The Science of Forgiveness (Ie. How & Why to Forgive)
Why is forgiveness so important for our emotional wellbeing? A research study asked people to recall someone who they thought had offended or upset them. Instantly their stress response was aroused. As they were asked to forgive the person, their…
Why is forgiveness so important for our emotional wellbeing?
A research study asked people to recall someone who they thought had offended or upset them. Instantly their stress response was aroused. As they were asked to forgive the person, their stress response dipped back to resting levels. When we forgive people, we give up being a victim. Being a victim is a very stressful role. As the saying goes, only the condemned, condemn. So when we forgive, we release ourselves from our victim stories, and free ourselves from stress. Victim stories always disempower us. They have us be weak, put-upon, wronged; and the transgressor be powerful and dominating. Stress – biological as much as psychological – is triggered whenever we feel weak or in danger.
As we forgive, we take back the power we gave them when we decided they had ‘made’ us unhappy or angry or whatever. Then we can stop feeling “put upon” by others. As soon as we forgive, we stop being victims and start owning our own experience of life. This is a key step to full and permanent well-being and happiness.
When we release the victim story, through forgiveness, we release all our pent up anger and rage, allowing us more space, freedom and energy to create with. Research shows that people who become more forgiving as they get older, report more life satisfaction in general (and less psychological distress); and those of any age report higher levels of fulfilment from their relationships when they are forgiving. Studies also show that forgiving people helps us release the pain memories that are stored within when we have been scared or hurt.
If we want emotional freedom, which translates to creative freedom, we have to be able to release any pain memories which lock us in place; and drive us to repeat self-sabotaging habits and stories (i.e. ‘defensive patterns’). As we forgive, we make it easier on ourselves to heal.
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What happens if we don’t learn to forgive?
If we harbour resentment and grudges, we are the ones who suffer.Being a victim takes so much energy it can make us sick. Studies show hostility is a risk-factor for heart disease. The more we resent people for what they did, the more stress we put ourselves under, because the gap between what we want, and what we think we have, widens. We remain being victims, which lessens the amount of energy and space we have to live with. Forgiving our loved ones keeps our stress in normal levels, avoiding the killer hormone cortisol. In relationships, studies show that if we stop forgiving our loved ones for the things we have been upset by, our relationships shift from collaboration to competition. That is a one-way ticket to relationship hell; and our relationships are one of the key drivers of our flourishing.
How does your particular therapy teach forgiveness?
My process, explained within my book Switch On, is focused on how to break through anything that is blocking us, including resentment or hurt feelings. My work in Breakthrough Biodynamics is a science-wired, heart-inspired philosophy and toolkit for personal and social change. Neuroscience suggests that forgiveness lives more in the heart (the emotions) than the head. It is an emotional thing, deep in the limbic cortex. That means forgiveness is something we have to feel rather than think. Many people start off knowing that forgiveness is rationally the right thing to do; but their emotional pain prevents them from being able to do it. So I focus on emotional techniques, like developing empathy for the other person; and compassion for others and ourselves as well. It is very hard to show compassion towards other people until we have first forgiven ourselves for our own foibles.
Everyone has foibles.
They are defensive patterns we invented or mimicked at some point in our lives to protect us from pain. So when people are using their defensive patterns, which then triggers our own pain and our own defences, they are simply being human: Fragile; wounded; trying to survive. To really grok that people are just running their patterns to survive, we have to develop a mature level of consciousness into our own patterns. This is why we have to forgive ourselves. When we do, we can never be so hard on ourselves, or anyone else, again.
We are all a work-in-progress.
Crucially, we are not our defensive patterns; we have just become them. The same is true for others, the people who we believe have hurt us. They have become their patterns – but they didn’t start out life like that. Pain, suffering and survival has shaped them to become the way they are now.
But we can train ourselves to see people as they really are, in their essence; before stress and fear triggered them to become someone else. Then it is easier to forgive them. This is as true for our lovers as it is people like the Nazis (who slaughtered a good portion of my family). When we forgive, we allow people to be human and let go of the judgements that separate us from them. This doesn’t mean we have to condone their behaviour or give permission for them to do it again. It just means that we understand that they, too, are deeply flawed people driven by pain.
Hurt people hurt people.
Forgiveness releases everyone from a trap; the strap of judgement, pain, anger, defences. It is a trap from which there is no way out. We stop taking their actions so personally (they are running defensive patterns and we happen to be at the receiving end). As we take it less personally, we become more united with humankind as a whole. This sense of connection is the balm to all our wounds.
We know when we have really forgiven someone. Firstly, emotionally, we don’t feel any blockage or rupture between them. In other words, we are open-hearted. Secondly, we realise there is nothing really to forgive. They are human, like us. And so we become open-minded too. We have flipped from being switched off, to switched on. As Alexander Pope famously said: To err is human; to forgive, divine. We all get to be as one with our version of God – which is for me the Big Universe – whenever we let go of our resentments.
When we get really good at forgiveness, we can even apologize to ourselves and our transgressors for our part of the conflict; our contribution to the mix (if there was one). We can always apologize for casting them in the starring role of baddie in our victim story. An apology like this is not the morally right or wrong thing to do. It simply opens up possibilities for co-creativity that simply weren’t there two minutes before.
Just a simple, elegant . . . Sorry, My Bad, opens up marvels.
At the same time, we can send them love, in the form of compassion and kindness. We know from our own life experiences, that if someone is acting out defensive patterns, it means they are hurt inside. We do it ourselves all the time. So by sending them compassionate love, we hack our own resentment, freeing ourselves; and possibly inspiring them to heal too. In one study,people who found some positive feelings for transgressors had a lowered blood pressure and heart rate; and less tension in the frown muscles of the face!
Can you give readers a self-help technique for forgiveness?
There are many, so i’ll just share one. Here is a simple yet extremely powerful forgiveness practice to try, based on the ancient Hawaiian wisdom tradition of Ho’oponopono. When you feel stressed out by something that is hard to let go of, repeat these words over and over, feeling their meaning within. The words don’t have to be focused on anyone; just on the universe itself. They can even be words you say to yourself. The key thing is to feel them, in your emotions. Not just think or say them.
Thank you. I love you.
I am sorry. Please forgive me.
Notice your stress levels drop as you repeat and emotionalise the words. Notice your heart feel more expansive; and your muscles relaxing all over.
Be divine and forgive someone right now. But only after you have forgiven yourself!
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