Have you been betrayed by someone you trusted? Hurt by someone’s actions? Chances are, you have.
Recovery is needed in the emotional pain you suffered similar to what is needed when you experience physical pain. In fact, when you experience this type of emotional pain but don’t express or deal with the emotions in a healthy manner, they can actually show up in your body as physical pain, illness or disease. Your body can store memories, even when you think your mind has forgotten them.
So whether in the past or present, for the betterment of your health and well-being, the question you need to answer with such hurts is: Have you forgiven the person and others involved? Or, are you holding on to a grudge for something that someone has done to you? Do you sense bitterness?
Bitterness can be more than just a nasty taste in your mouth. It can be an offense that burrows itself in your heart — and mind. Experts say bitterness can take root when you feel someone has taken something from you that you are powerless to get back. Some related questions are: Is there a disappointment that replays in your mind? Do you find yourself re-telling a hurt over and over again? With details? Do you hear the offending person’s name and cringe?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I want to offer insight from a medical perspective on the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only way to cut the chain of hurt and bitterness so you can be healthy and well-balanced. Facts are only through forgiveness will you find the healing and comfort your body and mind need from such hurts.
About your health, bitterness and forgiveness
More than feelings or words: Forgiveness is a choice — it is choosing to let the person off the hook or cancel a debt owed to you — regardless of whether the person even admits what they did was wrong or owns up to how they hurt you.
The act of forgiveness is an intentional release of negative emotions for a wrong or an offense. It does not mean pretending everything is OK or hunky-dory. Nor does it mean forgetting the hurt, excusing poor behavior, understanding it or reconciling with the offender. It is not a sign of weakness, but in fact, requires tremendous strength. Forgiving means putting it to one side, so you can move forward. It is letting go and releasing the negative that tries to take you captive into the darkness of someone else’s poor choices.
It can be particularly challenging when the offender fails to display sincere concern, remorse or give an apology for their actions. It requires letting the other person go free when they don’t deserve it.
If you refuse to forgive that person, you still want something from them, and even if it is revenge that you want, it keeps you tied to the person forever.
Forgiveness is a mindful process you must be willing to take — recognizing the good you are doing — is for you. And while others can support and encourage you, no one can do it for you. Forgiving is for your own happiness and well-being. It’s about your peace and joy — and health. When you hold on to the hurt, pain, resentment and anger, it harms you far more than it harms the offender. These negative emotions can contaminate other areas of your life from relationships to actions to productivity to dreams to well-being.
Forgiveness frees you of toxic, unhealthy relationships as well as incidents. The bottom line is that releasing or letting go of the negative thoughts, feelings or emotions greatly improves your well-being — emotionally, socially, spiritually, occupationally, intellectually and mentally — all of which are interconnected and interrelated to your physical health.
Good news: While some people can easily forgive others (sincerely, not just in name-sake), for most, forgiveness takes some preparation and effort. The good news is anyone can improve their forgiveness skills.
Forgiveness also requires that we understand the type of relationship between transgressor and victim, as they subsume different roles and serve different psychological needs. For example, did it occur between friends, married adults or those in a romantic relationship, a parent and a child or other associated relationships at home, work, school or in your community.
Here are some wise pointers from Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project at Stanford University — Forgive for Good:
• Lay the Groundwork: Take time and, if possible, write. Journal about your feelings, the offender and offense. For example, the change it made in your life, how it affected you physically and mentally, etc.
• Be diligent but don’t rush the process: Set the intention to forgive and move at your pace knowing it may take days, weeks, months, even up to two years. The process can be long and challenging for serious offenses. If you find you aren’t making any headway after months of focused intention and exercise, you might want to consider working toward acceptance rather than forgiveness.
• Re-frame your story: Do you have a longstanding grievance story that you constantly repeat to yourself and others? A grievance story typically describes how somebody else ruined your life. And it’s not true. In reality, somebody else did something painful, shameful, sinful, disgusting or difficult. Now, it is your job to handle it. Turn your grievance story into a hero story that focuses on what you did to recover from or cope with the situation. By shifting from “poor me” to “here’s what I did,” you no longer cast yourself in the role of victim, but are now an overcomer.
• Focus on the here and now: You may feel upset about something that happened in the past, but what’s distressing you at this very moment are the feelings, thoughts and physical reactions you’re having right now. Calming your mind and body can help short-circuit your stress response. Take time to breathe deeply or meditate, pray, look at something beautiful or remember how much you love someone.
• Make it about you — shift the power structure: You might have a chance to tell the person who hurt you that you forgive them, or you might not. You might receive heartfelt gratitude and reconciliation in return, or you might not. Regardless, you can still choose to forgive. The aim is to find peace for yourself, with or without the offender’s help. Whatever the outcome, you can still free-up the personal energy you’re spending on holding a grudge and begin using it for more constructive purposes.
• Take baby steps: It would be silly to walk into a weight room for the first time and try to lift 300 pounds. But with hard work and diligence you could work your way up to that heavier weight, gradually. The same principle holds true when learning to forgive. Don’t start with the worst thing that ever happened to you. Begin with something smaller and work your way up.
• Have elastic expectations: Forgiveness won’t necessarily erase all your pain. When somebody has deliberately betrayed you, and something reminds you about what that person has done, it’s natural to still feel hurt, pain, resentment or even spasms of hate. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you lose all negative feelings forever. But it does mean the hurt is no longer in the center of the stage.
Moving beyond to a life of improved health and contentment:
• While we cannot control another person’s behaviors or thoughts, you have tremendous control over yours. And while no one wants to be bitter, it can sneak up on you — bitterness is unforgiveness fermented. So, make it a priority to understand the impact and manage your feelings and emotions.
• Forgiveness is a choice, an active operation — it is not just words. You will not always “feel like it” — you must be willing and committed to do the work.
• Learn from the past, live in the present, believe in the future. Often, the offense is no longer happening, except in your mind. When you start thinking about the past, acknowledge it, and return to the present.
• Whether it is meditation, therapy, prayer, deep breathing, journaling, reading or exercising, these activities can calm you and help as you work through the process.
• Remember that someone’s poor values, moral compass, behaviors, or judgement, do not define you.
Today, you may be dry-eyed and matter of fact about that hurt or betrayal, but if you have not truly forgiven the person(s), it is impacting your well-being. Forgiveness leads to improved mental and physical health. Have a joyous Easter and Passover — wishing you peace, love, joy and happiness during these holy days.
Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.