The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” ― Mahatma Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections

If you find yourself frequently caught in a web of daydreams about ways to get back at someone who has hurt you, angered you or let you down then you are quickly making your way down the easy route to stress. Emotions such as anger and hostility quickly activate the “fight or flight response,” in the body where stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, speed up your heart rate and breathing. Blood pressure also rises as your blood vessels constrict. If this is a regular patterned response, then it can lead to burn out of adrenal glands and potential damage to the heart and other organs. But it doesn’t have to be like this – it may be time to learn about forgiveness.

Somewhere along the way we seem to have learned to equate forgiveness with letting those that have hurt us off the hook. And yet so much evidence shows that the people who can forgive are the ones who receive the real benefits. Forgiveness is about setting yourself free and you can do that by releasing the past so it no longer has control over your thoughts or the way you feel.

Results of numerous studies indicate that people who are more forgiving tend to have better relationships, less health problems and lower incidences of serious illnesses such as depression, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Why is this? “Because not forgiving raises your blood pressure, depletes immune function, makes you more depressed and causes enormous physical stress to the whole body” says Fred Luskin, PhD, a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (HarperCollins 2002).

Research findings suggest that forgiveness benefits us in a couple of ways. The first is by reducing the stress of unforgiveness. Negative emotions caused by stress create a toxic mixture of anger, bitterness, hatred, resentment and fear. Reducing and eliminating this negative energy in the body reduces the physical consequences of it by lowering blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol to normal levels.

A second way forgiveness works is broader in that people with strong social networks—friends, neighbours and family— tend to be healthier and happier than loners. This stems from how someone who is angry and remembers every slight against them is likely to lose more relationships during the course of a lifetime, while people who are able to forgive and let go are more likely to attract and keep a strong social support system.

Now how do we learn to forgive when all we’ve practiced is how to take umbrage? The good news is that it might be easier than you think to start the process of forgiving. The essence of forgiveness is accepting that something happened that was against your wishes or expectations and can’t be undone. It’s accepting that both we, and others, would do better if we knew better. This does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting or denying an offense. It also doesn’t necessarily involve reconciliation or putting yourself back into an abusive relationship.

The next step is how do we reduce the suffering of the hurt caused? Forgiveness becomes almost a by-product as the result of acknowledging and allowing the feelings of upset to be processed and expressed in a healthy mature way. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean giving up the right to seek justice or compensation. If someone vandalizes your car, you can forgive the culprit—but you can also seek payment for the repairs. Ultimately we have to let go of the hurt and anger to allow room for the energy of forgiveness.

Steps to Forgiveness

To make forgiveness part of your life, follow these guidelines:

1. Take responsibility for what you are feeling & commit yourself to healing your hurts. Forgiveness is for you, not for anyone else.

2. Get the frustration out. Talk to someone – This will help you explore your feelings and obtain a clearer sense of perspective.

3. Focus on facts rather than emotions. Don’t condone hurtful behavior, but make an attempt to understand the context of it.

4. Many offenses were not deliberately targeted to hurt you, but were byproducts of other people’s own selfishness or lack of awareness. Practice not taking things personally.

5. Forgive those you love. Grievances for long ago offenses too often become blocks that stop us from moving forward. The most important people to forgive are those close to us.

6. Learn to recognize when you start to blame others for how you feel. Instead of mentally replaying the hurts over and over, focus on your own positive goals. Don’t let yourself keep playing the victim role.

7. Practice focusing on the good and positive things in your life: loving family members & friends, kind acts by strangers, nature’s beauty, favorite music, and so on. Learn to recognize goodness, niceness and kindness, and thank people often.

8. Start with small things. Work on forgiving traffic stressors, abrupt phone people, rude clients and the many people or things that push our buttons but don’t really matter all that much. Then work up to forgiving the person who’s wronged you the most in your life.

9. Practice – practice – practice! You might not be ready to forgive someone immediately, but if you were, what would it sound and feel like? Practice forgiving yourself for mistakes as much as forgiving others.

10. Remind yourself that forgiveness is not about who is right. Forgiving is what frees you to move on with your life.

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“Whenever you feel out of touch, sad, or like you are floundering, just stop in that moment and ask, “How may I serve?” Then reach out in any small serving capacity and notice how purposeful you feel.