Several years ago, Rudy Nydegger, chief of psychology at Ellis Hospital, was working as a college dean when he thought that he and a close friend who worked as a vice president at the same college, had come to an understanding about an issue.
“Then we were together at this meeting, and he really stabbed me in the back,” Nydegger recalled.
Although Nydegger never trusted the man again, after a few weeks he went to him and said: “You’ve not offered an apology, and I’m not asking for one. I think what you did was wrong, unethical and a violation of trust. But I’ve decided I’m going to forgive you whether you offer an apology or not because I’m tired of hauling this around.”
Experts say Nydegger did the right thing.
Forgiving a friend or family member may be the last thing you feel like doing, but for the sake of your health, it’s worth considering.
Studies suggest that harboring negative thoughts and feelings may influence your psychological and physical well-being.
Need for detachment
Dr. Robert A. Weissberg, a family physician and owner of Integrative Medicine in Clifton Park, said that by holding a grudge, we are keeping our energy in the past rather than in the present, where we can do something about the situation.
“The other thing is, we are continuing to hurt ourselves by allowing the original perpetrator to hurt us, even though he may not even be on the scene or care about it anymore,” Weissberg explained.
“Forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing. It means detaching your energy from it so it no longer hurts you. It means transforming your story of victimhood into a story of heroism — that despite all that was done to you, you are surviving.”
Peter Guare, owner of Human Hyperformance, a health and fitness center in Scotia, said holding a grudge produces stress in our body that generates the fight or flight response.
“The stress response was designed to take action to fix the problem,” Guare explained. “But if you just replay the incident over and over again, you are not fixing the problem. The stress response is not meant to be a chronic condition. It is meant to be acute, and it will break your body down.”
Studies show that people who are unforgiving have elevated blood pressure and heart rates as well as increased muscle tension and feelings of being less in control. When they were asked to imagine forgiving the person who had hurt them, the participants said they felt more positive and more relaxed.
Dr. Ronald Stram, founder and director of the Center for Integrative Health and Healing in Delmar, said when people don’t forgive, it creates an adrenalin response in their body.
“That response can result in an accelerated heartbeat, shallow respirations and high blood pressure,” said Stram. “We all have a physical pain center that is attached to our emotional pain center. And they seem to get stimulated when people hold on to their anger.”
You don’t always have to work out your differences with the person to forgive, said Stram.
“Forgiveness is about the individual, not about settling your differences,” he said. “It’s about understanding that horrible things happen, but you can still forgive the person. You don’t forgive the act.”
Forgiveness is really for ourselves, added Sister Rita Jean DuBrey, director of the Center for Complementary Therapies in Amsterdam.
“From a Judeo-Christian perspective, our Lord certainly teaches us how important forgiveness is,” said DuBrey. “People do things that are very unjust and harming — but the healing, the forgiveness, is really for our own self-healing.”
Sister Jean Roche, a Sister of Mercy, who serves as campus minister at Maria College in Albany, said when you forgive people, you rid yourself of a heavy burden.
“There’s a danger of repressing anger,” said Roche. “It’s detrimental to the spirit as well, because I think anger and resentment take up space where otherwise divine energy could reside. It sort of crowds you and can leak into other relationships. You become tense and anxious, and ultimately, it is detrimental to the body and can cause illness.”
Forgiveness can be learned.
“Forgiveness is a process,” said Roche. “Each time you forgive, you forgive at a deeper level. You get some insights into the situation, and ultimately, you may look back on it and see an immense amount of growth and insight. But unless you process those feelings and accept them nonjudgmentally, the anger is going to reside there on some level.”
Forgiveness doesn’t always mean you forget the incident and reconcile with the person who wronged you.
“I guess I’m inclined to believe if you forget, you miss the lesson learned,” said Roche. “Maybe you can distance yourself from the pain and remember the lesson.”
Looking at a situation and deciding that you are tired of hauling around negative feelings about the incident allows you closure, said Nydegger.
Avoiding family feuds
“I’ve seen families torn apart forever because of someone’s unwillingness to either apologize or to forgive,” he said.
The best way to teach children to forgive is for their parents to show them.
“If we want our kids to become reasonable, forgiving people, then we need to be the ones to demonstrate how that is done,” said Nydegger.
After Nydegger forgave the college vice president, the man, embarrassed, did apologize.
“But frankly I didn’t do it to be noble,” Nydegger admitted. “I was just tired of feeling bad about it.”
Experts say there are several methods for learning how to forgive someone who has hurt you.
- Try to look at the situation from the other’s person’s point of view. Often, their behavior is more about who they are instead of who you are.
- Let them know how you feel in a nonconfrontational way. Some people have no idea they did anything wrong or why you are angry at them, and when you tell them, they are quick to apologize.
- Realize the issue is in the past and that it will never change, so you don’t have to keep replaying it over. Revisiting it will keep you stuck in the past and prevent your own progress.
- Write down all the thoughts that make you angry. Imagine where the tension is in your body, and allow yourself to let it go.
- Don’t deny the feelings. Talk to a spiritual adviser or counselor about the incident and make peace in your heart.
- Try drawing pictures that illustrate what you are feeling. You can keep them or throw them away.
- Imagine yourself forgiving the person and sending them blessings or gratitude for what you have learned.
- Dig a hole in the ground and bury all of your anger, resentments and judgments against yourself and others.
- Accept that until you forgive and move on, the incident will control your life. Staying stuck will most likely do much more damage to you than the original incident. While you can’t always control what happens, you can control how you respond.
Sometimes, you have to forgive more than once, added DuBrey.
“It isn’t a one-step deal,” she said. “We are all broken in this life. Forgiving is a process.”