This Christmas give the ‘Gift of Forgiveness’. This perfect gift requires no shopping, no wrapping and poses no concern over cost, size, color or redundancy. It the ultimate gift for everyone, especially for the ones who seem to have everything and it is truly the very best gift we can give ourselves. Forgiveness heals our injured heart enabling it to flow unrestricted to health while enhancing our personal resilience.
Forgiveness is the ideal Christmas gift as the Holidays are often a time when emotional challenges peak. Consider that in our present stressful times after all the extra effort required to “deck the halls”, complete the endless shopping and leave work in good order, we reserve little energy to deal with unresolved grudges guaranteed to surface during intimate kindred yuletide dinners. You know its inevitable!
The holidays have a knack of dredging up short and long-buried grievances. And research shows that all that resentment (both current and past) dampens your holiday joy while it takes a serious toll on your health.
The following is based primarily from a December 2016 Chatelaine issue:
The physical burden of emotional pain is substantial, particularly where grudges and resentments are involved. Research on forgiveness has linked tightly held grudges to a host of bodily assaults, including sweating, high blood pressure and immune suppression. Sadly, often the weight of bitterness is literally crushing the body.
If you are holding on to grudges and resentment you are telling yourself every day, all day that you have been harmed, abused and maltreated. Those constant negative messages to the body are read as incredibly stress-inducing messages. And according to the Stanford Forgiveness Project in California letting resentment fester secretes stress hormones, like adrenaline, and primes the body to fight or flight — even when the threat is emotional. Over time, the body’s overall wear and tear is so corrosive that the Stanford Forgiveness Project likens it to putting too much Drano in your pipes – corrosive! Research has proven that there is a direct connection between high stress levels and diminished mental and physical health.
The more interesting finding of the Forgiveness Project is that in cases where people reported a higher tendency to forgive, the connection between stress and mental illness was almost entirely eliminated. This suggests that forgiveness may act as a protective buffer between us and life’s unpleasant and negative attacks.
Forgiveness is espoused by virtually every major religious text — and now a growing body of empirical research! Robert Enright, a Wisconsin-based educational psychologist known as the “father of forgiveness research,” thinks he knows why we “set ourselves up for ill health” rather than letting things go. As children we are rewarded for hard work and punished for breaking the rules, however we are seldom taught how to forgive when mistakes are made. This is the real mistake and as well a tragedy.
The path to off-loading some of our toxic anger starts with “Getting rid of resentment, which can kill a person, but it is only half the equation,” says Enright. “It’s also about offering a kind of compassion. Get rid of something negative, offer something positive.” Still, it’s crucial to note that the space between forgiveness and plain old repression (a popular family tradition) is razor-thin. “It’s not just ‘letting it go’ or excusing”.
Enright says “forgiveness is not: time-sensitive, contingent on apologies, and the same as reconciliation — you don’t have an obligation to re-enter a situation that could truly do you harm. It’s about getting rid of hatred, and, paradoxically, offering goodness to those who have not been good to you.” Enright has also debunked the old adage “forgive and forget” —“it’s not about wiping your memory, but “remembering in new ways.”
The neurological impacts of this kind of empathetic reframing are so powerful that they can actually be mapped in the brain. A 2013 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience asked participants to think about forgiveness and observed their brain activity using MRI scans. Their frontal lobes, the home of emotional regulation and our ability to attribute mental states and feelings to others, lit up. This suggests that forgiveness plays an important role in offsetting aggression with empathy. Enright says, “You’re seeing that the other has weaknesses like you do” – and therefore compassion becomes simpler.
Andrea Moses, a Toronto-based psychotherapist who runs forgiveness seminars, suggests that while forgiveness is about casting off past hurts in the present, ultimately, it’s essential to engage in some “Columbo-style” sleuthing to truly understand the source of our “low burn” of rage — which (surprise!) is often where family comes in. “During the holidays, people will get so mad over something like their sister not toasting them at dinner, but if you trace it back, you’d most likely find that the sibling saw her sister as the ‘golden child,’ or that there was a significant rivalry there,” Moses says. “If you get to the source, you can make peace, and when you don’t, that’s when health breaks down. The body gets tired of the lies.”
Fortunately, according to Moses, Luskin and Enright, there’s plenty that can be done in the interim pre-forgiveness period to minimize your yuletide discord. To quell any physical symptoms, Luskin recommends “rehearsing positive coping” in advance of family obligations. “You need to practice a stress management technique before you show up at Mom’s house,” he says. “Then, if you find your blood pressure rising, take a couple of deep breaths instead of driving yourself crazy.” Moses is a proponent of more “emotional goals,” like strong boundaries. “You can’t go home, cross your fingers and hope [things are] going to change,” she says. “Confront someone if they’re ignoring you or treating you badly in public. Say to them in advance, ‘I feel very uncomfortable when you do x and I’m asking you not to.’ It’s a huge step for people to consider that they can actually intervene in a fixed system like that.”
Forgiveness may be divine, but if the research is anything to go on, it’s the purview of very flawed humans too. (i.e. There is no school on how to be a perfect parent and raise a perfect child.) It’s this belief in the transformative power of relinquishing grudges — and, crucially, the idea that it can be taught — that spurs on Luskin’s work. “People have struggled with how to forgive for centuries,” he says, “and this shows you that you don’t have to wait for church, that it’s not exotic or outside of people’s capacities.” Enright adds that, yes, even in the sometimes Colosseum-like milieu of family parties, we can find healing. “Our imperfections are played out most readily within the family context, and, given the importance of emotional intimacy there, the hurts [incurred] can be the deepest — and the most long-lasting. “And yet, “forgiveness cures.”
With Christmas right around the corner, now’s the time to finalize your shopping and prepare to give that perfect gift(s) – the Gift of Forgiveness in four easy steps:
- Shopping – have you been holding on to grudges or resentment – have you been emotionally injured? By others and/or yourself?
- Wrapping – make a commitment to “Forgive” those (especially if it is yourself) that have injured you in the past – and feel empathy for them (notice how good that feels);
- Generous Giving – reframe the injury to see the offender as a human being who will have had environmental factors (get to the source) that led to the offence – replace anger with compassion and empathy – feel your heart-stirring;
- Receiving Joy – watch your resentment lessen and in that space, replace it with the joy of receiving – realize the lesson from the pain you held onto as a victim – transform that freeing energy into learned resilience so that you can avoid being emotionally wounded in the future!
Let It Go! And move onto a life filled with Joy reinforced by your newly enhanced Personal Resilience…….. for more help on enhancing your personal resilience.
Merry Christmas to All and Enjoy your yuletide kindred dinners!
“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim–letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”
– C.R. Strahan