Five Steps to Transform Ill-Will into Good-Will

“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

— Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Last week I wrote about apologies and heard back from many of you about apologies you longed for but never received. Is it possible to forgive someone without one? Should we even try? A new study answers unequivocally “yes” to both questions and highlights how impactful letting grievances go can be for our mental health. For all the grudge holders out there (yes, me included—I still remember a time when a professor mocked a presentation I gave in medical school), this research is worth paying attention to.

The study found a statistically meaningful reduction in depression and anxiety in those who engaged in a forgiveness exercise. Dialing down resentment, anger, and suppression of negative thoughts likely contributes to this finding. There are no upsides to dwelling on past harms or allowing wrongs to fester. In the words of the great Don Henley in The Heart of the Matter, if “you keep carryin’ that anger, it’ll eat you up inside.” Think of forgiveness as an antidote for wound collecting, an interruptor of rumination, and a salve for brooding.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “forgive” as “giving up resentment of, or claim of requital for.” The authors of the study describe it as replacing ill-will with good-will. They also provide a blueprint for how to do it. Participants in the active arm of the study completed a two-hour self-directed workbook over the course of two weeks.

The first step toward forgiveness is simply deciding to forgive. The next phase involves emotional forgiveness and entails five key steps based on the REACH method developed by psychologist Everett Worthington:

Recall the Hurt

We aren’t going to get anywhere if we keep telling the same story repeatedly. We need another, more objective (yet still true) story. So recall the event again, but this time as an observer—not as yourself.

Empathize with the One Who Hurt You

We have all experienced hurting others even with the best intentions, so we can understand that the person who hurt us might have not been aware of the consequences of their actions. Having a hypothetical conversation with the person who wronged you is one exercise the workbook recommends.

Give an Altruistic Gift of Forgiveness

Think about how you felt when you were forgiven and about how good it feels to simply do an altruistic act that a person does not deserve. Wouldn’t you like to forgive (emotionally) the person who hurt you?

Commit to Forgiveness

Experiencing emotional forgiveness is defined as the degree to which you actually feel that your emotions toward the person who offended or harmed you have become less negative and perhaps even more positive. Write about how much you emotionally forgave and how that feels.

Hold on to Forgiveness

Repeat REACH as necessary.

In addition to meaningful reductions in depression and anxiety, forgiveness is linked with lower mortality rateslower cholesterollower blood pressurelower cortisol (the stress chemical in our brains) and a lower likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease. Forgiveness may even support a healthier immune system. In addition to physical benefits, forgiveness is also associated with psychological benefits as well. Overall well-being is linked with forgiveness, as are higher quality marriages and committed romantic relationships. Forgiveness is even related to better sleep. There is evidence that children who learn how to forgive do better academically.

Here is what forgiveness is not:

  • Excusing
  • Forgetting
  • Reconciling
  • Forbearing
  • Invalidating your own feelings
  • Foregoing justice

Forgiveness doesn’t come on demand and can’t be forced. It’s not asking for an apology, creating excuses for the wrongdoer or being a pushover. There is no tolerance for the misdeed in forgiveness and it cannot come from a place of moral superiority. Contrary to the popular phrase, forgiveness does not require forgetting. Another important factor is time, forgiveness cannot be rushed.

In Spiritual Evolution, George Valliant, MD., professor of psychology at Harvard and pioneer of adult development, describes forgiveness as an end to a cycle of negativity that allows us to grow and heal. It can be a transformative experience: “Suddenly, the fight-or-flight response of vengeance is replaced by the calming green pastures and still waters of peace.”

Given all the animosity and unhappiness in the world, teaching and practicing forgiveness seems like a worthy public health intervention. Even if your emotional experience of forgiveness isn’t complete, the simple act of trying can make a difference.

As David Whyte says, “The great mercy is that the sincere act of trying to forgive, even if not entirely successful, is a form of blessing and forgiveness itself.”

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman