If you’ve been really hurt by someone, it can be hard to forgive. But new research shows that forgiveness may simply free up more space in your life for happiness.
Everett Worthington has decades of experience studying forgiveness as a clinical psychologist. He is co-author of a recent study which shows that forgiving others can improve mental health and well-being.
“There are a lot of benefits for the forgiving person,” Worthington says.
“The main way forgiveness affects mental health is by reducing rumination,” which replays things over and over in our minds, he adds.
Every time a person experiences rumination, it stresses them out more.
“When we forgive, we get some closure on that incident, and that closure lessens that rumination,” he says.
Worthington’s study included more than 4,500 participants from five different countries.
During the experiment, half of the participants performed exercises in a workbook which teaches tools for forgiveness, and after two weeks they experienced fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who did not do the exercises.
The research has not yet been peer reviewed, but the framework of the manual is quite simple and can be used to get you started on the path to forgiveness.
The workbook participants used in the study draw on a five-step forgiveness model created by Worthington. It’s called REACH.
The five stages of REACH model are:
- Remember the wound: Try to think about the injury without focusing on the potentially negative outcomes in the future, Worthington says.
- Show empathy towards the person: Try to sympathize with the person who hurt you. “Some injuries, they’re just awful that we just can’t put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and empathize. In that case, [try] other emotions like feeling sorry for them, having sympathy for them or compassion for them,” he says.
- Altruistic gift: “Make an altruistic gift”, forgiveness because it is a choice. “Nobody deserves forgiveness because they hurt me,” he says. It is a selfless gift that we choose to give, he notes.
- Commit: Resolve to commit to the forgiveness you have given the other person.
- Keep your forgiveness: This is especially important when you’re feeling emotions that make you doubt forgiveness, Worthington says.
Sometimes forgiveness is for you
Outside of the study of forgiveness, Worthington faced the challenge of forgiving the man who killed his mother in 1996.
After processing his feelings and seeing how the hurt was changing him, he decided to commit to forgiving the man and hold on to forgiveness.
“I was able to experience emotional forgiveness and make the decision to treat him differently if the circumstances arose for me to meet him,” Worthington said.
The decision to forgive at this time was not easy for Worthington, but it freed him to stay in a dark place.
“If we can afford to forgive, we are literally helping ourselves to heal, [even] physiologically with lower stress levels,” says Roger Miller, a clinical psychologist at Aviv Clinics who specializes in neurological health.
Chronic stress can damage the body, Miller says, especially when your stress hormone cortisol is high. It can increase your risk of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease and diabetes, he adds.
“We must recognize in ourselves that by not [forgiving]we hurt each other,” Miller says. “What is the cost of this grudge? »
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