Forgiveness and Mental Healing

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“We are not responsible for what breaks us, but we can be responsible for what puts us back together again. Naming the hurt is how we begin to repair our broken parts.”
― Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World

What wounds do you carry?

You may have emotional wounds from your past, kept open by guilt and shame. Some wounds are a result of someone else’s violence, cruelty or betrayal toward you. Some wounds you may carry for the people you love, and their suffering.

Why should I forgive?

Whatever the wound, forgiveness can be a powerful healer, both mentally and physically. It can relieve stress, alleviate mental distress, even lower risk of heart disease. Anger can be a powerfully destructive and toxic emotion when sustained over time, physically as well as emotionally.

An article from the American Psychological Association links forgiveness to “reduced anxiety, depression and major psychiatric disorders, as well as with fewer physical health symptoms and lower mortality rates.”

What are the steps to forgiveness?

There is extensive research of forgiveness as a mental health practice, and commentary from religious and spiritual communities on how and why to forgive.

Here are my suggested steps toward forgiving:

1. Tell your story. Remember the initial quote by Desmond Tutu? “Naming the hurt is how we begin to repair our broken parts.” This advice may seem counter intuitive to the work of forgiveness, as it dredges up old pain. Here’s Tutu’s defense of telling your story:

When we ignore the pain, it grows bigger and bigger, and like an abscess that is never drained, eventually it will rupture. When that happens, it can reach into every area of our lives—our health, our families, our jobs, our friendships, our faith, and our very ability to feel joy may be diminished by the fallout from resentments, anger, and hurts that are never named.

Don’t ignore this pain. Even if you only tell yourself, speak the truth of what happened to you. Write it down. Let the pain out.

2. Put yourself in the other person’s chair.  When offense is on both sides, look at the argument or event through the other person’s eyes. This perspective can give you sympathy and compassion for the other person, which leads to forgiveness.

3. Commit. Stick to forgiveness. You will undoubtedly remember the offense again, but you can make the choice to remember that you forgave and release the anger and hurt yet again.

What about forgiving people for abuse?

I need to make this clear: if you are in an abusive relationship–emotional, physical or sexual abuse–you need to establish clear boundaries for yourself first before doing the work of forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation.

Forgiveness does not mean returning to an abusive situation.

Forgiveness does not mean the abuse committed against you (or your loved ones) was warranted.

In the words of Dr. Sharie Stines, a psychologist who specializes in trauma recovery, “forgiveness means surrendering your right to hold your abuser accountable forever.”

If you are holding onto old wounds, release them. Release the pain for your own mental healing’s sake.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. If you would like to discuss the information in this blog further with her, please call 208-918-0958. She sees adolescents and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

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