They say that revenge is sweet – but then so is chocolate cake, and that isn’t always good for you. Learn how forgiveness can make you happier and healthier.
BY Mary Grogan
Finally, she snapped, and she ran her key along the side of his precious Audi, admitted Jodi* during our psychology session as she sat in my office looking slightly guilty but largely triumphant.
Jodi was faced with painful emotions when the on-again-off-again relationship she was involved in fell apart again, leaving her angry and uncertain what to do. Lashing out seemed like the best option. She wanted her partner to hurt as much as she was hurting.
Who hasn’t felt like acting out revenge fantasies when they’ve been hurt or betrayed? Each of us, at some point in our life, has to decide what to do with strong, unpleasant emotions. We would rather not admit to feeling emotions such as anger, jealousy and shame, let alone acknowledge their intensity or the urges that accompany them. We may decide, as Jodi did, to act on the urge and seek revenge or, at the very least, lash out using hurtful language or behaviour – “hurling grenades”, to use the words of another client.
Desire for revenge Closely associated with this desire for revenge is an unwillingness to forgive. People who find it hard to forgive typically endorse statements such as, “I’ll make them pay” and “I keep as much distance between us as possible,” the latter reflecting their understandable desire to avoid cues that remind them of the pain they suffered.
The inability to forgive is often associated with persistent negative thinking, causing people to feel stuck, hostile and depressed. Twenty-five centuries ago the Buddha likened keeping hold of anger to grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else, yet you are the one getting burnt.
WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
Forgiveness is an old-fashioned concept, but psychologists have recently become interested in the subject and its link to our health and wellbeing.
The power of forgiveness is such that when we forgive a person who has harmed or annoyed us in some way, the desire to wish harm on them is reduced. This decreased desire to harm is accompanied by increased positive feelings, so it becomes a cathartic release.
But to forgive is not always to forget. Nor is forgiveness about reconciliation, so it need not involve rebuilding your relationship with the transgressor. To forgive is not to condone, justify or dismiss the hurt inflicted. People can still be held accountable for their actions.
Research shows that those who have done courses in forgiveness tend to be happier, healthier, more agreeable, serene and more able to empathise with others than those who are holding onto their burning coal. These findings are from groups as diverse as men who are upset over a woman’s decision to have an abortion; survivors of incest; and those who have experienced infidelity. By choosing to forgive, you are doing something for yourself, rather than for the person who has harmed you.
Eventually Jodi was able to let go of her anger and desire for vengeance, learning that although it is not as quick or easy as revenge, forgiveness is the wholesome, healthy alternative.
HOW CAN YOU LEARN TO FORGIVE?
A well-researched method is the REACH model developed by Everett Worthington.
To put it into practice in your life, think of a person who has hurt you, and then:
1. Recall the hurt and acknowledge its effects (fear or anger, for example) as objectively as possible. Talk this through with another person if it helps.
2. Empathise. See things from the other person’s point of view and identify with the pressures they were under. How would they explain their harmful acts? Find a plausible explanation that you can live with; for example, people who attack others are usually in a state of anger or hurt themselves.
3. Altruistically forgive. Remember a time when you harmed or offended someone who later forgave you. Consider how you felt and offer the gift of forgiveness.
4. Commit to forgive. Make your forgiveness tangible by telling a trusted friend about it or writing it down.
5. Hold onto forgiveness. It is normal to have doubts about whether you have truly forgiven someone. Thoughts about a previous injury are to be expected, but instead of trying to stop thoughts of unforgiveness, let them be there and then gently re-align your focus.
*Name has been changed to protect client confidentiality.