Even in a country far too accustomed to gun violence, the attack last June at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, shocked all. Nine parishioners were killed when a shooter opened fire at the end of a bible-study session, on a group that included reverends, grandmothers, and a beloved local librarian.
Pain and outrage reverberated around the nation. Then, two days later, something extraordinary happened: At the gunman's bond hearing, several of the victims' family members stood up and, one by one, forgave him. "You took something very precious away from me," said Nadine Collier, who lost her mother. "But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul." If the shooting rocked the nation, the families' responses riveted the world.
As we mark the first anniversary of the Charleston tragedy this month, we'll remember their grace as clearly as the shooter's extreme violence. Through forgiveness, the victims' families helped heal the country and also, quite possibly, themselves.
Being a forgiving person, rather than just forgiving a set offense, seems to carry the most health benefits.
Some evolutionary biologists hypothesize that – long before therapy or pills — humans developed forgiveness as a sort of coping mechanism to deal with the pain of loss and injustice. Ancient Polynesian cultures, for example, believed that you could not attain true health without it. And over the last few decades, a growing number of studies have examined the therapeutic effects of forgiveness.
"Back in the '90s, when science and religion were far apart, some of us decided to try to bring them closer together," says Frederic Luskin, PhD, author of Forgive for Good and cofounder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. "I thought: Hey, all these traditions say you should forgive. That sounds reasonable, but is it true?"
As is often the case with science, Dr. Luskin's personal experiences drove his curiosity. He became interested in forgiveness after a close friend broke off ties unexpectedly, and he was filled with sadness and anger.
"I struggled for years to get over that, just years," he says. "I eventually did, but it was an awful process. And it was awful because I wasn't prepared."
There's a clear consensus from the research, Luskin says: Letting go is as good for the body as it is for the soul. It's connected to better sleep and cardiovascular function, to lower rates of depression and substance abuse. People who are more forgiving report better health in general, less pain, and less chronic illness. Their overall mortality rates are lower, and Luskin thinks the reason is simple: "Hurt and anger are meant to be fleeting emotions, not permanent fixtures," and holding fast to them can set off a chemical stress response that takes a toll on your body, from jacking up blood pressure to disrupting sleep.
That's what happened to Beth, 39. (Her name has been changed.) Several years ago, her husband had an affair, and though the couple agreed to work on their marriage, she never could move past her resentment. The full-time mom had trouble eating and sleeping, and found herself ducking into the bathroom to sob.
"I couldn't even breast-feed my baby — I lost my milk supply," she adds.
Nearly a year after she'd learned of her husband's infidelity, she resolved to forgive him, not for the sake of their marriage — they soon divorced — but for her own well-being.
"I was with my kids at the park, and one of them had gotten on the monkey bars for the first time," she says. "He wouldn't let go of the first ring, so I kept telling him, 'Honey, you have to let go, and then you can move forward!' A lightbulb went off in my head. I knew that I would have to forgive in order to feel whole again."
Every so often, when resentment threatens to return, she has to remind herself to grab the next ring and keep moving forward.
"But the bad moments have gotten shorter and shorter," she says. "And they don't knock me down anymore."
As a young nurse working in end-of-life care, Ann Recine, an assistant clinical professor of nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, often saw patients beg for a resolution to conflicts that had destroyed their relationships. In response, she's pushed to make forgiveness coaching part of the nursing curriculum at her college and has reached out to nurses nationwide to increase awareness.
Recine also started a private practice focused on teaching people how to let go. The first thing she explains to clients: Forgiveness doesn't mean you have to "make up" with the other person, or even let them know you've forgiven them.
"I see people exhale when I tell them that," she says. "Forgiveness isn't reconciliation. It may open the door, but sometimes reconciling isn't safe, or simply is not what you want. And it's not pardoning, excusing, or condoning what happened."
At its most basic, forgiveness is finding a way to dump that potent brew of anger, resentment, and "why me's" that slosh around inside us when we remember being treated unfairly. It is equal parts acceptance and resilience. On some level, Luskin explains, it's also an opportunity to say to the transgressor, "I'm not going to give you power over me anymore." But whichever way you slice it, it's something that happens inside you, for you.
What's more, says Robert Enright, PhD, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute in Madison, WI, it can — and ideally, should — become habitual. Being a forgiving person, rather than just forgiving a set offense, seems to carry the most health benefits. The habit pays off, because the more you try to let go of anger and resentment, the better you'll get at it, he adds. Manage that, researchers say, and over time you'll heal faster from old scars, everyday slights, and painful betrayals.
1. Acknowledge the Hurt
Give yourself permission to get angry, says Anita Sanz, a licensed psychologist in DeLand, FL, who specializes in conflict resolution. It's one of the emotions, along with sadness and vulnerability, that you'll have to grapple with in order for forgiveness to be authentic, and therefore, helpful.
"Some people never let themselves get angry, and there's some degree of denial in this that isn't healthy," Luskin says. Still, don't stay there. "Go ahead and be pissed as hell," he says. "But if anger becomes a habit, it no longer gives you anything of value. It becomes an active process of creating misery."
2. Let Go of If-Thens
Sixty percent of Americans think forgiveness should be extended only after the offender apologizes, according to a poll by the Fetzer Institute, a nonprofit that supports reconciliation projects around the world. But it has to be "no strings attached," says Sanz. "If you're making it conditional — based on someone else's actions — they're in control." Besides, adds Charlotte Witvliet, PhD, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, MI, "people who hurt us rarely give us the kind of explanations and amends we want."
If granting forgiveness depends on them, you may spend more time holding on to your pain. This is backed by research: In one study, people who forgave only after extracting promises didn't get the health boost that unconditional forgivers did.
3. Don't Think of It As an Obligation
People who feel they must forgive for external reasons — faith, their relationship to the transgressor, etc. — rather than getting to that point on their own can end up feeling worse. In a 2012 workplace study, for instance, people who forgave coworkers because they didn't see another option felt more stressed and less healthy than those who simply chose to forgive.
Instead of viewing the process as something you owe others, think about the stress your anger causes — and how freeing it would be to let that go.
"When people say to me, 'I'll never forgive this person,' I ask them, 'But if you could be healthier, have closure, and feel free, would you think about it?' " says Matthew Boger, 50.
As a teenager, he was assaulted by a group of skinheads for being gay, but after a chance meeting with one of his attackers decades later, he decided to forgive him. They now travel the country together, sharing their story and encouraging people to embrace the power of forgiveness.
"For me, it was never about the other people," Boger says. "It was about me healing and being stronger, even if it took me a while to understand that."
4. Rework Your Story
It's OK to share your grievances with a few close friends. But there's a fine line between attracting support and throwing a pity party or trying to get others to hate someone as much as you do. "
The more you tell a certain story about what happened — if you were dumped, for instance — the more that comes to define you," says Luskin. "It actually changes your brain: You're deepening mental grooves, making it more likely you'll have those thoughts again. After a while, that's all you know about the situation."
On the other hand, switching the story around can be incredibly empowering. You might, for example, imagine being dumped as an opportunity to pursue your own passions or find a relationship better suited for you.
5. Try a Little Empathy
"Like a lot of women, I'd always had a sort of fractious relationship with my mother," says San Francisco career coach Kate Swoboda, 36. "Nothing terrible had happened between us. I just always felt judged by her. Even after I moved across the country, a single phone call from her could put me on edge."
One day, however, as she was driving home from a self-help seminar, Swoboda realized something.
"A lot of parents attended the session," she says. "I was thinking about how hard they were working to reach their kids, even if they weren't going about it the right way, and how much they cared. Then it hit me: That was my mom, and it must hurt her that I rarely called. I was able to see her in a different light."
Finding some way to humanize the person you're angry with can make it easier to let go of bitterness, says Marina Cantacuzino, founder of the Forgiveness Project, an international grassroots organization that tries to foster understanding. "It's the main ingredient of forgiveness."
6. Don't Try to Zip Through It
Depending on the situation, it can take weeks, months, or even years to get over a wound. "You have to go at your own pace," says Luskin. What's important is to work on it consistently and create the conditions that naturally give rise to forgiveness. The mind and body benefits will come when you begin to ditch bitterness and self-pity, one negative feeling at a time.
Your Body On a Grudge
Hauling around your resentments? Your body is taking a hit:
In the Moment: Say you're in the produce aisle when you spot your former bestie — the one you had a nasty fight with — across a heap of potatoes.
- A part of the brain that processes emotions sends out a message: Danger! Reinforcements needed! Your adrenal glands then get the green light to flood your body with stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
- Cortisol amps up systems needed for your fight, flight, or freeze response —increasing blood sugar and wakefulness, for example — while suppressing your immune system.
- Your blood pressure spikes. Your heart rate increases, and stress hormones cause your vessels to narrow and your blood to clot more easily. If this happens too often, it can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
- You calm down but could have trouble later on. Chronically high levels of cortisol prompt your body to store fat in your belly, a problem that has been tied to illnesses like diabetes.
All this might have been worth it if your ex-friend had brandished a weapon. Instead, your system's gone Code Red over… someone shopping the produce aisle.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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