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Forgiveness: Good for Your Health?

Asking For Forgiveness

Asking For Forgiveness (Photo credit: hang_in_there)

We can all relate to being hurt by others.  A healthy habit that people may not realize is good for them physically is practicing forgiveness.  We may believe that it is good for us spiritually or emotionally, but physically?  And still others may be much more interested in revenge rather than forgiveness.  Yet there is an abundance of research that suggests just how beneficial the art of letting go can improve one’s overall wellness.  Before getting into the advantages of forgiveness and how to implement it, let us first define it.

I like to think of forgiveness as letting go of a past hurt or injustice to the point where it no longer causes a marked negative emotional or physiological response.  Another definition I like is, “letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of bitterness and resentment,” (Ponton, 2007).  Forgiveness is not, however, approval of the offense.  So why practice forgiveness?

“[A] Hope College in Michigan study shows a physiological response to remembering past hurts: increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, and higher muscle tension,” (Hayes-Greico, 2013).  Studies show that people who practice forgiveness report measurable mental, emotional, and physical benefits such as:

  • lowered blood pressure, stress, and anger
  • decreased depression and anxiety
  • lowered risk of addiction
  • improved immune health
  • healthier relationships

Now that the value of forgiveness has been established, here are steps one can take toward forgiveness.

I will not kid you; forgiveness can be a very long and difficult process at times.  This involves changes in how we think and feel.  We first make the decision to forgive, which may include changes in our behavior (e.g. ceasing to seek revenge).  This is not necessarily a one-time resolution, but rather one that needs to be made and reinforced over and over again.  Forgiveness also requires a change in our emotions; moving away from resentment and anger and instead toward understanding and compassion.  Consider the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.  He does not need punishment, he needs help.  That’s the message he is sending.”

When we put our situation in this perspective, it makes it possible to empathize with the one who hurt us.  Empathy enables us to have compassion for them.  This has been helpful to me in removing the personal sting that comes with being hurt badly and moving toward letting it go.  When we forgive we can heal.  What helps me personally is choosing to forgive and allowing it to happen little by little over time rather than trying to force myself to forgive instantly.

I used to hold grudges very tightly, ruminating over how I was wronged.  I refused to forgive until the person apologized sincerely (and maybe not even then).  So I prayed that God would help me work on forgiveness since I truly did not know how to do it, and He graciously has shown be step by step.  No more ruminating over the injustice, just a releasing of it.  That at times includes forgiving myself for things I have done wrong and making amends as best I can.  It includes putting it behind me and not condemning myself indefinitely for it.  When I have done this I have experienced remarkable personal growth.  As a counselor, I have found that people have tremendous power over their thoughts and feelings simply by making different choices and being intentional.

Forgiveness can be reached with or without continuing the relationship with our offender.  There are times and situations when we may need to cut toxic people from our lives.  We do not have to continue to be a victim to someone who may not seek or want our forgiveness.  We can do it for ourselves.

Forgiveness, while at times incredibly difficult, can be a very powerful practice in our lives.  Forgiveness opens us up to numerous physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits.  Even if the culprit does not deserve our forgiveness, we do.

 

Thanks for reading.  Do you have a personal experience with this you would like to share?  Leave a comment below.

 

References:

“Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness”. (2011, November 23). In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 23, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/forgiveness/MH00131

Harris, A. H., & Thoresen, C. E. (2005, March). “Forgiveness, Unforgiveness, Health, and Disease”. In U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Retrieved February 23, 2013, from http://www.chce.research.va.gov/docs/pdfs/pi_publications/Harris/2005_Harris_Thorsen_HF.pdf

Hayes Grieco, M. (2013). “Forgiveness and Health Research”. In Mary Hayes Grieco and The Midwest Institute for Forgiveness Training. Retrieved February 23, 2013, from http://www.maryhayesgrieco.com/forgiveness/research.asp

Ponton, L. (2007). “What is Forgiveness?”. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/what-is-forgiveness/

Tomasulo, D. (2010). “Gender and Forgiveness”. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/06/29/gender-and-forgiveness/

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Can Your Calling Change?

A year ago, I was content in my phase of life.  I spent most of my time raising our young children.  I worked part-time as a counselor in a very

Two Paths Diverged in a wood

Two Paths Diverged in a wood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

fulfilling job.  Life was good; I was living out my calling.  Little did I expect the rug was about to get pulled out from under me.

It began very subtly.  I had a small but nagging sense that it was time to leave my job.  Whenever this would occur to me, I quickly shrugged it off for many reasons.  The hours were flexible, I saw a diverse client base which kept work interesting, I was making decent money, I loved what I did, and it felt very meaningful.  Yet I still sensed that I needed to move on.  Shoving that notion to the back of my mind soon got costly.

The environment at work quickly and unexpectedly began to change.  My caseload was growing exponentially to nearly that of a full-time therapist.  Pressure was building to work more hours.  While my sessions with clients were still challenging and fulfilling, the office culture was rapidly becoming a toxic breeding ground for burnout.  I finally accepted that I needed to leave.  Then I had to figure out what I would do next.

This decision consumed me.  There were myriad options; however, none of them felt right.  I had offers to interview for other positions, but they were full-time.  I was committed to only working part-time while raising my kids so this was not a route I was willing to take.  Other part-time positions that were available were very limited, unchallenging, farther away, or worked with a population I was not as passionate about.  I considered going into private practice.  This seemed like the “right” answer.  I had plenty of referral sources and contact with other therapists in private practice who explained in depth the process of starting and maintaining a practice.  But all I could think about was the stress of owning my own business: getting paneled for insurances, finding an affordable place to practice, paying rent, buying accounting software to manage expenses and taxes, and so on ad infinitum.  Plus there was the guilt I felt over leaving my current clients.  At the end of every day, I felt fried with anxiety over making the right decision.  But none of the options before me brought me any sense of peace.  I started praying about the situation, hoping to gain some guidance.   God answered in a way I never expected.

I felt exceptionally impressed that I needed to stay home with my kids.  This possibility had not once occurred to me.  Never did I see myself as a fully stay at home mom.  I had felt called to become a counselor since I was a teenager; a calling that was undeniable for many years which God confirmed time and time again.  I had obtained three different licenses that needed to be maintained.  I loved counseling and had not entertained another future for myself in years.  I was (hopefully) helping people.  How could leaving this be the right answer?

I continued praying about this, convinced that I had misheard God.  I kept coming back to the notion that I needed to spend more time raising my children.  Plus my husband and I had begun the process of becoming foster parents, hoping it would result in adoption.  I struggled with and fought this choice for months.  Over time the path before me became clear: even though I did not want to hear it, this was the only option that gave me peace.

While I did not fully understand it, I decided to trust God in His leading.  I left my job and now hold a small pro bono caseload.  This transition was not easy, but over time I began to see God’s plan unfolding before me (including a surprise pregnancy, but that’s a story for another day).  Initially I was like Samuel mourning over Saul in 1 Samuel 16; God was calling me to something new, but first I had to let go of the old.  Letting go of a calling can be painful and difficult.  I did not realize how much of my identity had gotten wrapped up in my career.  And I was learning that just because something is “good” and right for one season does not mean it’s suited for me forever.  As I walked in obedience and adjusted my attitude, I was opening myself up to the blessings God had in store for me that I never could have conceived.  If we trust Him we can trust that He is leading us to something just as meaningful and fulfilling.  God is calling you.  He is a God of new things and wants you to join in the adventure.

Have you had a similar experience?  Leave a comment below!  Looking for resources on the subject of calling?  Below are a couple of books I highly recommend.  Thanks for reading.

The Call by Os Guiness

The Missional Mom by Helen Lee