©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

One of the secret causes of stress plaguing millions of
people is unforgiveness. Don Colbert MD

The woman made her way slowly and painfully across my office and into a chair. Her name was Jaylee. Attractive, in her early forties, mahogany hair pulled back in a low ponytail, obviously in great discomfort. As she began her story, silent tears coursed down her face and fell onto hands clasped tightly in her lap, hands that were beginning to show signs of arthritic disfigurement.

Several years before, Jaylee had returned home early from a meeting to discover her husband in bed with the babysitter. “I’ve tried to get over it,” she said. “We got a new bed and redecorated the room. We went to counseling. I’ve tried everything, I really have, but nothing has worked. Every time I look at him all I can see my mind’s eye is the two of them in our bed amidst rumpled sheets. And to add insult to injury, a few weeks ago my doctor told me I had an autoimmune disease. I’m always in pain. Everything about my body aches.”

“Have you tried changing the picture in your mind’s eye?” I asked. “Every time that old picture pops up, have you purposefully envisioned a new replacement picture?”

She shook her head. “That psychological stuff doesn’t work with me.”

I smiled. “It’s brain-function stuff.”

She rolled her eyes and continued. “As I said, I have tried everything, but nothing has helped. Finally I told him to move out.”

“And how is that working?” I asked. Silence and more tears.

“It appears that you are still sad,” I said. “It’s been five years since the incident. What are you still sad about?”

In a nanosecond her entire demeanor changed. Her black eyes blazed fire and indignation. “What do you think I’m sad about?” she shouted. “Are you a complete moron? He ruined my life. That’s what I’m sad about!”

It also appeared that sadness was the least of it. For several minutes the woman raged about the injustice of life. After all, she had been a good wife and mother and didn’t deserve this. Repeat did NOT deserve this. Finally she wound down, took a deep breath, and sighed.

“Have you tried forgiving him?” I asked.

Shaking her head, Jaylee replied, “He asked me many times to forgive him but it was all just too egregious. Now it’s too late. He remarried last month. Besides, why should I forgive him? He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.”

“None of us deserves to be forgiven for our faux pas,” I said.

“Faux pas!” Jaylee fairly screamed. “Are you kidding me? What he did was absolutely unforgivable. It ruined my life. Faux pas indeed!”

I squelched a smile. My French heritage had bubbled up before I’d had time to consider that blunder would have been a more fortunate word choice. “You could still forgive him,” I said. “It’s never too late. The person could have died, and you could still forgive.”

Some definitions for forgiveness focus on reducing unforgiveness. Many acts have the potential to reduce unforgiveness and are thus often confused with forgiveness. As one researcher put it, successful vengeance will eliminate unforgiveness, but no one would confuse vengeance with forgiveness.

“Forgiveness does not mean that you deny the other's responsibility for injuring or hurting you, condone bad behavior, minimize and justify the wrong, or excuse the act,” I explained. “And it certainly doesn’t mean that you choose to reconcile or remain in an abusive relationship or environment or that you waive your right to justice and appropriate compensation.” Jaylee sat motionless, glowering at me.

I explained that at least two types of forgiveness pop up in the literature: decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness.

• Decisional forgiveness is a behavioral intention to resist an unforgiving stance and to respond differently toward a transgressor.

• Emotional forgiveness is the replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions. Emotional forgiveness, which involves psychophysiological changes, has more direct health and well-being consequences.

Jaylee could begin with decisional forgiveness and, hopefully, move on to emotional forgiveness. “The bottom line,” I said, “is that forgiveness and forgiving appear to be crucial to healthy living.” As Doctors Arnold and Barry Fox put it, when you say “I forgive you,” you’re also saying “I want to be healthy.” The act of forgiving allows the body to turn down the manufacture of catabolic chemicals, and instructs the subconscious to banish negative feelings from the mind. “Forgiveness has less to do with others,” I said, “and everything to do with the forgiver. In this case, that would be you.”


“Think of it this way,” I continued. “Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself, a way to stop harboring destructive feelings that sap health and happiness. A way of helping yourself to feel better. Forgiveness can improve your health. If you choose not to forgive, you will likely be the one who pays most dearly. I once heard it put this way: A person living in unforgiveness, all the while wishing that the other person would die, is the one actually drinking the deadly poison. I know that you’re accustomed to holding a grudge, but there is another way.”

According to internationally renowned cardiologist Herbert Benson, there is something called the physiology of forgiveness. Being unable to forgive another person’s faults is harmful to your health. As recently as a few years ago, it would have been difficult to find much information on the physiology of forgiveness. Few people realized that forgiveness research even existed. Although the field is admittedly new, it has grown exponentially over the past decade with more than 1,200 published studies (up from 58 as recently as 1997).

Studies have shown that there is not just a psychology underlying forgiveness but a physiology as well. An inability or unwillingness to forgive has been linked with a variety of health hazards and negative consequences, including the following:

• Increased stress levels and muscle tension
• Increased blood pressure and heart rate
• Increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol
• Suppressed immune function
• Increased risk for depression, heart disease, stroke, and cancer
• Decreased neurological function and memory
• Impaired relationships at home and at work

On the flip side, studies have revealed the power of forgiveness which can include these benefits:

• Healthier relationships
• Greater mental, physical, spiritual health
• Less anxiety, stress, and hostility
• Lower blood pressure
• Fewer symptoms of depression
• Lower risk of alcohol / substance abuse
• Making room for compassion, kindness, and peace

Unforgiveness may underlie many of the problems individuals grapple with in life. According to one cleric, his belief at time of ordination was that about half of all problems were due (at least in part) to unforgiveness. Ten years later, he estimated that at least three quarters of all health, marital, family, and financial problems stem from unforgiveness. After more than twenty years in ministry, he concluded that over 90 percent of all problems are rooted in issues related to unforgiveness.

"In fact," I explained, "it appears that the one who forgives tends to benefit more than the one who is forgiven. Who knew?"

Jaylee would have none of it. Rising from the chair, she painfully made her way toward the door. “I’ll think about it and let you know,” were her parting words.

Several days passed. The weekend came and went and was followed by another. Then one morning the call light on my office phone was blinking. Picking up the receiver I dialed into voicemail. The words “I’ve decided” came to my ear. “And I won’t do it,” the voice said. “I’ve decided I’ll die first!”

I replaced the receiver, regretfully. Jaylee probably would die firsta devastation that might have been avoided.

Do you need to forgive yourself for something? Is there anybody in your life you need to forgive? How healthy do you want to be?

Forgiveness is a choice, a gift you give yourself. Choose it today!

Author's Bio: 

Arlene R. Taylor PhD is a brain function specialist. Founder and president of Realizations Inc, a non-profit corporation that engages in brain-function research and provides related educational resources, she is an internationally known author and speaker. www.arlenetaylor.org