by Dr. Caroline Leaf
We’re often told to “forgive and forget” the wrongs that we suffer, but it turns out that there is scientific truth (and gut logic) behind the common saying. Research shows that the details of a transgression are more susceptible to being forgotten when that transgression has been forgiven.
Adopting a forgiveness mindset is a choice, an act of your free will. It comes with extreme health benefits. Forgiveness enables you to release toxic thoughts of anger, resentment, bitterness, shame, grief, regret, guilt, and hate. It disentangles you from the source of the issue, removing the negative energy from toxic thinking. The emotions attached to the toxic thought can hold your mind in a nasty, vise-like grip. As long as these unhealthy toxic thoughts dominate your mind, you will not be able to reconceptualize your memories—that is, grow new, healthy thoughts.
Scientific research shows that forgiveness and love are good for your mind, brain, and body health! Ongoing results of the “Forgiveness Study” carried out by researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that people who develop an ability to forgive have greater control over their emotions; are significantly less angry, upset, and hurt; and are much healthier. It’s easier to move forward into a purposeful future when you have truly forgiven.
Forgiveness changes the brain. Research shows that forgiving someone increases the size of the brain’s anterior superior temporal sulcus (aSTS). In fact, the larger the amount of grey matter in this patch of cortex, the more likely we are to forgive those who have made a serious mistake by accident. The more you forgive, the more you are likely to forgive—the brain changes to accommodate a forgiveness mindset! This literally means the more you forgive, the easier it becomes.
Forgiveness is incredibly good for your health. Holding a grudge affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems, for example. In a study by the Mayo Clinic, people who focused on a personal grudge had elevated blood pressure and heart rates, as well as increased muscle tension and feelings of being less in control. In this study, when asked to imagine forgiving the person who had hurt them, the participants said they felt more positive and relaxed, and had a greater sense of well-being. Other studies have shown that forgiveness has positive effects on our psychological health, which, in turn, impacts our physical health.
But you may be thinking, Caroline, you don’t know what happened to me. True, I do not, but I do know that holding on to your pain can negatively impact your health, blocking your ability to succeed in life. There’s no single approach to learning how to forgive. As a human being who has experienced many painful situations, I know that grace and mercy do not always come easily. Yet it is not important how you forgive, just as long as you do—for your own sake as well as the sake of the people around you. Talking to a friend, therapist, or adviser (spiritual or otherwise) may be helpful during the process, allowing you to sort through your feelings.
Forgiveness does not make excuses for someone’s behavior. By its nature, forgiveness acknowledges wrongdoing, and, at the same time, you choose to show grace and mercy. Indeed, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, condoning, or excusing whatever happened. Forgiveness acknowledges the pain and reconceptualizes it, releasing the heavy burden of bitterness and resentment.
Forgiveness Mindset Activation Tips
1. Forgiveness does not deny pain or wrongdoing; it is a choice to let go of the person who hurt you.
2. You can feel forgiveness in your body. Think of times in your life when you have forgiven someone and how it made you feel.
3. Forgiveness is not weakness but rather a sign of great courage and love. Think of how forgiveness can de-escalate negative thinking and negative situations. Think of this impact on those you are in relationship with.
4. Use all the mindsets discussed in this section to help you work on forgiving those who have hurt you.
5. Stop being angry and forgive, or you may become that anger—whatever you think about the most will grow.
6. Acknowledge the issue and the attached pain and anger you feel. You have to be honest with yourself if you truly want to forgive someone.
7. Recognize that healing requires time.
8. Reconceptualize the memory. Find a new way to think about the person(s) who hurt you. Think about the context. What was happening in that person’s life when the hurt occurred? Why did they perhaps do what they did? What is their story? What is your story? Where are you in life?
Excerpted from Think, Learn, Conceive.