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Not Forgetting…But Forgiving: Is It Good for Us?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Grandma’s sage advice that we “forgive and forget” is something many of us have grown up hearing. All well and good, we say. But then we have a life experience that shakes this age-old wisdom to the core. Some things – people – we experience seem almost unforgiveable.

And then there’s ourselves. How many of us spend vast amounts of time in our minds beating ourselves up endlessly without self-forgiveness and moving on. What does this do to our mental health and general wellbeing?

Well, research suggests that holding on to emotions like resentment, blame, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, which can be be fostered through rumination (or playing the same idea over and over in the mind), has dire health effects along the same lines as chronic or extreme stress. For example, blood pressure can be affected, and another study found that supressed hostility and anger were linked to carotid atherosclerosis in a sample of Finnish men. The underlying process is that these intense negative emotions re-set the autonomic nervous system into a state of hyperarousal, triggering a cascade of potentially serious physical problems.

Slipping into the rut of repressed rage also has social consequences. To stay so deeply entangled into bad feelings and negative thinking typically leads to social isolation, or can result in us connecting only with other negative people so the hostility and distress becomes magnified as each person shares their dreadful stories.

Self-unforgiveness resulting from getting trapped in the web of thoughts about our personal mistakes may increase levels of guilt, shame, and regret that in turn negatively impact mental health. Not only are we likely to suffer anxiety disorders, but depression is a risk especially if we isolate ourselves from everyday activities and connections with other people.

To achieve forgiveness, we need to focus on what we call decisional and emotional forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is about the actions we commit to take - a behavioural intention to give up an unforgiving stance and to act differently toward a transgressor. Emotional forgiveness is the replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive emotions towards the person who hurt us. Emotional forgiveness involves psychophysiological changes, and it has more direct health and well-being consequences.

Since the pain of social transgressions (people doing things to us that hurt, especially if done deliberately) is deep, making the decision to forgive is challenging. One tip is to do a cost-benefit analysis. Make a list of the benefits, for you and the other, of hanging onto the pain or distress. Write out why it would be good to stay unforgiving. Then make a list of the costs – what price is to be paid by not forgiving? What benefits could come your way if you choose to forgive, and what costs will be incurred if you forgive. Do this on a sheet of paper drawn into four sections, and take a few days to think about it, letting new insights come to the surface.

Emotional forgiveness might sound easier but for many people who are well skilled at regulating or managing their own emotions, it can be equally challenging. Give this a go. Every time a thought or memory related to the transgressor comes to mind, look around you and pay attention to something in the present moment that gives you a good feeling. Notice the sun shining, feel and appreciate its warmth. Take a look at something amazing in nature that reignites your wonder and awe. Learn to shift your attention away from the inner world into the outer world. Or try using a mantra or affirmation that is a small group of words that inspire you. Over time, as you do this, the stranglehold of unforgiveness will weaken. Writing a forgiveness letter can also be a powerful way to move forward.

Whether you do this in relation to another person, or you do it in relation to yourself, there’s no doubt that making the decision to let go of unforgiveness and get unstuck from the pain of unforgiveness is a huge step towards better health and wellbeing. Next week’s Mental Fitness class will explore forgiveness in more detail and give you more tools for healing.

Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist

Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island


TEL: 52112 or email

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