Some people see forgiveness as a sign of weakness, but Mason Turner, MD, describes forgiveness as a powerful act that can have lasting health benefits.
Dr. Turner is Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s director of Outpatient Mental Health and Addiction Medicine. In a recent interview, he said the process of forgiveness for a serious offense can be long and difficult, but research shows forgiveness can lower your stress levels, boost your immune system, and help you to be a better friend, family member and colleague.
How do you define forgiveness?
Forgiveness is acknowledging that there’s been an offense committed against you and then choosing to let go of resentment you may feel towards the person or persons who hurt you. Forgiveness is not saying it was OK — it’s figuring out how to move on.
This can be simply deciding not to fume about someone cutting you off in traffic, or something more complicated, such as forgiving a spouse who was unfaithful.
What are some of the benefits of forgiving?
First, consider the costs of not forgiving. Not forgiving someone often leads to hostility towards that person, and your anger and bitterness can seep into other parts of your life. Hostility keeps levels of the stress hormone cortisol elevated in your body, which can trigger a whole range of bad outcomes, including high blood pressure, immune system issues and a tendency to gain weight.
Holding on to hostility also has psychological consequences. It can keep you feeling like a victim, prevent you from moving past a trauma, and lead to anxiety and depression.
Conversely, there’s strong research demonstrating that engaging in forgiveness reduces the cortisol circulating in your body, leading to many benefits, including lower blood pressure, cholesterol and heart attack risk, and better sleep. Forgiveness also helps you to regulate your stress response and reduce your overall level of anxiety and depression.
There’s also research showing that forgiveness increases happiness in the relationship where you offered forgiveness and beyond. I think this is because forgiveness often requires soul searching, and that process can help you be more present in other relationships.
How do you see the forgiveness process?
It can be easy to forgive someone quickly for a small offense, but if someone has committed a serious offense against you, the process may take months or even years. It’s not the act of saying words of forgiveness that is beneficial, it’s the intention behind the words.
Before you can forgive, it’s important to have processed or reflected on the offense. What happened, how did it make you feel, and how has the anger or hurt you’ve experienced affected you since?
It can be helpful to try to empathize. If you can put yourself in the shoes of the person who hurt you, you may better understand why they did what they did. This doesn’t excuse the offense or the offender, but it can help you see the person more as a human being who made a mistake.
Acknowledging that you have sometimes hurt other people and have been forgiven can also help you learn to forgive others.
What are some of the challenges of forgiving?
Forgiveness can be tough. You can go through the steps, but actually feeling real forgiveness can be extraordinarily difficult.
The good news is that forgiveness is a practice, so the more you practice the better you get. And the research is clear that forgiving someone can help you move on to live a happier, healthier life.