The Power of Forgiveness

Finally feeling free

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Forgiveness can be a big, complicated topic. But I’ll start this article with something that’s not big and complicated: a simple example of how forgiveness is natural for humans and can work to help them heal and move forward.

Here’s the example:

About a year ago, I had the good fortune of spending time with a group of young children in a combined Pre-K/Kindergarten classroom. The kids varied in age from four to six, which, as anyone who’s spent time teaching, minding, or wrangling youngsters knows, is quite a spread. Some six-year-olds can do algebra, while some four-year-olds live in a world where 2+2=Chicken!

The teacher did an amazing job keeping the kids together. I realized that a big reason her classroom operated smoothly was profound: one of her fundamental pedagogical principles was forgiveness. The teacher knew the kids would make mistakes all the time: mistakes with each other, mistakes around the rules of the classroom, and mistakes during the learning activities they participated in.

With her kids, she stressed the concept that everyone makes mistakes, and therefore, the people around them need to learn to forgive those mistakes. She knew she’d have to do a lot of forgiving and moving on, and her kids would, too – so she established forgiveness as a core element of her class culture.

It didn’t take long for me to see it in action. One child snatched a toy from another, which hurt the child’s feelings.

The teacher saw what happened and asked the child who did the snatching what he needed to do. He got a sheepish look, then approached the other child, handed back the toy, and apologized. Without missing a beat, the second child smiled and said – sincerely and with a smile:

“It’s okay, I forgive you.”

Then they hugged – and started playing together. I watched them for a moment, and understood that the problem was in the past, and both kids were truly in the moment and enjoying themselves, playing with the toy that had caused the little rift.

I tell this story so that when I talk about forgiveness in this article, we all remember that we know how to forgive and it’s natural to us.

The Connection Between Forgiveness and Healing

Granted – sometimes the stakes are higher than a snatched toy, and sometimes the pain caused by a transgression is more than hurt feelings. Nevertheless, those two kids reminded me of an important lesson. Many of us – including patients who are in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder – need to learn to forgive people in our past before we can do the work of healing ourselves and moving on.

Some of Pinnacle’s patients are the victims of heinous acts and have lived through the most challenging circumstances imaginable. The emotional fallout of past events contribute to their present addiction issues. The people they need to forgive did more than snatch a toy. We’re talking violence, neglect, and emotional abuse.

When the subject of forgiveness is brought up, some of our patients recoil. They can’t imagine forgiving the people who’ve caused them harm. They understand the concept of forgiveness, big-picture wise, because many of them were raised in spiritual traditions that value forgiveness. Yet when they consider extending forgiveness to specific people in their lives for specific things they’ve done, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to forgive.

This unwillingness to forgive harms them in the long run though. Dr. Tyler Vanderwheele of the Harvard School of Public Health offers this insight:

“Forgiving a person who has wronged you is never easy, but dwelling on those events and reliving them over and over can fill your mind with negative thoughts and suppressed anger. Yet, when you learn to forgive, you are no longer trapped by the past actions of others and can finally feel free.”

Some may hesitate in forgiving, believing that forgiveness means you are telling the person who harmed you that you are “OK” with what happened to you.  Another way of looking at it is to consider the pain caused from the act as a chain that connects you to the painful event or person. Forgiving is a way of breaking that chain and communicating that you are choosing not to be connected to it or them any longer. You are moving on.

In the context of addiction and recovery – my professional field – “finally feeling free” means reaching a psychological space where emotional healing can happen. The act of forgiving, and the state of forgiveness, allows many of our patients to recognize and process emotions that are at the root of their substance use problems, which is an essential part of their recovery journey. 

Many of us understand that forgiveness supports emotional healing. However, most people don’t know that forgiveness can also have a significant impact on physical health.

The Effect of Forgiveness on Overall Health

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say that forgiveness helps physical health primarily because it often involves releasing feelings of anger and resentment. Chronic and recurring anger can place an individual in a chronic fight-or-flight mode. This may result in severe hormonal imbalances that can lead to:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Compromised immune response
  • Increased risk of depression
  • Increased anxiety
  • Elevated risk of heart disease
  • Elevated risk of diabetes

On the other hand, the researchers from Johns Hopkins point out that the act of forgiveness can:

  • Decrease risk of heart attack
  • Improve cholesterol levels
  • Improve sleep
  • Reduce pain
  • Decrease depression
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Reduce stress

That’s the case for forgiveness: among other things, it can improve your emotional and physical health. Yet many people who know they need to forgive have a difficult time doing the actual forgiving. I understand: it’s not always easy. Fortunately, there’s a step-by-step process that can help people practice forgiveness.

How to Forgive: The REACH Method

Everett Worthington, Ph.D., a professor of counseling psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, made it his mission to understand and influence the way people around the world practice forgiveness. His experience as a marriage therapist led him to conclude that without forgiveness, the couples he counseled would have a hard time healing their marriages and moving forward. Decades later – after writing more than 30 books, counseling hundreds of couples, and mentoring countless graduate students, his system for practicing forgiveness has been implemented by therapists worldwide.

Here’s how to REACH for forgiveness:

Recall. The first thing to do is call up the memory in your mind in an objective manner. Mindfulness skills will help here, because the idea is to recognize and name all the emotions associated with the person or the act.

Empathize.  The next step is to honestly try to see the past act from the other person’s point of view. That doesn’t mean minimizing what happened. It means understanding why it may have happened, and using the understanding to replace associated negative emotions – such as anger – with compassion, empathy, sympathy, or even love.

Altruistic Act. After experiencing the negative emotions and working to replace them with healing emotions, it helps the person engaging in the act of forgiveness to understand it as a selfless act. It’s a gift that the forgiving person can give freely. In Worthington’s words, the gift is “…not a self-interested gift and it’s not a self-enhancing gift. It’s something to bless the other person.”

Commit. Since the act, person, or moment being forgiven is often associated with raw emotions, it’s important to recognize that those emotions won’t disappear like magic once a person decides to practice forgiveness. Therefore, a person practicing forgiveness needs to be ready – and committed – to processing those emotions every time they arise.

Hold. This is the “commit” element of forgiveness, in practice over time. Dr. Worthington advises people to hold on to the forgiveness practice and the forgiveness experience. Forgiveness takes long-term maintenance, and it’s important for a person who begins the practice of forgiveness to understand that it’s not like flipping a switch: it requires attention and energy over time.

Practicing Forgiveness is Transformative

While Dr. Worthington originally devised the method for married couples seeking to heal their relationships, he knows it applies to forgiveness in other contexts, as well. He knows because his mother was murdered in her home by an intruder on New Year’s Eve, 1996 – and his method enabled him to forgive the young man who killed her.

I realize that story is a long way from the anecdote about two preschool kids and a toy – yet Worthington himself indicates that it was the practice of forgiveness, over time, through repetition, that enabled him to reach a place of forgiveness, and begin to heal from the pain of his mother’s death. That’s why I think anyone reading this article, or any of Pinnacle’s patients who have indeed suffered grievous injury at the hands of others, can apply the REACH method to their lives.

For readers who may still be reluctant to consider forgiveness in specific areas of their lives, I want to remind them that forgiveness is not synonymous with pardoning, condoning, or reconciling. Forgiving someone for grievous acts does not excuse those acts or in any way prevent the person being forgiven from experiencing the consequences of those actions. Also, to put it simply, forgiving someone does not mean you have to go hang out with them.

You forgive in order to heal yourself and move forward in your own life. You forgive in order to learn and grow. Like the two preschool kids I talk about at the beginning of this article, you forgive in order to get on with whatever it is you’re supposed to be getting on with. For them, it meant getting on with the very serious business of being little kids and having fun. For people in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder, forgiveness can be a critical step in their recovery journey: it allows them to let go of old pain and experience life in the present moment, free from the binding emotions of the past.

In conclusion, I’ll offer a valuable quote from Dr. Worthington, then an insight of my own. When asked whether he thought the act of forgiveness related to his mother’s death dishonored her memory, he answered,

“Mama taught us to forgive. It would dishonor her if we didn’t forgive.”

Here’s what I say to our patients who are reluctant to forgive people from their past, who think they may dishonor themselves by forgiving someone who caused them harm:

When you forgive the person who wronged you, you respect yourself, honor yourself, and give yourself the opportunity to embrace the future with a clear conscience and an open heart.

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