Your Grudges May Be Killing You, What Science Says About Forgiveness

July 15, 2015 Updated: July 15, 2015

Religions teach us to turn the other cheek, but in practice, forgiveness may seem impossible. We may feel justified in our resentment, or believe it will protect us from getting hurt again, but experts say we pay a high price for long-held grudges.

“You pay the piper later on this,” said Dr. Everett Worthington, author, clinical psychologist, and professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We get angry and stressed all the time, and we don’t notice those effects right away. But they will show up eventually if we practice them for a long time.”

Forgiveness is an idea that has primarily remained in the realm of religion. Despite Sigmund Freud’s voluminous writings on every other psychological subject, he never touched upon forgiveness. Freud’s predecessors also paid forgiveness little attention, but something happened in the 1980s that got psychologists to take a closer look.

Science has shown that chronic resentment can lead to higher blood pressure, increased tension and inflammation, and elevated cortisol levels.

Since then, science has shown that chronic resentment can lead to higher blood pressure, increased tension and inflammation, and elevated cortisol levels, which disrupt nearly every bodily process.

Worthington was one of the first researchers to turn the lens of science on forgiveness, and the subject remains the focus of his work. He became interested in forgiveness doing marriage counseling in the early 1980s. A few years later, he published one of the first journal articles on forgiveness, examining its role in couples’ therapy.

“One of my graduate students at that time got interested in the topic, and we started looking at it scientifically, and it took off,” he said. “In 1996, my mother got murdered, and that kind of put things to the test and really increased the attention I paid to forgiveness after that.”

How to Forgive

According to Worthington, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving forgiveness is lacking a method for doing so.

“I think people don’t know how to forgive often, “he said. “They get a lot of encouragement to forgive. Many people think it’s a good thing to forgive. And you hear sermons, and you read magazine articles that it would be good for your health to forgive.

“But people say, ‘Yeah, and it would be good if I could jump 20 feet in the air also, but I can’t do that.”‘

Although Worthington identifies as a Christian, he said that a person doesn’t require a belief in God to see the value in forgiveness. In fact, studies have shown that religion alone is often not enough to reach a place of forgiveness.

According to author Dr. Everett Worthington, the key to successfully forgiving is cultivating a sense of empathy, humility, and compassion. (camaralenta/iStock)

“If you think ‘it’s my duty to forgive because I’m under this religious obligation,’ well, it turns out you can forgive a little that way, but not a lot. The motivation of a religious duty doesn’t seem to be very effective in promoting much forgiveness,” he said.

The key to successfully forgiving is cultivating a sense of empathy, humility, and compassion.

According to Worthington, the key to successfully forgiving is cultivating a sense of empathy, humility, and compassion. Studies have shown that forgiveness comes easier for people who are more interested in the betterment of the other person than in personal gain.

Through his research and clinical experience, Worthington has developed a method for people to learn how to forgive. It’s called REACH:

  • R is for recall—remembering the hurt that was done to you as objectively as you can.
  • E is for empathize—trying to understand the viewpoint of the person who wronged you.
  • A is for altruism—thinking about a time you hurt someone and were forgiven, then offering the gift of forgiveness to the person who hurt you.
  • C is for committing—publicly forgiving the person who wronged you.
  • H is for holding on—not forgetting the hurt, but reminding yourself that you made the choice to forgive.

The goal of REACH is to consider hurt feelings without blaming the other person or dwelling on the victimization caused by the injustice. Details are available in free Word documents on Worthington’s website.

Worthington’s latest book, “Moving Forward: 6 Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past,” offers further insight and strategies.

Forgive and Forget

One of the difficulties researchers have found in studying forgiveness is determining an accurate definition. A lot of what people consider to be forgiveness is really something else.

“Forgiveness is not the only way to deal with injustices that we experience. There are many ways,”  Worthington said. “One is to just accept: ‘Hey, life happens. I’m moving on.’ Another is to excuse what was done or justify what was done or turn it over to God—’I’m just going to let God zap them.’ Or, ‘I’ll turn it over to God because it’s not my problem.”‘

True forgiveness takes extra effort. “Forgiveness is not only that you stop holding the negative feelings against somebody, but in fact start seeing [him or her] as a valuable person again—as a person [who] is redeemable,” Worthington said.

This notion of finding value in the other person is often at odds with our highly competitive and politically polarized culture. But Worthington believes that great changes could be made by actively promoting forgiveness-awareness. His recent research involves looking at forgiveness as a public health initiative.

“What would happen if you went into a community, let’s say New York City, and you just have a public awareness-raising campaign so that you saturated the city with attention to forgiveness?” he said. “If there’s a strong dose-response relationship, the people who get exposed to a lot of this and take seriously that they want to forgive, can end up forgiving.”

When schools adopt forgiveness-awareness campaigns, just about everyone on campus sees positive benefits in mental and physical health.

Such experiments have already taken place in universities. For schools that adopt these forgiveness-awareness campaigns, just about everyone on campus sees positive benefits in mental and physical health.

Seek Support

Science shows that holding a grudge can cause illness. But for someone already diagnosed with a serious condition, finding the ability to forgive and let go becomes even more important.

According to Katherine Puckett, clinical social worker and national director of Mind-Body Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), patients benefit from understanding what they lose by holding on to anger.

developing supportive relationships is one of the first steps in helping patients reach a place of forgiveness. (monkeybusinessimages/iStock)
Developing supportive relationships is one of the first steps to reaching a place of forgiveness. (monkeybusinessimages/iStock)

“When we’re under stress, there are really negative things that happen in the body,” Puckett said. “Our bodies perceive that stress as a threat to our survival. There’s a release of about 1,400 different chemicals that surge through the body when we’re in a stress response. When people are in a state of unforgiveness, where they’re having trouble letting go of resentment, they’re living in a state where their hormones are out of whack, if you will.”

According to Puckett, developing supportive relationships is one of the first steps in helping patients reach a place of forgiveness.

“We want to be able to explain what we’re going through,” she said. “When there’s a lot of hurt and pain, it can be hard to learn to let go of that, especially without some help along the way.”

Grudge Identification

Getting to the bottom of a grudge requires self-reflection to recognize the origin of negative feelings. In their search for understanding, cancer patients may point to a variety of things to focus their blame upon, such as bad relationships, an abusive father, or a high-stress job. Identifying the source of the hurt is an important step to moving on.

Many times, patients need help forgiving themselves. A big part of the forgiveness program at CTCA is getting patients to see the value of self-care. Puckett wants people to treat themselves with as much kindness as they would treat a best friend.

“So often people feel they don’t deserve to be happy, or that they don’t deserve to be free of guilt or resentment,” she said. “It’s just a different way of living for people. They haven’t experienced doing good things to take care of themselves. It’s a learning curve, but a very worthwhile one. It’s very fruitful, I think.”

CTCA patient Dwayne Bratcher (57) said self-forgiveness played a big part in his healing process. When he was diagnosed with breast cancer, he was embarrassed to be suffering from a “women’s disease” and ashamed that he had smoked for over 20 years. Bratcher was also a self-described “workaholic.” Before coming to CTCA, he had saved up 970 hours’ worth of sick time. All he thought about was his job.

“I had to forgive myself for not spending as much time with my family. Since I got cancer last year, it brought me and my family closer together,” he said. “I talk to my daughters every day now, whereas before the only thing I had on my mind was work.”

Spiritual Support

No longer embarrassed about his illness, Bratcher now participates in breast cancer walks and is very open to talking about it. “Once I forgave myself for being a man with breast cancer, I could talk to anybody,” he said.

Bratcher considers his illness a wake-up call and said his cancer was a blessing in disguise. Much of his support comes from his church. “I had a whole church congregation praying for me that I get better. That helped me out tremendously,” he said.

For those without a spiritual community, CTCA offers patient support from a non-denominational chaplain. According to Carl Williamson, manager of the pastoral care team at CTCA’s Midwestern Regional Medical Center, chaplains can give patients an opportunity to share their guilt, shame, and resentment without judgement.

“Cancer patients often find it hard to forgive themselves because they’re going through this experience that’s causing a lot of financial and emotional stress on the family,” he said. “Because we provide support to them, they’re able to let out a lot of what they’ve been holding back.”

Sometimes patients say they’re angry at God, but most of the time it’s a family issue. Whatever the problem, chaplains can serve as an advocate by communicating a patient’s particular needs to the rest of the care team, or they may simply keep secrets in confidence.

“Recently one of our chaplains told me that a patient shared with him something that she never shared with anyone else,” Williamson said. “He alone knows what she’s going through.”

Forgiveness is ultimately a decision, but it can take years of work to reach it. Some patients may never reach a place of forgiveness, but Puckett says it’s still important to hang in there with them.

“It takes different people different amounts of time, and perhaps some people never fully get to the point of letting go or forgiving,” she said. “But if they feel support along the way, it’s going to ease whatever stress they’re experiencing.”

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