My mom had one response to our childhood complaints of schoolyard mean girls: “They’re probably having problems at home. Let it go.”
I, of course, wasn’t having any of it. “But they’re mean to me,” I would wail. “Can’t you take my side?”
Now that the grade school social scene is firmly behind me, I understand that my mother didn’t literally mean that every kid who picked on others had a difficult home life. She meant instead that people hurt one another for a reason, and understanding those reasons can help us make sense of hurtful experiences and move on.
Research on forgiveness backs up my mother’s advice, with numerous studies (below) finding that forgiveness not only encourages emotional healing, it can improve your physical health.
But many kinds of trauma go much deeper than a few grade school taunts, and even “normal” childhood hurts can leave big scars. When it comes to deep experiences of pain and anguish, from traumatic accidents to sexual assault, is “forgive and forget” actually the best advice?
Therapists say the act of forgiving can help us move on, but only if it’s something we feel genuinely.
Forgiveness is Good For Your Health
In the 1970s, burn surgeon Dr. Dabney Ewin discovered a trick. He began noticing that burn patients coming into his emergency room brought another kind of heat: the fire of their anger toward themselves or whoever caused the accident. Ewin soon found that when he encouraged his patients to let go of their anger and devote their energies toward healing, patients got better faster.
While Ewin’s experiments in the healing powers of forgiveness were anecdotal, numerous studies have found a relationship between the act of forgiveness and improved mental and physical health. Forgiveness for past trauma lowers stress levels, increases emotional wellbeing, and even decreases patients’ heart stress and blood pressure. In fact, one study found that failure to embrace unconditional forgiveness is correlated with mortality. Translation: forgiveness can be life-saving.