By now, most people understand that by limiting exposure to environmental toxins, we can greatly reduce our risk of chronic illness. However, when life is loaded with emotional toxins like anger, resentment, lack of compassion and forgiveness, physical wellness also suffers, often quite a bit. With fuses short and anger coming at us from all sides, these days, forgiveness can seem like a tall order. But it’s absolutely essential that we learn to let go of the anger that can make us physically sick, injuring our cardiovascular system, our immunity, even our brain. Put it this way: your life may actually depend on your ability to forgive, so now’s the time to up your game.

To harness the health-supportive benefits of forgiveness, start by learning how it impacts your health, then work on brushing up on your forgiveness skills – the sooner the better:

Free yourself from anger’s steely grip.

The essential role that forgiveness plays in the human experience became plain to me after I had the great honor of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He is, to me and many others, the embodiment of forgiveness, and our conversations have stayed with me to this day. He explained that forgiveness is not about disregarding the offense you experienced at the hand of another, but about releasing yourself from the grip of the anger that resulted from it. You liberate yourself from the rage or resentment churning within you. You free your mind and your spirit – and your health benefits immensely.

Anger is a toxin nobody talks about.

Holding grudges is rarely included in mainstream medicine’s list of health risk factors. But the doctors at the Mood Disorders Adult Consolation Clinic at Johns Hopkins have found that there is a direct correlation between the hurt and disappointment we hold on to and our state of wellness. Emotions like anger and resentment trigger our fight-or-flight response, activating changes in our heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response. Forgiveness, on the other hand, reduces stress and anxiety and calms the nervous system, all of which can help you maintain health. 

Forgiveness may not be easy or fast.

Forgiving is a process which, unfortunately, doesn’t usually happen overnight. The journey begins by first allowing yourself to fully feel your pain. Reaching out to a friend or therapist can help give you the time and space you need to move through the hurt. Then, when you feel ready, you can start to flip your perspective by imagining what it would feel like to be the person who hurt you: what brought them to the point of inflicting pain on others? In doing so, you are not exonerating their actions, you’re simply trying to connect to their experience as a human being. This may lead you to compassion and then ultimately to forgiveness. Remember, forgiveness and letting go is an active process – a skill that evolves over time, so start planting those seeds.

Forgive all – yourself included.

As crucial as it is to forgive others, learning how to forgive yourself is just as important for your physical and emotional health. We all make mistakes, small and big, but regardless of their magnitude, mistakes are the primary way we learn. Consider those mis-steps an integral part of the path to becoming a better human being. Along the way, take special note of what Buddhists call “the second arrow,” that extra poke we often give ourselves after messing up. The mistake was enough. Don’t add to your pain by pointing a second arrow at your heart.

Learn to let go from an actual pro.

If forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to you, or you don’t know where to start, then look into taking a course, or a few sessions with a therapist to learn the essentials, for instance, the difference between a big-hearted forgiveness and a strictly mental exercise (or, for that matter, just mouthing the appropriate words). If you’re willing to go deep, consider the practice of Radical Honesty, a communication technique designed to promote authenticity, intimacy, and personal growth. It views honesty — sharing your most real self — as the key to both intimacy and forgiveness.

Weave more forgiveness into your life.

When someone has done you wrong, forgiveness is, understandably, not always top of mind. But as you start to cool off a bit and consider the damage that holding onto that anger and hostility will do to you, then it’s time to start taking steps to let it go. Though the process of forgiveness isn’t quite a linear one – you’ll find it in your own way and time – here are a few more ways to help you cultivate a forgiving approach:

  • Forgiveness is a state of mind. Make the conscious decision to forgive someone who has wronged you and commit to it. You don’t need to forget the wrong (and in some cases, you shouldn’t), nor do you need to reconcile, but you can choose to forgive the wrong and let it go over time. 
  • Forgive because you want to, not because you have to. The best reason to find your way to forgiveness is because you, from the bottom of your heart, actually want to – not because it’s ‘the right thing to do,’ or your religion says you must, or you think it might salvage a (likely teetering) relationship. And it’s certainly not about trying to elicit an apology from the other person either! Forgiveness and letting go is all about you – relieving yourself of hurt and anger, and making yourself feel good, not the other guy.
  • Empathize and humanize. Stuck with an awful boss or a truly rotten neighbor? Their transgressions can be easier to forgive if you consider what brought them to this point of foisting pain on others. Was it a terrible childhood? Or a collapsing relationship? Or catastrophic health issues? Granted their painful back story or current reality in no way excuses or justifies their behavior – but an awareness of it can make it easier for you to empathize with their pain, and (eventually) forgive them.
  • Let gratitude crowd out hurt. For those who find forgiveness a challenge, start with the easier concepts of gratitude and appreciation – both of which can help pave the path to forgiveness. When you spend more energy on enjoying and appreciating the good things in your life, and moving forward, the desire to revisit past offenses start to lose their appeal – and their power – and that’s a good start.
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