11. Forgiveness: The Most Effective Way to Handle Stress

Graf Stress Management’s forty-plus years of clinical use have yielded a definitive insight: Forgiveness is key to managing stress and enjoying healthy, peaceful, productive living.

The Stress Evaluation reveals that we are each born with high value standards, and one of these is the need to forgive when we take offense. The failure to forgive  places stress on us which can result in very real mental and physical health problems, as well as other self-sabotaging behavior.

No approach to stress management (e.g., relaxation, hobbies, medication) that neglects this core truth can relieve the subconscious component of stress.

I confess that when I first learned this, it bothered me.  I had been a grudge-holder all my life and the idea of ‘unwarranted, unearned forgiveness’ went against my grain. Fortunately, that’s not what forgiveness is.  Here’s how I explain it to clients:

When something offends us – makes us hurt, mad, sad, embarrassed, frustrated, etc. – we have the choice to either take offense or not take offense.  It happens so quickly, so reflexively, that we may not even realize we have a choice but we do. And most often, we choose to take offense.

Once we’ve taken offense, our first response is usually to retaliate or ‘get even.’  So we tell the other person off, or we get physical, or exclude them socially, sue them, gossip about them, and so forth.  We think it will make us feel better to see “justice” done, but what the Stress Evaluation reveals time and time again is that, surprisingly, retaliation makes us feel worse.  The reason it does is that it’s beneath our innate value standards to return evil for evil, and living beneath our standards is always stressful.

Some people are not retaliators by nature.  Instead, when they get offended they “swallow it” and do nothing outwardly, but instead of forgiving and forgetting they think about it again and again. It festers inside them, sometimes to the point of causing very serious physical health problems.

There’s a third option for dealing with offense that few of us even consider: forgiveness.  We have a lot of trouble with forgiveness because we don’t understand what it really is.  We think it means condoning wrongdoing, or letting someone get away with something, or giving someone a free pass to hurt us again.  This is NOT what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness in the context of stress management means allowing the offender the free agency to be less than perfect, and letting the Lord be the judge. It’s a matter of letting go and not internalizing the negativity.

Often we hold onto our resentment because we think it punishes the offenders, as though our negative feelings had any impact on them at all! The truth is, we’re the ones hurt by those feelings, not the offender, which is why we benefit from forgiving. Forgiveness keeps the negativity from causing problems for us. As discussed above, we are born with an internal standard that requires us to forgive when we take offense. We can’t opt out of it; our only choice is to live up to it and be at peace, or live beneath it and feel stress.

Forgiveness does not negate the fact that the wrongdoer will stand accountable for his actions, just as we will for ours. Justice will inevitably be served, but not necessarily by us or on our timetable.

In addition, forgiveness does not mean that we must like people who’ve hurt us or choose to socialize with them. It doesn’t require that we make ourselves vulnerable to them again, nor does it mean that we can’t hold them responsible to remedy the damage they’ve done, when appropriate.  We may still pursue justice through appropriate channels if the situation warrants it; however, there is a meaningful difference between suing for justice and suing for revenge.

Generally, the person we find it hardest to forgive is our self.  In fact, when the need to forgive our self shows up during the Stress Evaluation, it often come as a surprise to the client.  Subconsciously, we seem to feel that if we make ourselves suffer enough we can “pay” for our wrongdoing but it turns our that even when we are the offender, the failure to forgive is stressful to us.

The Stress Evaluation is especially helpful in clarifying whom we need to forgive and for what, details that are sometimes unclear to our rational minds. It turns out that what we think offended us may NOT be what actually did offend us, according to our intelligence. In particular, when a lot of time has elapsed since the episode, we may not realize that lingering stress is still causing problems for us and needs to be resolved.

Again and again, we observe that nothing brings more peace of mind and relief from overwhelming and debilitating stress than the simple, humble tool of forgiveness.   When properly applied as needed, it can result in dramatic physical and mental restoration, peace of mind and increased energy levels.

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Richardson, in Rockville, Maryland, has been certified to practice Graf Stress Management since 1991. In addition, she holds a B.A. in Economics and an M.S. in Operations Research and formerly worked for the Congressional Budget Office doing econometric modeling.

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