Someone got in touch with me recently to offer me an apology that was past its expiry date. More shocking than this sudden intrusion into my personal space by someone whom I hadn’t even thought about in a decade, was the complete indifference that I felt to the tendering of this apology. I could not even recollect any past resentment; did that mean that I had truly forgiven this person?
Forgiveness is “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.” (Enright and Coyle, 1998)
My forgiveness does not fit into the textbook definition above, because I felt a significant amount of indifference and absolutely no generosity or compassion.
So was that forgiveness or not?
Yes. Here’s why.
Forgiveness can be intrapersonal or interpersonal. Intrapersonal forgiveness is focused inwards and is about your own feelings about the past transgression. When you liberate yourself from the resentment, hatred, anger and sorrow that the other person has unjustly handed over to you, you are essentially forgiving the person though he or she may no longer be in your life. This is recommended when you are either unable to or choose not to communicate with the offender. It is the forgiver who transforms without any sort of involvement or contribution by the transgressor.
This is how abandoned children can forgive their biological parents, or how you can forgive someone who is no longer alive. But intrapersonal forgiveness has the inherent danger of self-deception – you may feel that you have forgiven the person, but the resentment still remains and the forgiveness isn’t complete yet.
Interpersonal forgiveness, on the other hand, involves extensive communication between the forgiver and the offender. You tell the person what’s bothering you, probably even fight it out and seek closure together.
For this sort of closure, perhaps the most important element is your willingness to forgive. People are fanatically possessive about their hurt, they are unwilling to let it go. What will keep you going, if not for your precious hurt and anger?
Why must you forgive?
I admit I am not someone who forgives easily, as are many of my friends who say that they will “never forgive and never forget.” A grudge is a constant reminder that people can hurt you, and therefore makes you more cautious – good for self-preservation, or so we think.
But according to this research article, it is forgiveness that has significant benefits.
The study examined the immediate emotional and physiological effects that occurred when participants (35 females, 36 males) rehearsed hurtful memories and nursed grudges (i.e., were unforgiving) compared with when they cultivated empathic perspective taking and imagined granting forgiveness (i.e., were forgiving) toward real-life offenders. Unforgiving thoughts prompted more aversive emotion, and significantly higher corrugator(brow) electromyogram (EMG), skin conductance, heart rate, and blood pressure changes from baseline. The EMG, skin conductance, and heart rate effects persisted after imagery into the recovery periods.
Forgiving thoughts prompted greater perceived control and comparatively lower physiological stress responses. The results dovetail with the psychophysiology literature and suggest possible mechanisms through which chronic unforgiving responses may erode health whereas forgiving responses may enhance it.
The way I look at it, nobody is worth wrinkles between your eyebrows and a high blood pressure. Resentment is a piece of hot coal that you carry in your hand. Don’t kid yourself, the only person who burns is you.
The forgiveness framework
The study cited above also identifies unforgiving and forgiving responses.
Unforgiving responses involve reliving the hurt over and over again, and remaining in the victim mode by holding a grudge. Physiological responses that occur during the act of transgression can be so intense that they can form anchors to the negative feelings at the time, and it becomes easy to retrieve and therefore relive them.
Forgiving responses start with the development of empathy and acknowledgment of the humanness of the offender, leading to forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not a cataclysmic epiphany that tells you that the deed is done; rather, it is a gradual fading away of the hurt till the offender and the event stop occupying your mind space. You can even consciously forgive someone by following this general forgiveness framework, fancy that!
Becoming aware of the pain –> Making a conscious decision to forgive –> Actively working on forgiveness through cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses –> Realization of the benefits of forgiveness.
Unless you forgive, you cannot stop the cycle of hurt and pain. As long as you hurt, you will keep passing them on to those around you, those whom you love. If that is not a good enough reason to forgive, I don’t know what is.
Sometimes, you may also need to forgive yourself. Holding a grudge against yourself is as harmful, if not more, than the resentment against someone else.
If you are seeking forgiveness and there is no way of interpersonal communication that can facilitate closure, try confession if it works for you. Kneeling before a confessional, palms joined in humility is enough to release yourself of the burden that you carry. I am doubtful if this strategy works for people with very high guilt complexes, initiated and nurtured by the same system that hands out free pardons if you would only ask.
But if you can let your god forgive you, allow yourself the luxury, because you are setting yourself free. For the rest of us, we have to struggle with setting ourselves free.
Enright & Coyle 1998.
Ani Kalayjian, Raymond F. Paloutzian. (2009). Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Psychological Pathways to Conflict Transformation and Peace Building.
American Psychological Society. (2001). Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Thomas E. Ludwig, and Kelly L. Vander Laan. GRANTING FORGIVENESS OR HARBORING GRUDGES: Implications for Emotion, Physiology, and Health.