The Neglected Significance of Forgiveness in Recovery

Robert F. Mullen, Ph.D.

Science supports the cliché that by not forgiving, we allow the transgressor to occupy valuable space in our brain. We are so inundated from childhood with the concept of forgiveness, we tend to disregard its power and significance. Forgiveness – leads to improved mental health including improved self-esteem. The objective of forgiveness is ridding ourselves of the unresolved antagonisms of hate, resentment, shame, and guilt. These are negatively valanced emotions, which means they are destructive to our physiological wellbeing. They are irrational in that they are harmful to the self. The fact that we get pleasure or satisfaction from our righteous indignation only means our neural network, not knowing any better, has become accustomed to this negativity and transmits the hormones that sustain and give us pleasure (serotonin). 

Recovery from our dysfunction or discomfort requires restructuring our neural network by feeding it positive stimuli to counter the years of harmful, negative input. But there is little room in our brain for healthy thoughts and behaviors unless we evict the bad tenants by forgiving them. That new vacancy allows us to access our character strengths and virtues that generate the motivation, persistence, and perseverance to recover.

We hold onto anger and resentment because we persuade ourselves it impacts those who transgressed against us. The irony is, they are (1) unaware they injured us, (2) have forgotten it, or (3) take no responsibility for it. The only person affected is us, the injured party.

We amplify the harm inflicted upon us by our irrational compulsion to hold onto our anger and resentment. The bile accumulates and festers until there is no room for things constructive to our recovery. To paraphrase Buddha, holding onto anger is holding onto a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you’re the one who gets burned. The inability or unwillingness to forgive is self-defeating.

  • Recovery requires letting go of our negative self-perspectives, expectations, and beliefs, opening our minds to new ideas and concepts. 
  • When we hold onto hate and resentment, we remain imprisoned in the past. Our anger and resentment, unless released, gets passed onto others. Forgiving opens us to new possibilities and offers hope for the future. 
  • Allowing our transgressors to dominate our thoughts makes us victims. Forgiving takes their power away. 
  • The drive for vengeance can be formidable, our baser instinct cries out for retribution. Forgiving is not easy. It takes enormous courage.
  • We don’t forgive to make our transgressors feel better; they’re not important. We forgive to promote change within our self. 

There are three types of transgression: Those inflicted on us by another, those we inflict on another, and those we inflict on ourselves. We are both victims and abusers. We are victimized by the transgression against us. We abuse ourselves with our resentment and hate. When we transgress, we abuse the other, and our shame for the act victimizes us. Transgression against ourselves is both self-abuse and victimization. Abuser and victim. This is important to understand and accept. That is the role of mindfulness, a requisite for recovery.

Forgiving those who have harmed us. It is important to recognize that forgiveness is not forgetting or condoning. Forgiving does not minimize the impact of the harm. Forgiving does not imply reconciliation with the transgressor. Forgiving is not tolerating bad behavior or allowing it to continue. Forgiving is not forgetting. Our noble self forgives, our pragmatic self remembers. The actions of another may seem indefensible, but forgiving is for our wellbeing, not theirs. 

Jimmy L. was in a group for social anxiety disorder. He claimed he couldn’t forgive his parents; their injustice was so severe. “If you knew what they’d done to me you wouldn’t ask me to forgive them.” He was unwilling to relinquish his parents’ negative hold on his psyche, much like a cancer victim refusing chemotherapy. Unlike many, he was mindful of the physiological ramifications of holding onto his anger and resentment, which mitigated the negative impact on his recovery, but Jimmy’s resistance will remain an obstacle to recovery until he is willing to forgive and let go.

Forgiving ourselves for harming another is accepting and releasing the guilt and shame for our actions. It’s important to recognize, transgression against another is a transgression against ourselves. The act of self-forgiveness accepts and embraces our imperfections and evidences our humanness.

Forgiving ourselves for harming ourselves. Transgression against the self is self-deprecation. It is telling ourselves we are worthless by belittling, undervaluing, or disparaging ourselves. Self-pity, self-contempt, and other hyphenated forms of self-abuse. devalue our inherent character strengths and virtues. Forgiving ourselves is challenging because our self-harm is generated by our deficit of self-esteem.

By withholding forgiveness, we deny ourselves the ability to function optimally. Our resentment and hatred are divisive to our emotional wellbeing and disharmonious to our true nature. Inner harmony is impossible unless we heal the anger within ourselves. Forgiving is the only way we expel the hostility. We cannot hope to function optimally without absolving both our self and others whose actions contributed to our negative thoughts and behavior. This courageous willingness to forgive is indispensable to recovery. 

Why is your support essential? ReChanneling is dedicated to researching methods to (1) alleviate symptoms of dysfunction (disorder) and discomfort (neurosis) that impact an individual’s emotional wellbeing and quality of life, (2) pursue personal goals and objectives—eliminating a bad habit, self-transformation—harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. Its paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and historically, clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral therapy, positive psychology, and techniques designed to compel the recovery and reinvigoration of self-esteem disrupted by the adolescent onset of dysfunction. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.

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