Forgiveness is a mental survival strategy to help us thrive

We all have ghosts in our past and demons in our present. This fanciful analogy translates into events that have caused us harm and trauma we are struggling to overcome that affects our everyday behavior in subtle but important and, frequently, harmful ways.

On chapter 32 of the 800+ pages long “Handbook of Positive Psychology” authors Michael E. McCullough & Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet begin “The Psychology of Forgiveness” LINK by citing the renowned Christian author, ethicist, and theologian Lewis Smedes:

"It would give us some comfort if we could only forget a past that we cannot change. If we could only choose to forget the cruelest moments, we could, as time goes on, free ourselves from their pain. But the wrong sticks like a nettle in our memory. The only way to remove the nettle is with a surgical procedure called forgiveness."

Yet, in the same chapter the authors cite that avoidance of a person who has wronged us or revenge are “so basic that Reiss and Havercamp (1998) recently posited it to be one of 15 fundamental human motivations.”

When something is so fundamental that left unchecked it drives us to behave in ways that are mentally and physically harmful to us, it requires real motivation to make us change our behavior. A study of 199 young students of which 60 were men, titled: Brain Structural Bases of Tendency to Forgive: evidence from a young adults sample using voxel-based morphometry showed that the ability to forgive was linked to a brain region that straddles the centers responsible for cognitive functions, neurochemical balance and emotional control and is responsible for processing of sensory signals from our environment and showing empathy.

Forgiveness Is Part Of Healing

In a different study titled How the brain heals emotional wounds: the functional neuroanatomy of forgiveness functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of subjects exposed to specific scenarios from which they’d have to consciously choose a response showed that the ones who chose to forgive were, overall, healthier, happier disposed to better decision-making, more empathic and more fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

The authors wrote that:

“Granting forgiveness was associated with activations in a brain network involved in theory of mind, empathy, and the regulation of affect through cognition, which comprised the precuneus, right inferior parietal regions, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.”

The act of forgiveness then delivers tangible, structural changes in the brain and body as neural networks that control stress, pain and awareness of threat – all, processes that increase stress hormones in the body and negatively impact physical and mental health, are dialled down.

The result is that those who practice forgiveness as an intentional act of diminishing the hold of the past on us, experience a sense of subjective relief that also releases additional mental and physical resources that can be used to achieve more positive outcomes.

The authors of the study stated that:

“The fact that forgiving is a healthy resolution of the problems caused by injuries suggests that this process might have evolved as a favorable response that promotes human survival.”

They went on to show how forgiveness can be used as a form of therapy to help people recover from psychological trauma that results in physiological responses that are damaging to our mental and physical health.

It is natural for life to damage us in both real and perceived ways. The only, meaningful means we can navigate it is through intentional actions that help us heal and thrive.