Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.
When I was in my 20s, I had an anger problem. Minor irritations could fill me with rage and cause me to be sarcastic or yell at people. I eventually realized I was angry because I had not forgiven my parents and other people who had abused me in childhood. My inner turmoil had several negative effects on my life. I tried to forgive them but encountered several barriers.
Barriers to Forgiveness
Several factors can hold us back from pardoning others.
Denial: Some people go into denial that something painful occurred to avoid and stuff down their pain.
Anger and bitterness that is all-consuming: We can become wrapped up in the harm done to us that it takes over our lives. We cannot enjoy life. The only satisfaction we get is from feelings of righteous indignation and rage at the injustice done to us.
The desire for acknowledgment of our pain: We hold on to hurt because we need other people to acknowledge that we have been hurt.
We want to punish the offender: Our natural desire is to retaliate against perpetrators.
The Consequences of Unforgiveness
Anger and resentment
When anger simmers just below the surface, it can explode at any time. It can hurt innocent people around us and strain relationships. Triggers keep reminding us of our hurts. According to the website Theravive, Unforgiveness can provoke a short term intense response that can impair our ability to communicate, think clearly, and make decisions.
Depression and anxiety
When negative emotions are not addressed, we may experience sleep disturbances and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and a short-temper.
Questioning spiritual beliefs and whether we have purpose
If our faith tells us to forgive, we will feel guilty and conflicted if we do not pardon others. We may question who we are and what we believe.
Mental and physical effects
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, chronic anger creates a fight or flight state of mind that stays on, even when no threat exists. Some trauma survivors such as natural disasters, physical and sexual assaults, or muggings develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Common symptoms are angry outbursts, insomnia, emotional numbness, and tension.
A state of unforgiveness can lead to an increased risk of changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and immune response. We are more vulnerable to experiencing increased stress levels, anxiety, depression, and diabetes and heart disease conditions.
Steps to Overcoming Unforgiveness
Acknowledge and deal with our emotional pain
We must face the harm that has been done and how it has affected us. Seeing ourselves as victims and indulging in self-pity can keep us stuck in unforgiveness. We cannot heal until we face offenses and deal with the emotional and physical fallout.
Mental health and similar professionals can help us overcome the damage that has been done. Talking about offenses with them or trusted friends helps us calm down and decide what the aftermath will be. When we unburden our emotional baggage, we can find healing.
Not letting the offense control our lives
We can become so wrapped up in the wrongdoing that we cannot enjoy life. Our thought life is captive to our resentment and visions of revenge. We may isolate ourselves from others and question other people’s motives. Distrust may harm our relationships. Forgiveness, on the other hand, gives us mental stability and the ability to socialize with others.
Let go of anger and resentment
We get some satisfaction from holding on to anger. In our minds, we are punishing the perpetrators and shielding ourselves from future harm. In the end, we are only hurting ourselves. Our resentments will take over our thought life and make us miserable. Chances are the people around us will be miserable, too.
Letting go will release the rage stewing inside of us. We can free our thought life and stop focusing on how a person did us wrong. If anger is stewing inside, it can control us, as it did to me. It is easily triggered and flares up when we least expect it. The rage can damage our relationships and taint new experiences. When we stop being angry, we can regain our self-control and can navigate life more successfully.
A desire for vengeance is a sign that we have not forgiven those who offended against us. Forgiveness includes overcoming the need for revenge.
Let go of expectations
Some offenders will seem genuinely remorseful and apologetic, but many are not. We may hold back from forgiveness because we have certain expectations of perpetrators. We want them to acknowledge their offenses, show remorse, and apologize sincerely. Offenders may never do any of these things and or refuse to discuss issues. At some point, we have to release our hopes for perpetrators to admit their faults and apologize.
Hold offenders accountable for their actions, if needed
Forgiveness does not mean that we are releasing offenders from the consequences of their actions. We face several choices when people hurt us. We can decide to overlook the harm and forgive unconditionally. Confrontation is an option if the offending parties are willing to listen. We can determine consequences such as limiting or cutting off contact with the perpetrators. Clear boundaries for the future may need to be set, especially with repeat offenders. When serious crimes such as sexual assault or theft are involved, criminal charges may need to be filed to keep us safe.
Recognize that forgiveness is a process
Forgiveness is not just a one-time thing. It is an ongoing process that needs to be revisited again and again. We are told to “forgive and forget,” but in some cases, remembering the offenses reminds us that offenders are untrustworthy or unsafe. Forgiveness enables us to open our minds to the possibility that the offenders may become trustworthy in the future.
Should we restore relationships with people in our lives who have hurt us? It depends on the situation. Some people are toxic and should be avoided.
Relationships with others are possible if they honor the boundaries we put in place to protect us. In other cases, people may be remorseful and are willing to do whatever it takes to resume a connection with us. We can cautiously consider if a healthy relationship is possible and take steps to restore the connection.
Clearly, unforgiveness has negative consequences that affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Forgiveness puts us on the path to healing from our past hurts and losses. It enables us to regain self-control and take back our thought life. Pardoning others is a necessary step to emotional healing and the restoration of relationships.
Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness, Mayo Clinic
Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It, John Hopkins Medicine
The Negative Effects of Unforgiveness on Mental Health, Theravive, Christie Hunter
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Carola Finch
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 09, 2020:
Thanks for your very helpful, meaningful presentation. Especially insightful to realize that forgiveness is a process.
Mario Delgadillo on September 09, 2020:
There is definitly a intriguing pull that binds what intake something is. The value of it all is most definitely special.
Louise Elcross from Preston on September 08, 2020:
Carola, a big thank you for writing this. I have come across it when I needed it the most.