The Rolling Stones may have said it best, “You can’t always get what you want!” And, when we don’t get what we want, we struggle. We struggle when we’re treated unfairly, when we lose, and when we feel like life is not fair or just. In response we would like to settle the score, right the scales of injustice, or win. Sometimes justice is swift, exact, and pleasing, but all too often it is protracted, messy, and unsatisfactory. In either case, justice rarely makes you feel better. Getting justice or getting even does not ensure feeling better.
If you’ve been treated unfairly or hurt, the natural and pleasing response is to exact vengeance on the offending person or group. In the short term, striking back literally feels good…, really good! Even if you can’t mete out physical punishment, holding sway over public opinion about someone or a group of people can seem fitting. In short, if you can’t literally hit back, then a suitable response seems to be to hate back at others.
Hating ultimately leads to hurting in one form or another. While this strategy plays out on the world stage almost daily, it is remarkable that few people ever stop to ask whether this is a good response. Is it productive? Does it bring happiness and satisfaction? When you’ve been hurt, does hurting back truly make you feel better?
There is a sure-fire way to get back on track after you have been hurt, but it is not for the faint of heart. It’s called forgiveness. Yes, the ages-old strategy of returning love for harm. Many folks are hesitant about forgiveness thinking it means that you are saying the wrongdoing is now ok. Sometimes folks think forgiveness requires that you make good friends with the person(s) that hurt you. These are commonly held misconceptions.
Forgiveness is about releasing or letting go of a desire for revenge. Forgiveness comes from a place of great strength withinForgiveness is about releasing or letting go of a desire for revenge. Forgiveness comes from a place of great strength within, a place where you find the resolve to forgo the desire to repay hurt with hurt and to replace negative with positive.
The commitment to living a loving and forgiving life is more important that quickly coming to forgiveness on any one particular issue. Nobody is particularly good at forgiveness, it takes practice, encouragement, and role models (think Nelson Mandela). Living a forgiving life can translate to living a healthier and fuller life. Unburdened by your zeal for revenge, you’ll find more energy and vitality to pursue what’s truly important and to enjoy life.
Research supports this quite convincingly showing that forgiveness is connected to better health, more happiness, and better relationships. Consider, for instance, that forgiveness is related to fewer symptoms of mental and physical illness, decreased likelihood of depression, and improved happiness. Recently, we’ve also found that forgiveness presses the mute button on stress. What this means is that for folks who are more forgiving, the effects of stress on mental health are far less harmful. Forgiveness has also been linked to quieting of the nervous system’s stress response, as well as, lower levels of hormones such as cortisol that can be harmful when chronically elevated. Forgiving yourself and others has even been linked to decreased risk of early death. See:Forgiveness and Health - Scientific Evidence and Theories | Loren Toussaint | Springer
Given the benefits of living a forgiving life, the question that quickly follows is, “How can I get better at forgiving?” There are no easy answers here, but findings from volumes of research provide evidence-based methods of learning how to forgive. Psychologists, physicians, counselors, and researchers have worked tirelessly over the past 20 years to prove that these tips for forgiveness actually work in helping people to forgive.
A short list of key tips for forgiving yourself and others include:
- 1. Be sure you know what forgiveness really is and don’t be misled by popular misconceptions.
- 2. Be clear about what you are trying to forgive. Start small. Forgive your co-worker for making a snide remark. Forgive the person in front of you in the express checkout line for buying half the store’s inventory. Forgive yourself for forgetting to wish someone a happy birthday. Then once you get more practiced, start to work on bigger more hurtful things.
- 3. When forgiving others, try to see the offender’s perspective. Often hurtful things are done or said when they aren’t intended, and putting yourself in your offender’s shoes can shine clearer light on motivations.
- 4. When forgiving yourself be sure to accept your faults and don’t deny your imperfections.
- 5. Commit to forgiving yourself and others and improving quality of life for you and others.
- 6. Be ready for challenges as you try to forgive. Just because you struggle doesn’t mean you’re unforgiving. You’re just trying amidst challenges, like the rest of us.
It’s true that you can’t always get what you want, but you can choose to forgive and live in the freedom that it provides. Living in the freedom of forgiveness offers imperfect individuals, couples, families, communities, and entire societies the opportunity to work together to build communities and nations where people thrive and strive for productive, enjoyable, and meaningful lives. Forgiveness can be a central part of how we live, work, and grow together as we look toward the future.
Loren Toussaint is professor of psychology at Luther College, Iowa
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