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Like saying “sorry,” finding the way to forgive another person’s wrongdoing can be hard.

Sometimes we carry around ancient “hurts” as badges of honour. But they can be heavy burdens to bear.

That’s why you may hear people being encouraged to forgive because it provides a way forward to healing, and being able to put a miserable or unhappy episode behind you.

But more than that, it’s a good coping strategy to be able to deal with life’s ups and downs. Scientists take the view that being able to let go of powerful negative emotions matters because it relates to executive control and is an important factor to our emotional and mental wellbeing.
Researchers from Scotland found that the act of forgiveness helps individuals to suppress the details about the transgression that was perpetuated against them.

Another study from the University of Miami suggests that we use “conciliatory gestures” such as an apology or offer of compensation as means to restore or retain a relationship by making the transgressor appear more valuable as an ongoing partner for a relationship plus it makes the victim feel safer that they won’t be hurt again.

This reflects our social intelligence. Humans are hardwired to connect and in terms of our human evolution it makes sense to keep members of a tribe intact after internal squabbles.

The study showed that the extent to which conciliation was attempted mattered and was directly proportional to the extent that victims forgave over a period of time. This makes sense If you feel that a good enough effort to apologise has been made. You will feel differently about your response than if you feel the effort was only half hearted or insincere.

Watching the current news bulletins, it can seem hard to understand why the perpetual tit for tat retaliations between warring factions continue, when the only outcome is ongoing death and misery. Forgiveness appears to be something neither side wishes to consider.

Yet a recent documentary discussing the impact of American bombing of Laos around the time of the Vietnam War reveals how the Laotian culture is one of forgiveness. Despite the ongoing trauma of multiple injuries, deaths and amputations that continue to occur because of the millions of unexploded bombs littering their countryside forty years after hostilities ceased, the Laotian people shown in the film appeared to have no animosity towards their aggressors. Indeed they had long forgiven them and were focused on doing what they can do, to live for today and their future.

In other cultures, (including the Australian) it appears that people need to feel that the aggressor has been suitably punished, perhaps being sentenced in a court of law before they can allow themselves to forgive and move on.

Sometimes this is because seeing a perpetrator receive punishment gives the victim a sense of empowerment, so they then feel more able to move on and forgive.

But granting forgiveness remains a highly complex challenge for many, and is an issue that gets played out daily in many different aspects of our lives: in our relationships, at work and on the global stage.

Listening to the news today of yet another horrific tragedy, we will have to dig deep to find that forgiveness required.



S. Noreen, R. N. Bierman, M. D. MacLeod. Forgiving You Is Hard, but Forgetting Seems Easy: Can Forgiveness Facilitate Forgetting? Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614531602

M. E. McCullough, E. J. Pedersen, B. A. Tabak, E. C. Carter. Conciliatory gestures promote forgiveness and reduce anger in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1405072111

University of Adelaide. “Punishment plays important role in forgiveness.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 June 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140618100509.htm>.

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/57813845@N06/6463511761/”>eking1989</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/help/general/#147″>cc</a>

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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