Photo Credit: Erik Odin Cathcart
Photo Credit: Erik Odin Cathcart

I was recently interviewed again by Brianna Steinhilber of EverUp. This time on Forgiveness. Read her excellent piece here that quotes me. Read it here now >> 

Here is the our complete conversation

How do you define forgiveness? 

Forgiveness can be defined from an internal or external perspective or both. The internal perspective does not necessarily involve communication with the object of the forgiveness. It’s an internal process of not letting what has happened in the past (the incident or incidents that have given rise to the grudge or feeling of unforgiveness) to dictate the future. In other words, internal forgiveness is letting it go. This letting go is not avoidance or denial. It is not a substitute for working through an issue. This type of letting go is predicated on acceptance. The event happened. That’s a fact. It has had an impact on you and there may be some work to do around that (e.g., therapy, journaling, talking with friends, meditating). You now have a choice to no longer allow that incident and associated feelings to define you. If you can do that, you have forgiven and are moving on.

External forgiveness is a communication to the target. It really won’t lead to good results if internal forgiveness doesn’t occur as well. If you forgive a friend or spouse for something he did but you really haven’t let it go it will come out as resentment.

When it comes to forgiveness of others (either friends or romantic partners) does forgiveness always mean continuing the relationship?

No. Again, I am more interested in the internal form of forgiveness and that may or may not have a bearing on the relationship. Relationship can persist in our minds long after the actual relationship is over. It could be that the incident was a deal breaker but the person who was hurt will continue to be hurt if the incident is not released. Sometimes the object of the forgiveness is dead or no longer available in some way. Sometimes the object of forgiveness can be an institution like the Catholic Church.

Why does it seem that people are capable of different amounts of it? (some are able to forgive quickly while others hold a “grudge”)

I think this has to do with the stickiness of one’s thoughts (that is, the tendency to ruminate) and the meaning of the incident. People who really latch on to the grievance story and won’t let go probably hold on to all sorts of worries, concerns, and complaints. Research has shown that people who hold on to these grudges have elevated markers of stress. A lack of forgiveness might actually be bad for your health. In contrast, going through the internal forgiveness process can be good for your health.

Are there consequences to being too forgiving? What about not forgiving enough?

All actions have consequences! With internal forgiveness, someone might be adept at letting go but not protecting herself from the hurtful situation. The purpose of forgiveness is not to avoid a situation or to gloss it over. You can protect yourself and let things go. With external forgiveness, it can be dangerous if the other person is not committed to changing the pattern that gave rise to the hurtful behavior. Not forgiving enough, as mentioned for the last question elevates stress hormones and other markers of stress leading to chronic stress overload, which is really bad for your health and a risk factor for stress-related diseases (e.g., diabetes, heart disease)

Are there certain circumstances where forgiveness isn’t warranted or necessary (where people basically get a pass to hold a grudge)?

Again, the distinction between what you do inside your own heart and what you say to the person is crucial. You can certainly get a pass for communicating the forgiveness to the other but when it comes to your own experience, if you hold on to that grudge, it can make you chronically stressed. The energy that goes into maintaining the grudge won’t be available for other parts of your life.

Is forgiveness a skill that can be learned? 

Absolutely. There has been a lot of research on forgiveness interventions, such as the one that was developed at Stanford. There has been some research on adding mindfulness to CBT-based interventions and one study conducted by Shauna Shapiro (a leading mindfulness researcher) and Carl Thoresen (a leading forgiveness researcher) and others found that mindfulness may help to enhance forgiveness. Since mindfulness is essentially a skill of letting go of the past and being in the present, it makes sense that it could be helpful.

Oman, D., Shapiro, S. L., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G., & Flinders, T. (2008). Meditation lowers stress and supports forgiveness among college students: A randomized controlled trial. JOURNAL OF AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH, 56(5), 569–578. http://doi.org/10.3200/JACH.56.5.569-578

Do you have suggestions for ways people can practice being more forgiving if they find themselves holding onto a lot of grudges?

It’s important to be clear that forgiveness is not giving the other person a free pass, letting him of the hook, or condoning the behavior. Forgiveness is something that you do within yourself for yourself. As mentioned above, mindfulness can help you to work more skillfully with your mind and be more in the present. There is a powerful anecdote from Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He used to teach Vietnam War POWs how to forgive. One vet who did the training met one of his fellow POWs and he asked him if he was able to also forgive their captors. The other man hadn’t, was still holding a grudge, and his friend said, “Then they still have you in prison.” Forgiveness doesn’t diminish the incident but it is a commitment on your part to not let yourself be owned by it, no longer diminished by it, and ready to move on with your life. Mindfulness practice can be very beneficial for being fluid with forgiveness. Of course, a lack of forgiveness is often directed at oneself and this can be an insidious form of unforgiveness. I have a free guided forgiveness meditation on my website that folks can try: http://exquisitemind.com/cd-8.html

Arnie Kozak (http://arniekozak.com), author of Mindfulness A to Z and the Awakened Introvert.

 

 

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