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Dr Dabney Ewin was a burns surgeon in New Orleans. It would be fair to say Dr Ewin was a young, unconventional doctor, especially in the 1970s. Along with standard treatments, Dr Ewin used hypnosis to dramatically improve results for his burns patients. He also added another unorthodox practice to his regime - he talked to his patients about anger and forgiveness.
He noticed people coming into the emergency department with burns were, not unreasonably, often very angry. They were, as he put it, "all burned up", both literally and figuratively.
As they recounted what had happened, he noted their words were tinged with angry guilt or blame. He concluded their anger may have been interfering with their ability to heal by preventing them from relaxing and focusing on getting better. Their attitude affected the healing of their burns, and this was particularly true of skin grafts.
Whenever a patient seemed angry, Dr Ewin would help them forgive themselves or the person who hurt them, either through a simple conversation or through hypnosis. They healed faster and had fewer complications than those treated with conventional medical treatment alone.
Now, there is more science around forgiveness and we no longer have to rely on anecdotal evidence.
Dr Everett Worthington (Virginia Commonwealth University and director of A Campaign for Forgiveness Research) and Dr Fred Luskin (Stanford University Forgiveness Project) have conducted extensive research into how forgiveness can benefit us emotionally and physically.
At some stage, all of us will be faced with the decision to forgive someone or not. In fact, it's already likely you'll have had someone do something, inadvertently or on purpose, you perceived as being hurtful.
How did you handle it? Did you just brush it off? Did you try to sort the problem out? Did you forgive the other party?
By forgiving, you let go of your grievances and judgements and allow yourself to heal. While this may sound good in theory, in practice forgiveness can be troublesome.
Equally, so can hanging on to a grudge.
Grudges can be a real energy drainers. If someone has done something that genuinely hurts, then anger, resentment and an array of other unpleasant emotions may well be the result. That's absolutely valid and acknowledging and naming those emotions is an excellent first step towards healing. However, it's failing to progress beyond that point that becomes the problem. Humans hold on to grudges for many reasons. It may be you even feel justified in not forgiving someone.
• it helps you to feel better, you find ourselves feeling consoled in some way.
• it feels like a good way to punish the wrong-doer or teach them a lesson, to show them they have really upset you,
• it may protect you from further hurt by keeping the barriers up,
• it helps gain you sympathy or you get comfort from others for the situation.
• blaming someone else means you don't need to take any responsibility for moving on.
But holding on to things tends to amplify unpleasant emotions and increase the sense of hurt. You, in turn, become angrier and more resentful and things can really spiral out of control. It raises your levels of the stress hormone cortisol and, long term, that can have a detrimental effect on your health. It's easy to slip into feeling like a victim and lose any sense of personal control and power. That's a real quagmire to get stuck in.
But what is really meant by forgiveness?
Perhaps the best way to understand forgiveness is to understand what it's not, to remove some of the common misconceptions. Psychologist Angela Brandt sums it up rather nicely:
• Forgiveness doesn't mean you are pardoning or excusing the other person's actions
• Forgiveness doesn't mean you need to tell the person that he or she is forgiven
• Forgiveness doesn't mean you shouldn't have any more feelings about the situation
• Forgiveness doesn't mean there is nothing further to work out in the relationship or that everything is OK now
• Forgiveness doesn't mean you should forget the incident ever happened
• Forgiveness doesn't mean you have to continue to include the person in your life
•... and forgiveness isn't something you do for the other person.
It's that last point that is the most important.
So, how can you work through forgiving someone?
• Think about the incident that angered/offended you. Accept it happened and accept how you felt about it. Can you name those feelings? How did you react? In order to forgive, you need to acknowledge the reality of what occurred and how you were affected
• What did you learn about yourself, or about your needs and boundaries? Not only did you survive the incident, perhaps you grew from it. This may seem counterintuitive but can you acknowledge the growth you experienced as a result of what happened
• Now think about the other person. Like you, they are not perfect. We are all flawed. They have acted from a limited belief set and maybe a skewed frame of reference because sometimes we all do that. When you were hurt, the other person was trying to have a need met. What do you think this need was and why did they go about it in such a hurtful way?
• Finally, decide whether or not you want to tell the other person you have forgiven him or her. If you decide not to express forgiveness directly, then do it on your own. Say "I forgive you", aloud and then add as much explanation as you feel is merited or you may want to write a letter (one you don't send). This step is about you, it's about letting go
You will still remember what happened, but you will no longer be bound by it. The same process is true when we mess up or make a mistake. Forgiving ourselves is equally as important as forgiving others.
Forgiving someone doesn't condone what they've done. It doesn't mean you have to be buddies with them. You're not forgiving them for the good of their health, you're forgiving them in order for you to move on and gain your personal power back. Remember holding a grudge is more likely to harm you than the other person.
After all it has been said that "resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die".
Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.
For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.