Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Shandi-lee Cox.

A relative stiffs you for money that you kindly loaned him. Your former partner dragged you to court for expensive divorce proceedings. Friends turned their backs on you when you were going through a medical crisis. Or your long-time employer let you go despite years of dedication on the job.

If you’re like most people, the anger that comes with being treated unjustly can pile up in the far corners of your mind over time. And just because it’s neatly tucked away in storage, doesn’t mean that anger doesn’t continue to eat away at you. It festers and breeds to the point where it may eventually cast a shadow over everyday life. To deal with those feelings, experts say learning to forgive can light the way to emotional healing.

“Forgiveness is a freeing thing so it has lots of freedom in how it is expressed.”

But let’s face it, when someone has done you wrong, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t forgiveness. That’s OK. Whether you know it or not, feeling that rage and acknowledging your emotional wounds play an important part in the forgiveness process. It’s when we keep a tight lid on our emotions that we encounter problems.

Psychologist Robert Enright, author of Forgiveness Is A Choice, says that’s the beauty of it. He has been studying forgiveness since 1985. “Forgiveness is a freeing thing so it has lots of freedom in how it is expressed,” he explains. “I don’t see a rule book that people have to follow about having to go to a person and proclaim that they are forgiving them.”

Learning to let go of past hurts can help lead to emotional healing. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Lorna Mitchell.

What he does often see is reluctance to forgive, at least initially. As a society, we’re not so skilled at forgiving. In a Gallup survey, 94 percent of those surveyed said it was important to forgive, yet only 48 percent said they tried to forgive others. Enright believes people balk at the idea because of some prevailing misconceptions: “We think that when you forgive, you deny the unfairness, you deny the injustice [of what happened to you].… That’s absolutely not the case.”

It also doesn’t excuse, condone, or mean acceptance of, or forgetting, a wrong that was committed. It’s not a way of caving in to the perpetrator. It’s not the same thing as reconciling. Forgiveness is something you can do without the other person’s involvement. Reconciliation takes two people to achieve. You can forgive and still choose not to have that person in your life. Once misconceptions are addressed, the resistance to the idea of forgiveness falls away.

“We think that when you forgive, you deny the unfairness, you deny the injustice [of what happened to you].… That’s absolutely
not the case.”

But why forgive at all? The truth is, the emotional and physical benefits are considerable. As Enright points out, forgiveness is an act of giving towards others. With it, your payoff is emotional healing, increased feeling of hope, reduced anger, depression and anxiety. The spin-off effects also mean you stop spreading anger onto the people around you. Your relationships with other people—ones that had nothing to do with the injustice you suffered—become healthier.

Giving up that ironclad grip on your resentments may also perk up your physical wellness, according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Stress is reduced – always a good thing for your body. Heart health improves because of lower blood pressure. And even the amount of physical discomfort you feel might be reduced. A study with people who had chronic back pain found that those who focused on turning anger into compassion through meditation had less pain than non-converters.

To get to that positive place called forgiveness, the process can be boiled down to four basic steps, according to Leslie Greenberg, professor of psychology and director of the psychotherapy clinic at York University in Toronto. Start with the specific thing that really hurt you, Greenberg advises. That’s not limited to just the wrong, but looking at the specific part of the wrong felt like salt in the wound. If your boyfriend cheated, that’s a prime source of hurt, but if he did it while you were both going to couples’ therapy, that’s the salt.

Second, and this is the step we’re really good at running from, is facing those negative emotions, from anger to disappointment. “It’s important to acknowledge those feelings, and grieve,” he explains. It can be a tough step because you may think that admitting to hurt and anger means that somehow the other person succeeded in injuring you. But if you stay bitter, the person who wounded you wins because their control and negative influence will continue. You’re the one who loses.

Steps three and four are intertwined. Greenberg helps clients imagine that the other person may regret what happened and that some part of them accepts responsibility. You may try to put yourself in their shoes to understand their actions. Giant caveat here: By doing this, you are absolutely not excusing an injustice. Not in any way. You’re just putting that person in a compassionate light, so you can feel empathy and stop viewing that person as the devil. It’s a big leap, and it takes as long as it takes. There’s no time line to follow. It could require years to go through this process and the greater the grievance, the longer you may need. If you rush the process, it becomes pseudo-forgiveness, where it’s merely an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one.

“Forgiveness really happens when you can wish someone well, then refrain from adding, ‘May you rot in hell.’”

When you have truly forgiven someone, you let go of your desire for revenge, says Greenberg. “It gives you a sense of peace, calm and freedom.” You feel compassion, warmth and caring for the one who has hurt you, although, “you may not want them in your life anymore. Forgiveness really happens when you can wish someone well, then refrain from adding, ‘May you rot in hell.’”

If forgiveness is so important to our well being, why are we so inept at it? Greenberg has his theories, including the fact we are taught as children to say “I’m sorry” but we don’t learn to forgive. It’s a skill we’re missing. “We’ve been sitting on the forgiveness couch, eating our fat-free potato chips, and we’re not getting out there and working on the small things before big things happens,” he says. He suggests building up our forgiveness muscles and readying ourselves for the bigger injustices bound to happen by practising on the small stuff—forgiving a friend who neglects to thank you for a gift, or a co-worker who makes a snide remark about your outfit.

But there are some people who will never let go. “They’ll take deep bitterness and hatred to the grave,” says Enright. “That is a huge waste of human resources; but if they would at least examine the arguments for forgiveness, and let them lead them where they may, people might be surprised that forgiveness is not what they initially thought it was.”