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

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