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How to practice forgiveness for breakthroughs in health and relationships?

Research shows that people who forgive are physically and mentally stronger. Forgiving leads to fewer chances of having depression, lower blood pressure, and so on. It decreases stress- issues and rates of heart disease and leads to a better immune system.

Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, a psychologist at Hope College discusses a few methods of forgiveness. These methods can help people move from being a victim to a life of health and wellbeing.

Aim of the Research: In one study of Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, she asked people to think about someone who had hurt, mistreated, or offended them. She would check their blood pressure, facial muscle tension, and sweat gland activity.

In Witvliet’s research, when people recalled a grudge, their physical balance soared. Their blood pressure and heart rate increased, and they sweated more. Ruminating about their grudges was stressful, and subjects found the rumination unpleasant. It made them feel angry, sad, anxious, and less in control.

Witvliet also asked her subjects to try to forgive their offenders. When they practiced forgiveness, their physical arousal coasted downward. They showed no more of a stress reaction than normal wakefulness produces.

My belief: You may know about the above or similar studies, or you may not. Before researching this article, I knew about ‘Forgiveness’, from the Pope down. He has been a gold standard for living and healing. Several religions preach it, and this is something that we have learned since we were kids. Thus, my belief came to be that ‘Forgiveness’ was a one-stop-cure for feelings of resentment. 

Sharing a small case where I experienced ‘Forgiveness’ in terms of coaching:

Ms. K, a client of mine was very particular about time. She would set up time schedules as early as possible in the morning and adhere to them. 

So, when she called one evening after dinner, I knew everything was not in place. Her tone was anxious, and she said that she had something on her mind and that she needed someone to talk to. The conversation continued. She talked about someone at her workplace whom she resented. This person didn’t believe in giving credit where it was due. She told me that she’d hog all the limelight and had a happy knack of turning people against the person she disliked. Ms. K. was fearful that this person was going to poison her boss against her.

She told me again that her intuition was strong. She had been through similar situations with other people in the past. Her intuition was always right even then. When she felt that someone was going to ‘poison’ the air around her it would happen. She then made a sort of confession. She said that she even wanted to harm this person. The conversation that began by sharing, ended in an unwanted rush of emotions.

It surprised me at first as Ms. K was a person who is 3 months of coaching had not demonstrated an outpouring of this kind. What she said measured how serious she was in her commitments. As she finished, I wanted to probe and understand the context she was speaking of. I wanted to go deeper in figuring out what all she had done to overcome this situation. But something held me back. 

Instead, I asked her who this person reminded her of, someone who had a deep impact on her from her past. She answered instantly. She talked about someone from her past, a family member who would turn everyone against her in the house. She got into the detail about describing what this person was like, what she has done, and how that had affected her. She did not disclose the name and the relationship to this person, so I respected that. As she was about to finish, I had this line of action in my head: I was going to get her to forgive that person from the past.

The belief crumbles: I wanted to teach her some ‘Forgiveness Powerful tools’ first. Trying to forgive someone in the first go is always tough for people. People who have not forgiven much find it harder to do. So, I asked her to choose some other family member. She chose her uncle whom she had small concerns towards. 

Taking her through a simple exercise I invited her to forgive that person – her uncle. We went through the exercise, she did it and came out feeling much better. I could see the visible sigh and her shoulders slump in relief. After a while, I asked her how she felt about the ‘other person’ from her family with whom she had a big issue with. 

The instant I asked her that I saw her stiffen and pushed back in her chair. “I hate her” is what she almost shouted, “and I hate you for bringing her back to my memory” is how she finished her sentence. I knew then that no amount of techniques or my asking her was going to get her to forgive …

Working with what was present: I acknowledged her resentment. After pausing for a while, I asked her for permission if we could go back to her earlier statement. “I hate her….” I asked her if she would repeat the statement, she looked up at me and I felt she was going to hang up. After a short breath though she pronounced the statement. I asked her to repeat it a few times. Then I added a word to the sentence “I hate her ‘for’ …” And I asked her to complete the sentence. 

After the initial tries, the words started flowing, and then she could not stop. After a while, she reached out for a bottle of water, took a break, composed herself, and looked at me. I wanted to ask her how she felt, but I felt the question was too premature in the process. 

I asked a different one “can we make this more real for you?” She consented and I got her into a dialogue with that person as if that person was present in front of her. 

It’s a simple Gestalt method but used at the right time can be very powerful. The following 5 minutes would make bellicose would be an understatement.

Ms. K described how she wanted to cause premeditated and fatal injury to that person. I allowed her to finish without judging her for the things she was saying (it was tough I tell you) and paraphrasing. Yet, kept her speaking to that person. 

When she had exhausted what she had to say about that person, I finally asked: “How do you feel?” She asked me – “to this person or from my family?” I nodded my head in the negative… “How do you feel right now?” l did not know what to expect. 

To my disbelief, she said she felt energized. I then asked her how she felt with the person from the office, the trigger for her making this call. She said she felt “empowered,” like this person did not have as much power over her anymore. We carried on working on the issue she faced with the person from her family. The little experiment we did gave her the confidence to deal with this person in the office maturely.

Forgiveness can improve mental and physical health. So, is forgiveness overrated? My answer – It’s a very powerful tool for mental and physical health. One should not jump too prematurely but it’s a process.

Between where we’re at and the ideal state of forgiveness is a gap, a gap filled with what are ‘negative’ feelings. You should not ignore these feelings while working with a client as we often end up suppressing these feelings for a later explosion.

A lot of people say, becoming aware of those ‘negative’ or ‘shadow’ feelings is something that is part of the ‘me’. We should not shun them away or suppress them. In reality, we should examine them, to express genuine and lasting forgiveness 

The practice of forgiveness has been shown to reduce anger and stress. It leads to greater feelings of peace, and self-confidence.

Michigan State University Extension also talked about forgiveness. It says that forgiving people leads to healthy relationships and a positive attitude.

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