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Learning to Forgive

How Forgiveness Can Help with Emotional and Physical Wellbeing

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Updated October 31, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Forgiving those who have hurt you isn’t always the easiest thing to do. However, when you learn to forgive others, you are releasing yourself from the anger and negativity that binds you to that person. Forgiveness can help you release deep feelings of sadness and resentment. It can also help you move past negative thoughts that often contribute to anxiety and depression. You deserve to be free of the pain caused by someone else. Learn to let go and accept the past as it was and embrace your life as it is today.

Why You Should Forgive

For many reasons, you may feel that it is too difficult to forgive others who have deeply hurt you. You may feel that the person isn’t worthy of your forgiveness. Maybe you fear that forgiving someone will make it appear that you are excusing his or her wrongful actions.

Forgiveness can be especially difficult when you never receive an apology that you rightfully deserve. It is certainly possible that the person who wronged you isn’t even sorry for what they did. In other circumstances, the person you need to forgive may have passed away, which can make closure even more difficult.

Considering all of these challenges, you may be asking why should you forgive.

For one thing, forgiveness sets us free. When we hold onto the anger, hurt, and resentment associated with what another person did to us, then we are still allowing them to cause damage in our lives. The person may be long gone from your life, but the anger you feel inside still remains. Years will pass by and you will still be holding onto these negative feelings. Forgiveness can by an empowering way to let go of the pain that the other person caused. It is not about excusing a person for cruel or insensitive behavior. Rather, forgiveness is about striving to live your healthiest life and moving past the upsetting actions of others.

Through forgiveness, you can experience other emotional benefits, including improved relationships with those currently in your life. Consider how your deeply held anger and resentment can be affecting your relationships. You may find that when you forgive others that you are more open to trust, love, and acceptance in your current relationships.

Forgiveness also relieves stress, anger, and resentment -- feelings that are known to negatively affect the body and mind. Research has determined that managing stress and anger can aid in sleep, reduce anxiety, and improve overall health and wellbeing. Generally, forgiveness provides an opportunity for great personal growth and opens you up to richer and more fulfilling relationships.

Ways to Practice Forgiveness

If you feel ready to forgive, you may be wondering where to start. It is important to keep in mind that forgiveness is a process that can take time and effort to accomplish. I suggest starting small. For example, try to first start forgiving those that only commit minor offences, such as someone who cuts you off in traffic. Taking such small steps can begin to open your heart to greater acts of forgiveness

Listed here are a few ways to get you started towards forgiving others. Try these activities and see if they can help you on your journey towards forgiveness.

  1. Use the Thought Stopping Technique
  2. You may find yourself obsessing over past events that hurt you. Going over and over these events in your mind can be adding to feelings of anxiety and depression. Use the thought stopping technique to work toward acceptance.

  3. Look for the Lessons
  4. Change your perception about how you were hurt. Did you learn something about yourself through this experience? Sometimes our most painful experiences can teach us valuable life lessons, making us stronger and more insightful individuals through them.

  5. Write It Out
  6. One of the most powerful ways to work through your emotions is through journal writing. Writing provides you a safe and uncensored place were you can explore the many aspects of your experience, track where you are in your process of forgiving, and uncover the many layers of emotions. When journal writing, try to balance out what you focus on. Instead of only writing about what you are angry about, also include that which you are grateful for today. Journal writing can be a positive way to begin to heal.

  7. Prepare a Letter
  8. You understandably have many feelings of anger toward the person who hurt you. Get these feelings out by writing the person a letter. Let them know in detail all the ways in which they hurt you and how you have felt about it. Get as honest as possible, releasing all of your pent up emotions onto paper. Let the person know that you have decided to forgive them. You can even explain why you are forgiving, such as writing, "I forgive you because I no longer want to hold on to the pain you have caused." Once your letter is complete rip up into shreds. This activity will allow you to release emotions that needed to be expressed and then let them go.

Sources:

Enright, R. D. Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. 10th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009.

Olson, L. A. Forgiveness: Your life depends on it. Family Therapy Magazine, March/April, 2011.

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