The power and potential of forgiveness, right now

Posted on: 15 January 2024

Professor Brian Lawlor of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity writes how forgiveness is crucial in resolving human conflict and bringing relief to the forgiver and the forgiven.

The power and potential of forgiveness, right now

Forgiveness is crucial in resolving human conflict and bringing relief to the forgiver and the forgiven. As improbable and impossible as it seems right now, no peace will happen in the Middle East without some eventual forgiveness between the opposing sides. 

The power of giving and receiving forgiveness and its importance for health and healing is immense and underappreciated.  Forgiveness can be a positive value that empowers and releases us from pain and suffering and improves our health.

There are two main types of forgiveness: forgiving others and forgiving yourself. Forgiving others is about reperceiving events in a way that goes beyond judgment and blame, letting go of bitterness, resentment, and a desire for vengeance. Self-forgiveness is more about releasing yourself from life’s many regrets, the actions you took or did not take.

 The act of forgiving has several components.  There is a thinking or cognitive part which is primarily down to arriving at the decision to forgive or not to forgive.   The second part of forgiveness is the emotional part that's truly felt and sought where the forgiver assumes an empathic stance and can accept what happened. In emotional forgiveness, there is active processing and reframing of the negative feelings that the person has about the events when they were wronged or mistreated.  This is harder to achieve and can take more time.

 So why is it so hard to forgive? When you are insulted or harmed, the memory of the event is etched deeply into the brain’s memory systems, ruminated on, and associated with strong feelings of resentment and anger, sometimes vengeance and a tendency to avoid contact with the person that hurt you.  By revisiting these memories and reliving the original anger and resentment over and over, we subject ourselves to a vicious cycle of suffering and pain. In this process, our brain changes; our fear center, the amygdala, gets larger and becomes more active and the parts of our brain that deal with empathy are dampened down. So, it becomes harder to shift our perspective and we tend to get stuck in a ‘grudge’ mode.

But with forgiveness, when anger and resentment is released, blood pressure and pain levels are reduced, sleep improves, and there is a decrease in anxiety, depression, and stress.

And your brain also changes for the better in this process.  The brain circuits responsible for empathy and positive emotions become more active and the intensity of the emotional memory of the hurt diminishes. While we may be predisposed to having a low or a high tendency to forgive, we can all learn and practice how to forgive and activate these brain pathways to attain a state of forgiveness.  The good news is that we can teach ourselves to forgive and get better at forgiveness to gain these physical and brain health benefits.

 One of the misunderstandings about forgiving others is that you must receive an apology, or that the person that hurt you must show remorse. While words of remorse and an apology helps, forgiveness can be reached in their absence. In Northern Ireland, mothers whose sons were murdered in the Troubles were able to work toward forgiveness with significant benefits to their emotional wellbeing, even though they never received an apology or heard words of remorse from their sons’ killers.  Sometimes, we must confront the unforgivable to arrive at forgiveness. The pain of what happened does not necessarily dissipate; however, the amount of suffering that we experience can be diminished by the act of forgiveness.

Older people tend to be more forgiving than children and adolescents. This may be because older people experience negative emotions less intensely so the decision to forgive may be resisted more lightly or it could be that older people perceive that their future time is limited, and therefore focus their attention on what makes most sense, and forgiveness is one of these important tasks. This can be particularly true at the end of life and may explain why achieving forgiveness and reconciliation for past conflicts and regrets is key to a peaceful death. However, we should not wait until the end of life to seek or give forgiveness. 

The opposite of forgiveness may not be revenge but foolishness because when we lack forgiveness, we diminish our humanity and our health. Taking the decision to forgive has powerful mental and physical health benefits. So, why not prescribe a strong dose of forgiveness for each other at this time of year? It’s never too early or too late to start on the road to forgiveness, and there has never been a better time to start that journey than now. Imagine the cumulative benefits to health and wellbeing that would accrue at the individual and societal level if everyone today forgave another person for what happened in the past.

 Brian Lawlor is Conolly Professor of Old Age Psychiatry and Site Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin

This article was originally published in the Irish Independent. You can read the article at this LINK

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