Bury the hatchet. Let bygones be bygones. Kiss and make up. We have so many ways of describing forgiveness—but so few strategies for actually achieving it. The key to letting go for  good is understanding the psychology and the science behind your feelings. The grudge stops here.

Craig Cutler

The spring of my freshman year in high school, the mother of one of my friends started a campaign. The gist of her message was that I was cruel and conniving and that other parents should keep their kids away from me. She was persuasive. She provided examples of crimes I had allegedly committed. She read a list of them over the telephone to my friends’ parents and to an untold number of acquaintances. What set her off is still a mystery. Our families had logged considerable time in each other’s minivans. Her daughter and I played soccer together, and I had spent more hours on the road with her than with my own siblings.

When the campaign started, I was too stunned and hurt to ask my friend if she agreed with what her mother was saying about me. She didn’t hint otherwise. And just like that, we never really spoke again. It sounds strange, but I still felt close to her on the soccer field, where she knew what my next move would be better than anyone, and I hers. After our games, her mother handed out Tootsie Pops as usual—to every girl except me. To be fair, I wouldn’t have taken one from her even if she had offered.

The campaign, as far as I know, lasted until I left home for college. I tried to ignore the woman, but the truth is, she got to me. I knew that what she was doing was wrong—her charges were inaccurate at best—but I suspected that many people believed her. I wondered how I could have inspired such dislike in another human being, let alone an adult whom I had trusted, if I hadn’t done something truly terrible, if I wasn’t at least a little bit bad inside. In the years since, I’ve tried to gain perspective: She didn’t kill a person I loved or rob me of my life savings. And yet, 15 years later—15!—thinking about her still makes my heartbeat quicken and my stomach knot. In all my relationships, I remain alert to the possibility of ambush, of love and friendship dissolving without warning.

Clearly this is not a healthy way to live. I’ve devoted precious brain space to rehashing this episode in lieu of worthier pursuits: memorizing Spanish verbs, tracking the shelf life of vegetables, keeping up to date with the “Stuff on My Cat” Tumblr. Recently I’ve begun to wonder: If I could forgive my former friend’s mother, would I be able to forget about her? And if so, why do I still not want to?

 

Unforgiveness

For much of human history, forgiveness has been a religious concept, something worshippers prayed to receive from whatever god they believed in and tried to bestow on others in return. But in 1984, when Lewis B. Smedes, an influential Christian theologian, published a book called Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve ($14, amazon.com), secular therapists and researchers took note. Smedes wrote about forgiving not as a blessing you could confer upon those who had hurt you but rather as a way to heal your own pain.

“We are always, all of us, pushed into this critical stage when we feel that somebody has hurt us deeply,” Smedes writes. “Will we let our pain hang on to our hearts where it will eat away our joy?” According to Smedes, people do not need to excuse the wrong, or even stop feeling angry about it, to forgive the wrongdoer and, in so doing, live a happier life. Partly inspired by his work, scientists and mental-health professionals began a deeper investigation into the benefits of forgiveness and discovered evidence that it might improve physical health, too.

Today scientists tend to agree that holding a serious grudge can cause stress, which has a toxic effect on your body. Unforgiveness—which researchers define as repeatedly thinking about an injustice you’ve suffered through a lens of vengeance, hostility, bitterness, resentment, anger, sadness, or all of the above—can raise your blood pressure and your risk of stroke and heart attack. It can impair the functioning of your immune system by disrupting the cytokines (protein molecules that carry messages between cells) that govern inflammation. And when people “have a lot of unforgiveness, they generate all kinds of stress hormones,” says Everett L. Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, and the author and editor of a number of books on forgiveness science, including Handbook of Forgiveness ($120, amazon.com).

Unforgiveness also appears to exacerbate mental-health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The expert consensus: Getting rid of unforgiveness will improve your quality of life.

But is forgiveness the only—or best—way to purge yourself of unforgiveness? No, says Worthington. Here’s a mindbender: Successful revenge will also do the trick.

 

Just How Sweet is Revenge?

Part of the reason that forgiving is so difficult may be that revenge feels so good. Plus, it can be a powerful form of self-protection. In his book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct ($25, amazon.com), Michael E. McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, Florida, writes that “the desire for revenge is a built-in feature of human nature,” which evolved because it helped us defend ourselves against harm. Among our ancient ancestors, taking revenge on a wrongdoer probably prevented him from misbehaving again; it also could have deterred others from trying to do harm in the first place.

In a landmark 2004 study published in the journal Science, economists from the University of Zurich showed that deciding to punish someone for deceiving us activates the dorsal striatum, a part of the brain linked to the processing of rewards and the same area that is stimulated when we want chocolate or sex. The more pleasure we anticipate feeling when we exact revenge, researchers have found, the less magnanimous we tend to be toward the wrongdoer—and the more we’re willing to sacrifice our own well-being to get even.

If revenge is a natural way of protecting ourselves, does forgiveness make us weak? Not at all, writes McCullough. Forgiveness is equally innate—and an adaptation that also improves our odds of survival.

Humans are social creatures, and forgiveness can help us repair valuable bonds with friends and relatives. A number of animals that live in cooperative groups—such as chimpanzees, goats, dolphins, and hyenas—reconcile after a fight: Chimps kiss and hug each other; the other species touch horns, flippers, or noses.

A 2012 study at Massachusetts General Hospital also found that people who practiced compassion meditation—which involves feeling loving kindness toward yourself and others, including those who have wronged you—showed significant positive changes in the activity of the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in regulating emotion. Those who engaged in the activity for four hours a week demonstrated greater empathy and reported a greater decrease in depression than did those who tried a form of meditation that focused on breathing. The takeaway? Practicing the generous thinking necessary for forgiveness may alter your brain chemistry for the better.

 

Forgiveness is Good for You

And it’s attainable, too. McCullough writes that “every neurologically intact person comes into this world outfitted with the capacity to forgive under certain circumstances.” But the circumstances do matter—and that’s what makes the act such a difficult one at times.

Forgiving a good friend who has apologized for hurting you makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary cost-benefit perspective: You regain a meaningful ally along with a promise that you won’t be hurt again. But say your friend isn’t sorry. Does forgiving then become perilous? And are there crimes so terrible that they can’t, or shouldn’t, be forgiven?

Seek the answers to those questions at your local library and you’ll discover plenty of therapists, spiritual healers, philosophers, and religious figures eager to weigh in. At my library, where you have to empty your backpack for inspection at the exit, the door-checker couldn’t hide her interest in my how-to selections. Tapping the words “unconditional forgiveness” with a manicured finger, she said, “I don’t think people have this.”

Most prominent forgiveness thinkers would agree with her and say that “unconditional forgiveness” is a bit of a misnomer: Forgiveness that purports to wash away hurts completely, as if they had never happened and without anyone being held accountable for them, may not be real and certainly isn’t good for you. Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Westport, Connecticut, and the author of How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To ($15, amazon.com), told me that the only true forgiveness is “a hard-won transaction, in which the offender works hard to earn it and the hurt party works hard to grant it or let it go.” But if the offender can’t or won’t sincerely apologize, she argues, there’s no reason to forgive him.

On the other hand, psychologist Fred Luskin, Ph.D., a cofounder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, an ongoing series of workshops and research initiatives, believes that if you want to, you can forgive even the most unrepentant person you know—a cruel, remorseless boyfriend, for instance. However, forgiving him may mean severing your ties with him, if you haven’t done so already; otherwise he may continue to hurt you. Luskin also believes that you can offer forgiveness to the dead, even if that person never asked for it. To Luskin, forgiveness largely means changing the story you repeat to yourself about what someone did to you.

“Forgiveness is a trainable skill, just like learning to throw a baseball,” he writes in his book Forgive for Good ($15, amazon.com). What does it feel like when you master this skill? “The words people use most are ‘I feel a weight off my shoulders,’ ” Luskin told me. “It’s a body that gets less tight; a mind that’s less preoccupied; deeper breathing; a sense of inner freedom.”

So is forgiveness an emotion? A decision? How will you know you’ve done it? That’s the question that I kept trying to answer while reporting this story, and as I did, I read tale after tale of human beings expressing forgiveness toward the perpetrators of horrific and senseless crimes. A father forgave a terrorist who blew up his little girl; a Manhattan tourist forgave a random stranger who walked up to him on the C train and plunged a knife blade into his heart.


If you take those people at their word, some forgave almost immediately. Others waited years. Some needed prerequisites met—an admission of guilt, an apology, an explanation. Others did not. Each act of absolution seemed at once deeply considered and primal—a rational decision and a compulsion that, while it might be rooted in biology, transcended biology’s perfect logic. Not even the descriptions I encountered of forgiveness as a miracle seemed to illuminate what forgiveness actually is: less a divine art than a messily, insanely human one.

Forgiveness, it seems safe to say, is an individual journey, but one that requires us to engage with those who have hurt us—in person or in our heads. We have to admit to ourselves that they caused us pain. And we have to acknowledge their vulnerabilities as well as our own capacity to do harm: “The story is not usually about an innocent lamb and a bad wolf,” Smedes, the theologian, writes. “Most of us have to do our forgiving while we are being forgiven.” His prescription for knowing forgiveness when you see it is among the simplest I encountered, and to me it rings truest: “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”

It’s Elusive (and Personal)

I like to think of forgiveness as a continuum, not a specific fixed point that we either do or don’t reach. Maybe I like to think of it that way because I still can’t wish my former friend’s mother well. But I can wish her no harm.

And I can wedge open the fire door of my unforgiveness just enough to allow in a glimmer of her point of view: Reading between the lines of her accusations, I suspect that her daughter, who entered high school a year ahead of me and several of our closest friends, felt left out of our freshman circle. Her mother perhaps believed I was to blame. That doesn’t make her hypothesis true or what she did right, but it means that she’s just a person, not a monster.

Maybe she would be surprised to know—or maybe she has come to realize over the years—that where her daughter is concerned, she and I always shared the same desire: I want my former friend, who was smart and kind, to be happy, too.

The other day, I was pricing sugar-fix options at my local mini-mart after a frustrating afternoon of work when I spied a dusty box of 25 cent Tootsie Pops sitting on a bottom shelf. Typically I avoid them on principle. I couldn’t remember the last time I had had any, but I bought two. I sucked one slowly on a long, cold walk through the city I had just moved to as I headed to meet some new friends at a bar; I sucked the other all the way home. I felt independent. I was a woman striking out on her own, with the liberty and the capital to obtain her own Tootsie Pops. This is the new story I am telling myself.

They were delicious.


Read these three inspiring true stories of forgiveness.

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