Be Selfish and Learn to Forgive

“Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”  By now, most of us have heard this quote that is attributed to Ann Landers,   We all know this intellectually, but we’ve all also experienced resistance to forgiveness and invent reasons to justify that resistance.

For example, we tell ourselves that it is our job to correct someone else’s behavior. Most of the time, people know when they’ve done something wrong. Your unforgiving behavior is not news to them. It’s more likely to make them feel resentful and that makes them want to do it again just to piss you off.

If we aren’t the correction type, we may call our unforgiveness a form of self-protection. We tell ourselves that letting someone back into our hearts makes us vulnerable and that’s a risk that can’t be taken. In some cases, I’m sure that’s true; no one is going to tell you to shack up with an abusive partner because it’s the forgiving thing to do (and if someone does, please don’t listen to them). However, most of the time you don’t need to shack up with someone to offer them forgiveness.

Similarly to the fear of getting hurt, there is the fear of going backwards—that we’re resigning ourselves to going back to some old dissatisfactory relationship—but that’s probably not the case, either. People evolve over time. As long as you honor that, all of your relationships will change over time, even the satisfactory ones. Some will get better, some will get worse and some will just fizzle out.

Most of all, we don’t make forgiveness a high priority. Sometimes forgiveness feels like emotional broccoli. Resentment feels like emotional chocolate cake, and we approach it the same way. “Can’t I just have a cheat-day full of resentment? On Monday, I’ll start my strict forgiveness diet.”

Rather than understanding it in terms of personal benefit, we relate it to ethics or some cosmic good, which isn’t exactly as motivating as a sugar rush or the satisfaction of imagining a giant safe falling onto the heads of the unforgiven folks in our lives.

Because of an abundance of recent studies, like with nutrition, we no longer need to rely on some vague notion that a way of behaving (or eating) is somehow better than another—now we know how. Eating your veggies makes us feel good fairly quickly.

Today, I stumbled across a study called “How the Brain Heals Emotional Wounds: The Functional Neuroanatomy of Forgiveness.”  It offers us scientific motivation to start learning how to forgive.

This study was conducted by asking volunteers to “[engage] in script-driven mental imagery of interpersonal wrong doings resulting in a hurtful condition and were instructed either to forgive or to feel resentment and think about revenge toward imagined offenders.¹”

The subjects were asked to imagine that someone did them dirty, and then either imagine offering forgiveness the person or imagine harboring resentment about it. Being entirely imaginary makes it sound as though it wouldn’t have much of an emotional impact compared to actually having been screwed over by another person. This makes it even more amazing that they saw differences between the “forgiveness” group and the “resentment” group.

They used both subjective measurements (like asking them how they felt) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study the results.

This is what they found:

We observed a link between forgiveness and subjective relief, which supports its use in therapeutic settings as an aid for the promotion of mental health. We observed activation in a brain cortical network responsible for perspective taking processes, appraisal and empathy, suggesting that these processes may play an important role in the adaptive extinction of negative affect and prevention of potential aggressive and socially unacceptable behavior.²

In other words, forgiveness makes the forgiver feel better. This study observed it both subjectively and neurologically.

These measurements were taken during imaginary situations with imaginary responses. Picture the potency of healing when the situations are real.

Because this is all happening in your head, I’m going to say that it won’t work if you merely go through the motions of forgiveness without sincerity. That probably works about as well as giving a gift with the expectation of reciprocity (you’re probably going to be disappointed).

If you’re going back and forth about whether or not to let someone back into your heart, then go ahead and be selfish about it: forgive for you.

How has forgiveness (or lack of forgiveness) played a role in your life? Does this change how you feel about forgiveness? Leave a comment to tell us about it.

¹Ricciardi, E., Rota, G., Sani, L., Gentili, C., Gaglianese, A., Guazzelli, M., & Pietrini, P. (2013). How the brain heals emotional wounds: the functional neuroanatomy of forgiveness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 839. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00839, p. 5-6
²ibid, p. 7

Guest Post by Adam Valerio – Healing Without Belief

This is a guest post written by Adam Valerio. Adam is a scholar who researches the intersection between science and Asian religions.

I once heard a Zen Buddhist master say, “You can have everything that you want in life, as long as you don’t care what form it takes.” For me, this comment applies to many subjects, including healing. Take Reiki, for example. Nowadays, many people have heard of it, some know that it is a healing modality, and it’s not so uncommon to have heard that the means by which Reiki works is often explained in terms of subtle energy (ki) transfer. Yet, when it comes to giving Reiki a try, for those who do not believe in the existence of a normally invisible energy that moves between people and their greater environment, this is a deal breaker. After all, if Reiki relies on this energy to work and you don’t think that this energy even exists, trying Reiki would be a waste of time, right? Though understandable, that would be incorrect, my friend! I’m here to tell you that belief doesn’t have to matter! You can attribute the functioning of Reiki and other healing modalities to any mechanism—ie, form—you’d like (or leave it a mystery!) and you would probably still get similar if not identical results. Think about the mechanism of action in terms of heat transfer, nerve-bundle signal jamming, endocrine system stimulation, subtle energy, or even microscopic elves doing Santa Claus’ bidding. It doesn’t matter! If it helps you feel better, isn’t that good enough? Not convinced yet? No problem! For those of you with a similar natural disposition to me—wariness toward the explanations of others—I’m here to help.

To continue with our example of Reiki, its story oddly has a lot in common with the story of the tomato, at least in North America. Really, it’s true (kinda)! The story goes like this: by the mid to late-1500s, tomatoes—native to Central and South America—were a staple of many continental European diets. However, it seems that most North Americans weren’t eating tomatoes until well into the 1800s. According to legend, it wasn’t until 1820, when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson had the audacity to eat a tomato (or perhaps a bunch of tomatoes) on the steps of the Old County Courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, that Americans considered giving tomatoes a try.¹ Even though most Americans had supposedly never tasted a tomato up until that point, it was obvious to them that tomatoes were poisonous, as these fruits belonged to the same family (nightshade) as several poisonous plants. Thus, in theory, to eat a tomato was to eat poison. Not unlike our present-day friend, the delicious tomato, many helpful therapies have been rejected at one time or another because it didn’t make theoretical sense to try them. This phenomenon has been termed the “tomato effect.”² In some cases, therapies previously suffering from the tomato effect were thought to be harmful; in others, they were simply viewed as a waste of time. Hmm….waste of time…. Sound familiar?

Before we take a look at how the tomato effect plays out in our own decision-making, let’s first look at it in the context of conventional biomedical thinking. Medical knowledge and decision-making function in accordance with two sometimes conflicting modes: rationalism and empiricism. In medicine, to be a rationalist is to base treatment decisions on what makes theoretical sense—much like our long-gone tomato-avoiding brethren. Medical empiricists, in contrast, are concerned with observed outcomes in past patients and research subjects. In other words, they prioritize experience over theory—the delectableness of the red fruit over the toxic yuckiness of its distant cousins. Yet, even those empiricists most dedicated to maintaining a practice of “evidence-based medicine” will get tripped up by observations that don’t cohere with their theoretical assumptions. This is because the majority of medical professionals are actually a mix of rationalist and empiricist. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for medical professionals to be very out of touch with their own reasoning as to why they prioritized one mode over another in any given situation. In the case of pharmaceuticals, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be quite empirically-minded, sometimes approving drugs where the mechanism of action is still unknown and all they have is evidence that it works. In other words, when it comes to pill popping, efficacy seems to be good enough for the FDA.

Is efficacy also good enough for the general public? Well, most of us aren’t pouring over research studies when making decisions about our health treatments. Some of us will peruse internet sites, but most of us have neither the time or training for an exhaustive analysis. Isn’t that what doctors are for? They tell us what works. We take Doc’s word on it and most of us are cool with that. Still, do they tell us how our treatments work? Perhaps sometimes, but certainly not always. And really, do you have the time and interest in acquiring in-depth knowledge as to how every medication that you take functions to improve your health? You know that it works and that’s good enough, right? Doc may not know exactly how it works—and perhaps you find that a bit disturbing—but do you let that stop you from receiving relief?

Many Reiki studies have and continue to be conducted and the popularity of Reiki is growing, which means that many people are coming away with positive experiences—including me! I don’t know how Reiki works, but I know what I’ve experienced. I have entered treatment sessions sometimes with significant pain and generally left with significantly less and often no pain. I have felt unexpected bodily sensations—usually some combination of heat and an indescribable pulse-type stirring—during treatments that challenge my understanding of how the world works. I don’t know how Reiki brings about its results, but I do know that, in addition to having found my pain and stress reduced during Reiki treatments, I am also healthier for having received them.

The words of the Zen master echo in our pain: “You can have everything that you want in life, as long as you don’t care what form it takes.” Will you let theory stand in the way of what you want most? Are explanations really more important to you than results? How are you feeling physically and emotionally today? Why wait around in pain for a satisfying theory when what you need is relief and vibrancy? When you’re ready to start feeling better, there’s a ripe, delicious tomato waiting for you in the form of Reiki!

¹Smith, Andrew F. (Fall-Winter 1990). “The making of the legend of Robert Gibbon Johnson and the tomato”. New Jersey History (New Jersey Historical Society) 108, 59–74.
²Goodwin, J. S, Goodwin, J. M. (1984). The tomato effect: Rejection of highly efficacious therapies. Journal of the American Medical Association 251, 2387-2390.

Private Assisted Yoga and Contest

See below for contest details!

I am now offering private assisted Yoga at Threshold Wellness!

To celebrate, I am raffling off a copy of Happy Herbivore’s newest book, Happy Herbivore Light & Lean. See below for contest details.


I am only mildly embarrassed to admit that I own all four of her books.  Each one is better than the last, so if you’re going to get one, this is the one to get.  Is there a better way to start off the New Year than with a bunch of wonderful, brand new, tasty and healthy plant-based recipes?

To enter, leave a comment below about something that has inspired you.  It can be a moment from your life, a quote, a work of art, anything.  You will not be graded on your level of inspiration or your writing.  Just be authentic!

I will choose the winner randomly at 9PM EST on December 18.  I will let the winner know via email, so please make sure the email you use for your comment is correct.  I will not use your email address to sign you up for my newsletter or any other mailing list.  I will only use it to inform the winner that he/she has won.

Your copy will be sent to you directly to you from the publisher.