Written by : Patty Onderko

Forgive to Flourish

Why you may need to bury the hatchet—even for grievous wrongs—for the sake of your own physical and emotional health.

Girl embracing to comfort to her sad best friend after break up sitting on a couch in the living room at home

Why you may need to bury the hatchet—even for grievous wrongs—for the sake of your own physical and emotional health.

Gayle Kirschenbaum pulled up to her Cedarhurst, New York, home after dark. She and some friends had been hanging out together, and they returned a little later than Gayle’s mother, Mildred, had expected. Mildred was waiting on the lawn for her, with the family dog by her side and a glass of water in her hand. Gayle stepped nervously out of the car—she knew her mom would be mad—and with the headlights shining on both of them, Mildred threw the water in her daughter’s face. She handed her the dog’s leash and told her to walk him. “I don’t care if you get raped, if you weren’t already,” she hissed. When Gayle returned with the dog, Mildred marched her up to her bedroom, where she ripped everything out of Gayle’s closet and commanded her to put it all back, flipping it all to the floor again as soon as Gayle had finished.

Being late was just one of the many things that could set Mildred off. In one of Gayle’s earliest memories, from age 3 or 4, she recalls getting ready to go outside and having difficulty putting on her sneakers. Her mother, frustrated and angry, screamed, “Tie your own shoes! Don’t come out until you can tie them yourself!” Hours later, Gayle finally emerged from her room with tear-stained cheeks, having taught herself to tie her laces. 

A constant irritation for Mildred was Gayle’s appearance. Mildred was obsessed with Gayle’s nose: It was too big, too crooked. She laughingly compared Gayle’s profile to that of the Native American man on the Buffalo nickel and begged her to get a nose job. Her figure was under constant scrutiny, too. Mildred forced Gayle to wear a bikini, knowing that her daughter was self-conscious about her body, and made her stuff the top to hide her flat chest. “I was always afraid of being found out,” says Gayle, now in her 50s. And she was, when during a swimming lesson, the foam-rubber falsies popped out and floated to the middle of the pool.

Gayle lived in fear of her mother, and the fear took a physical toll. “I was always sick. I had headaches and dizziness and threw up all the time. I remember once in the seventh grade telling a friend that I had a headache, and she asked, ‘What is that?’ I couldn’t believe that some kids grew up without that kind of physical dread.”

Why Do It?

We live in a time when individuals often are encouraged to protect themselves. To examine their childhoods and relationships and then distance themselves from toxic people and experiences. Many would congratulate Gayle if she severed ties with the mother who, in her words, “looked at me with rage all the time.” She’s better off without a parent like that, right?

Maybe not, says mounting evidence from the field of positive psychology. Multiple studies have found that forgiveness might be able to bestow more personal peace and healing than walking away. Forgiveness therapy has been shown to “improve depression, anxiety, destructive anger, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, well-being and self-esteem,” while also helping people find meaning and purpose, says Gayle L. Reed, Ph.D., a longtime forgiveness researcher who helped develop the Forgiveness Research Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, under the auspices of Robert D. Enright, Ph.D., co-founder of the school’s International Forgiveness Institute.

“Few people fully realize the huge impact that the ability to forgive can have on their happiness,” writes Christine Carter, Ph.D., a senior fellow at University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, in her book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. “Forgiving people tend to be happier, healthier, and more empathetic.” And Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., author of The How of Happiness, writes that forgiveness “may be the one factor that can disrupt the cycle of avoidance and vengeance in which we find ourselves. …Forgiving allows a person to move on.”

Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., a decades-long researcher on the topic and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project at Stanford University, calls forgiveness “a creation of peace in the present.” His team’s research has shown the ability of forgiveness to lower blood pressure, increase optimism and repair fractured, traumatized communities in civil-war-ravaged Sierra Leone. One of their most dramatic studies showed that forgiveness could even help heal the deep hurt of a centuries-old conflict in Northern Ireland.  Protestant and Catholic mothers who had lost sons to sectarian violence there were asked to rate their level of grief before and after a week of forgiveness training. Before the forgiveness therapy, the average “hurt” rating was 8.6 on a scale of 1 to 10. After just one week, the mothers’ average rating dropped to 3.6 and then stabilized at an even lower 3.4 six months later. On a standard evaluation for depression given to them before the training, the women checked an average of 17 out of 30 symptoms (such as difficulty sleeping and an unhappy mood). After the forgiveness training, though, they checked only 7 out of 30 of those depression indicators.

Of course, walking away is often the wisest, safest option if you’re in an abusive relationship. And forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. You can forgive someone in your heart, but still choose to keep your distance. That point was made to the 20 women who suffered spousal emotional abuse in a 2006 study by Gayle R. and Robert. “Forgiveness is distinct from condoning, excusing, pardoning, forgetting and reconciling. Forgiveness is a decision to give up resentment and to respond with goodwill toward the wrongdoer,” wrote the two researchers. While half of the study participants received standard psychotherapy treatment, the other 10 women underwent forgiveness therapy. After several months, the women who learned to forgive experienced significantly greater improvements in depression, anger and self-esteem than those who had the typical treatment.

And having a forgiving frame of mind can help smooth all your relationships. Forgiveness acts as a kind of social lubricant, helping us feel more connected to others, according to one study from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In one of their experiments, the researchers found that study participants who were asked to recall a largely forgiven offense from their past were much more likely to volunteer for and donate money to a charity compared with participants who were instructed to think about an offense that they had not forgiven.

What other type of therapy can boast such powerful outcomes?

An Act of Love

Gayle K., a TV producer and filmmaker, did not know about these outcomes or even that forgiveness could be considered a “therapy” when she first turned her camera on herself and her own family. Though she’d been in counseling for much of her adult life for post-traumatic stress disorder, she still found it difficult to form relationships (she’s never been married) and see herself as lovable. By chance, Gayle met another woman a few years ago who had also suffered a traumatic childhood. The woman walked Gayle through an emotional exercise that had helped her: Stand up, close your eyes, and imagine your mother as a little girl. “I saw this child with pain, and I felt it. I know she wasn’t abused, but she still had a different kind of pain,” Gayle says. “And then I imagined myself as a little girl, too, next to her. We were just two little kids who were wounded. She was no longer my mother. It really reframed how I saw her.”

Soon after, she asked her mother to go to therapy with her and to allow her to film it for a documentary that would eventually be called Look At Us Now, Mother! The film follows the pair as they chat with therapists, go on vacation together and try to make sense of their turbulent relationship and past. (“My mother’s a narcissist, so she didn’t mind the spotlight one bit,” jokes Gayle). “Our journey was about forgiveness,” she says, but it was not easy. While making her film, Gayle had to relive the past, reading her childhood diaries and watching hours of home movies shot by her dad, which reminded her of forgotten incidents, like the time Mildred instructed Gayle’s brothers to put her on top of the refrigerator, from where she couldn’t jump down and bother them.

Gayle also had to deal with her mom’s skepticism and denial. In one scene, as they are heading to the psychologist’s office, Mildred quips, “We’re going to find out what’s wrong with Gayle’s relationship with me. Are we looking for trouble where trouble is not? I would venture to say ‘yes.’” In another, Mildred confesses to the therapist, “One of the reasons that I might not have been nice to her as a child was that she was a bitchy little girl growing up.”

Yet the two persisted. Gayle learned that her mother grew up in poverty and that Mildred’s father, in deep debt, committed suicide—a tragedy that was never discussed in their family. She learned how her mother’s Jewish upbringing in a time and place where Jews were not always welcomed caused her to have deeply held beliefs about appearance. If her daughter didn’t “look Jewish,” with a stereotypically big nose, Mildred’s thinking went, Gayle would be able to make it further in life.

For Mildred’s part, she was finally able to see how much pain she had caused her daughter. She also saw how desperately Gayle still longed to have a relationship with her. The feeling was mutual. Their gradual acceptance of each other was so hard won and so fueled by love that even their therapist cried during one breakthrough session.

The Phases of Forgiveness

Without doing so consciously, Gayle created and underwent her own form of forgiveness therapy and, through her documentary, encourages others to do the same. “Forgiveness is the best gift I’ve ever given myself,” she says. But what exactly is forgiveness therapy?

“Forgiveness means overcoming the impact of unjust behaviors by choosing to be a virtuous, loving person,” Gayle R. says. For the research that she and Robert have conducted, they used the four-phase process outlined in Robert’s book, Forgiveness Is a Choice. The first step is called “uncovering” because you uncover your anger and evaluate the damage that the injustice has wreaked on your life. If your spouse has ridiculed your weight, for example, be honest about how that has made you feel (unlovable? weak? mad? vengeful?) and how it has negatively affected your life (have you gained more weight as a result? Did the unkind comments breed an insecurity that has impacted your work performance?).

The second phase, “decision,” is simply that: You choose to commit to the hard work of forgiving your transgressor. You also admit that what you’ve been doing in the past to help heal the wound hasn’t worked. If, say, your sister insinuated that your kids misbehaved last Christmas, and you’ve been pointing out her own kids’ naughtiness ever since, this is your time to change tactics. Robert says the decision to forgive is the toughest part of the process. “Change is unsettling, and the decision to try to reduce anger and to love more in the face of betrayal or cruelty can be scary,” he says.

The third step is called “work” because that’s what it is—work toward understanding and empathizing with the person who hurt you. Robert suggests asking yourself several questions about the person you want to forgive: What was life like for this person while growing up? What psychological wounds do you think she or he might be nursing? What extra pressures or stresses was the person experiencing at the time she or he offended you? Try to find any sparks of compassion you might have for him or her and fan them. This third phase also includes accepting the pain of what happened to you, instead of trying to fling that ache and anguish back to the person who hurt you or toward others in your life.

Finally, in the “discovery” phase, look for the meaning in the experience. What have you learned through your suffering? Has—or can—your ordeal in some way give purpose to your life? If your parents had a hard time accepting your spouse because of a racial difference, say, then perhaps you could join or spearhead a diversity or civil rights cause. Or maybe you simply commit to viewing all of humanity with a more open mind and heart, the way you wish your parents would do.

In his book, Forgive for Good, Frederic details nine steps to forgiveness, which include taking the grievance less personally, using stress-management techniques (deep breathing, meditation, focusing on something good) to ease anger, and focusing on your luck rather than your misfortune. But whether you follow four steps or nine, the gist is the same: “Forgiveness is not just wishful thinking, it’s a trainable skill,” Frederic says. (For all nine of Frederic’s steps, see “9 Steps to Forgive for Good” at livehappy.com).

In one fascinating study out of Erasmus University in the Netherlands which was published last year in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science, researchers demonstrated the actual—not just metaphorical—unburdening effect of forgiveness. One-third of the 160 college students recruited for the study were asked to write about a time when they were seriously offended by another person and ultimately forgave them. Another third wrote about a similar incident in which they had not yet forgiven the person. The final (control) group composed a short essay about a recent, neutral interaction they had had with a friend or co-worker. All of the participants were then asked to jump five times, as part of an ostensible fitness test. What happened? The students in the forgiveness and control groups jumped significantly higher than those in the so-called “unforgiveness” set. The researchers proved empirically what philosophers have been saying for centuries: “Unforgiveness produces a burden akin to carrying a load,” the study authors write.

That lightening effect is undeniable when you see Gayle K. and mom Mildred these days. On the road together, promoting their film and message, they are all ease and laughter. You can see they truly enjoy each other’s company and feel all the more lucky for it having been through what they have. “How many wonderful relationships are wasted because people can’t forgive?” Gayle asks. “It’s my life’s mission now.”
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