with her guilt “each and every day”.
So I pointed her to the work of Yale theologian Miroslav Volf and his idea that one of the best ways to forgive ourselves is to detach our misdeeds from our core values. We can still be a good person who is worthy of forgiveness, despite having done a bad thing.
Forgiving ourselves and others is a hard thing to do. But the science shows it’s really worth it.
Research has found that harboring grudges and ruminating about how others have hurt us can take a toll on our health. But research by Charlotte Van Oyen Witvliet and her colleagues at Hope College has shown that being able to forgive others’ wrongdoing substantially reduces this mental and physical strain.
When someone harms, betrays, or hurts us, we usually suffer directly because of their actions. These effects could include actual wounds or injuries, the mental anguish that results from the incident, or the physical symptoms related to the stress and anxiety we experience because of it.
But once that initial phase ends – once the cuts and bruises heal, as it were – we often hold on to the emotional component of the ordeal. We replay events on our own and experience the anger and upset over and over again. These negative emotions activate our sympathetic nervous system - they get our hearts pumping and raise our blood pressure.
But all these secondary harms - they’re ones that we inflict on ourselves. Buddhism teaches about this phenomenon in the famous parable of the second arrow. Our enemy may fire an arrow at us, but by our reaction to their attack often means getting hit by a second arrow too - the one we fire at ourselves through our strong negative reactions.
Holding a grudge that causes negative emotions to well up inside us for years after a painful event is very much a “second arrow”.
Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet and her colleagues designed an experiment to see just how much worse we feel when we hold a grudge versus forgiving.
They recruited more than 70 students and asked them to think about a specific person who had upset or wronged them. They then had students consider the offence and the offender in four ways:
They rehashed the painful event, ruminating on the hurt.
They were encouraged to “hold a grudge” and see themselves as a “victim” and the other party as the “perpetrator”.
They were asked to empathize with the wrongdoer and consider what factors might have caused them to act in the way they did.
They were asked to offer some forgiveness to the offender, and to wish that person well in their future growth and development.
The test subjects had to describe their feelings during the experiment, while also being hooked up to machines monitoring things like their heart rate, blood pressure and sweat response.
Not surprisingly, the students admitted to feeling far more emotional arousal when they relived the painful event in an unforgiving way. They were angry and sad – feelings that abated significantly when they were encouraged to be more empathetic and forgiving.
And the monitoring devices told a similar story – heart rates quickened, blood pressure shot up and sweat increased when subjects dwelled on the hurt they felt and the grudges they held. All these physical responses were markedly reduced when participants were prompted to consider events more compassionately.
The researchers pointed out that these short bursts of anger and sadness likely did their subjects little harm – but in real life we often carry out multiple grudges for years and express them in far more lurid ways than those students did in the lab. (Who among us hasn’t got super angry about an event from our past – causing us to curse or slam doors?)
The cumulative effect of all this rumination is very bad for our happiness and our physical wellbeing – and practicing forgiveness may be the only answer.
“Although people cannot undo past offenses,” says vanOyen Witvliet. “If they develop patterns of thinking about their offenders in forgiving ways rather than unforgiving ways, they may be able to change their emotions, their physiological responses, and the health implications of a past they cannot change.”
That’s some wise advice. But what are some strategies for becoming more forgiving? That’s what I’ll share in next week’s Bulletin.
So stay tuned.
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