By Chris Iliades, M.D.
Reviewed by Niya Jones, M.D., MPH
Being able to forgive a life-changing hurt, humiliation or injustice has emotional and physical benefits. Rather than harboring resentments and being stuck, possibly for decades, in depression and stressful emotions, forgiveness-focused therapy helps you get past deep emotional wounds and move on with life. Practicing the principles of forgiveness-focused therapy can help even if your resentments are of the everyday variety.
A review of studies on forgiveness as a goal in psychotherapy, or talk therapy, published in 2014 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, looked at 54 studies involving psychotherapy aimed at forgiveness for people who had suffered traumatic hurt, humiliation or betrayal.
"What we found was that forgiveness intervention works as well as psychotherapy for other common psychological problems," said Nathaniel G. Wade, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University and lead author of the review.
Some of the key findings were that forgiveness-focused therapy can decrease anxiety and depression and increase hope for the future, longer treatment was more effective than shorter treatment and individual therapy was more effective than group therapy.
What Is Forgiveness-Focused Therapy?
"Forgiveness-focused therapy has been used since the 1980s and its use grew through the 1990s. It can be adapted as part of any traditional psychotherapy, as long as the core requirements of the therapy are included," said Wade.
- Being able to recall the hurtful experience in a safe and supportive environment
- Being willing to feel some empathy for the offender
- Making a commitment to the process of forgiveness
Forgiveness doesn't mean condoning or forgetting the offense -- it's more about acceptance and moving on. "Empathy for the offender can include trying to understand what factors may have made a person behave badly. In some cases, it may only be the ability to feel sadness or pity for the offender," said Wade.
Forgiveness therapy can be helpful for a wide range of traumas including sex abuse, loss of a loved one, infidelity, and even financial losses, added Wade. The only limitations are an unwillingness to try to forgive or a coexisting condition that interferes with therapy such as substance abuse.
"This review brings more attention to the benefits of forgiving," said Scott Bea, a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and mood disorders and assistant professor of medicine in the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine in Ohio. "Commitment is an important part of any psychotherapy. Empathy can be a private, positive and restful action. The offender does not need to participate in forgiveness or even know he or she is forgiven."
The Benefits From Forgiveness Therapy
"Our research shows that thinking about forgiveness instead of revenge is better for physical health as well as mental heath. The body responds better to forgiveness. Hope for the future increases. This can mean better relationships as well as less depression and anxiety," said Wade.
Learning to feel empathy is not just about forgiving a single offense. "It is a skill that will benefit you throughout your life," said Bea.
Here are forgiveness tips and adaptive coping strategies you can use every day:
- You don't need to talk to a therapist -- venting hurts and resentments with a trusted friend or family member can be beneficial.
- Writing down your hurts and resentments in a letter can be a form of commitment. "Then trash or burn the letter as a conscious, physical symbol of commitment to forgiveness," said Wade.
- To help develop empathy, try writing a letter to yourself as though you were the offender. "Try to explain why you, as the offending party, might have acted the way you did," suggested Wade.
- If you find yourself obsessing about an injury, tell yourself loudly to stop. Then replace those thoughts with something more relaxing, constructive or inspiring.
"One of the most important lessons to learn from forgiveness-focused therapy is that the forgiving is not a sign of weakness. It does not mean you are a doormat or a patsy. As Gandhi said, 'The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.' When you learn to forgive, you are not letting the offender off the hook, you are letting yourself go free," said Bea.
How To Let Go, Forgive And Feel Better originally appeared on Everyday Health.