“When you forgive, you heal. When you let go, you grow”
uncomplicated yet complicated saying. Before delving into the benefits of forgiveness and its role in therapy, here’s a personal experience. This story illustrates how this saying became integral, promoting equanimity and positivity in life.
We all go through phases in our lives wherein we outgrow people or vice versa. Well, not like abandoning someone, but more like being on different chapters in our lives, wherein there is a break in the connection. And when these close ones leave, they leave a void in the heart. Being a right-brain dominant, when any relationship ends, it often ends up causing a misalignment at the core level. Following this, there is rumination, resentment, feelings of sadness, hurt, guilt, regret and more a fear of such an incident occurring again.
One night, while I was on the terrace, star-gazing with my best friend, we happened to talk about our journey through the years and recognised how we are still held on to situations and thoughts that caused us disappointment in the past. That night, we decided to release these emotions, like releasing a gas balloon into the air. This made room for new experiences, learning, and growth.
A sudden sense of calm and positivity flowed throughout the body, making us feel better about ourselves. It was then that I realised that the process is not about forgiving others but forgiving oneself to create internal peace and harmony. It is then that I got curious to know more about what forgiveness is and the neurochemical changes that it causes in the brain, making you feel harmonious and at peace within a few minutes.
Alexandra Pope rightly said,
“To err is human, to forgive is divine.”
Well, you don’t need to be a saint to practice this. Just recognize, accept and turn the page. Forgiveness is not about condoning, forgetting or letting go. As simple as it sounds, forgiveness is a gradual process. Forgiveness involves a conscious, deliberate effort. It means releasing feelings of vengeance and resentment towards someone who has caused harm, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
While forgiveness is a personal choice, it requires sustained effort and determination for it to have a long-lasting effect. Several studies have been conducted in the domain of positive psychology to understand the impact of forgiveness on the brain and body as well as its effects on the external surroundings.
What is Positive Psychology?
According to Peterson, positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It focuses on strengths instead of weaknesses and on positive events and influences in life. Positive psychology entails resilience, empathy, hope, gratitude, forgiveness, compassion, joy, contentment, optimism, self-esteem and confidence. Each of these is interconnected to the other helping people flourish and improve their overall well-being. One such value system that is missing in this “tit for tat” world is the concept of forgiveness. Let bygones be bygones!
Most of us have come across situations that trigger feelings of anger, hatred, the need to take revenge or cause verbal/physical harm to someone. Some of us continue to beat around the bush by ruminating, steaming and reliving the situation that triggered these emotions. On the other hand, when life throws lemons, few of us believe in forgiving ourselves and others for the harm caused, than fighting back, experiencing a sense of stability, positivity, compassion and empathy. Yes, that’s what forgiveness does – a concept deeply rooted in positive psychology has some wondrous effects.
Forgiveness is like a magic formula. Research shows strong links between forgiveness and mental health. Fostering forgiveness in therapy includes uncovering the deep-rooted anger and resentment by replacing it with healthy emotional states. Having a strong basis in the humanistic approach, studies prove the role of forgiveness in reducing anxiety, stress, depression, trauma and paranoia. It promotes feelings of generosity, unconditional worth and moral love.
Genuine acts of forgiveness lead to an overall improvement in the person’s emotional maturity and increase the capacities for courage and nurturance of others. Forgiveness also plays a crucial role in preventing hypertension, and inflammatory diseases as well as helps in regulating the symptoms of fibromyalgia. This form of therapy leads to improvement in interpersonal skills, assertiveness, gaining environmental mastery, finding meaning, increasing self-esteem and confidence as well as anger management.
Feel Good Chemicals
Brain scans reveal that the attitude of unforgiveness is reflected in the increased cortisol levels, adrenaline levels and cytokine balance. The attitude of forgiveness results in increased levels of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, resulting in overall physical and mental well-being.
Imaging studies highlight the role of the insular cortex, and inferior frontal gyrus – the smaller the volume of these areas, the more forgiving the people tend to be. Studies have highlighted the involvement of brain regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, precuneus, and right inferior parietal regions. These areas play a role in the theory of mind, empathy, and regulating emotions through cognition.
It takes grace to remain kind in difficult situations. “Forgive and forget. Be the bigger person.” We have all had people tell us this at some point in our lives. But how to cultivate and practice this art of forgiveness? Forgiveness can heal us and allow us to move on in life with meaning and purpose. Forgiveness matters, and we will be its primary beneficiary.
The step to attain forgiveness is to acknowledge and recognize the source of what caused the misery. It is also important to understand what forgiveness is and why is it important. Unless one does not find meaning in it, eradicating the suffering at the root level is difficult. As it is said, “to heal others, one must first heal thyself.” Similarly, until we don’t forgive ourselves, forgiving others will certainly be a difficult process. To be forgivingly fit, one needs to reflect and get a deeper understanding of the situation.
Instead of fixating on the negative, engage in regular mental “workouts.” Train the brain to consider different alternatives in the same situation. Widen the perspective, address the inner pain and find meaning in suffering. Techniques such as journaling, developing a growth mindset, strength exploration and developing a forgiving mind through empathy are often used to shed bitterness and put love in its place. Forgiveness is not only a powerful weapon but a path towards courage, kindness and transformation. In Maslow’s words, it is the road to self-actualization.
This Year, let go of grudges, and feelings of revenge and make peace with your broken pieces. Transformation occurs when one is aware of the internal states, takes responsibility for the present moment/reality, releases the shame and blame to attain forgiveness, makes peace with self and experiences liberation and happiness. When you feel stuck or come across a situation that upends your life, repeat this:
“I acknowledge that something has gone wrong and needs to change. While I cannot change the past, or for that matter predict the future, I am responsible for the reality I create in the here and now. I take responsibility for my healing and growth. I realize that holding on to it impacts me more than anyone and let go of it and choose compassion, positivity, empathy and acceptance over pain. My heart reopens. I recognize how the experience has strengthened me. I am present to what it is.”