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Is Withholding Forgiveness Costing You Your Health?

Couple showing forgiveness

Learn why we should forgive, what exactly we need to do and 5 Easy Steps to Doing It

Why do we care about forgiveness, when talking about health?

Often, while discussing health and wellness with folks, I hear patients attest that they are healthy. Even amidst a list of chronic health conditions, patients are quite confident in their health and wellness. In fact, depending on the source, 75%-80% of people consider themselves healthy. The most common response I hear about justification for health and wellness is, “I eat right and exercise regularly.” We are often not honest with ourselves. Nearly ½ of US adults have a chronic health condition, which are nearly 80-90% preventable. One of the main disconnects I see with folks is that while they exercise and “eat right,” which I think is usually not “right” for the record, they often don’t tend to their spiritual health or emotional wellness. One of the key factors in spiritual health is forgiveness.

Forgiveness has numerous health benefits. Perhaps the greatest studied and understood is the opposite of giving forgiveness, which is withholding forgiveness. There are numerous health problems that have been tied to withholding forgiveness, such as heart disease, chronic pain, substance abuse. [1] Forgiveness is a highly underutilized intervention for health and wellness problems. It is my contention, as my regular readers will attest to, that many of our problems with eating, exercise and self-love, start with spiritual health. Forgiveness is a key intervention for spiritual health and one I hope that everyone will try, at the end of this blog.

Who can we learn about forgiveness from?

Perhaps one of the greatest experts that I have ever connected with on forgiveness is Dr. Everett L Worthington Jr. Dr. Worthington is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has spent his career researching and writing about forgiveness. His information has helped individuals, couples and families as well as even communities learn to forgive.[2] Dr. Worthington knows something about forgiveness, on a personal level too. He lost his mother to murder in 1996. It was at that time that he began to think about the practice of forgiveness as it relates to justice faith and virtue.2 While it must have been incredibly challenging for him, Dr. Worthington forgave the murderer of his mother. His professional and personal insights, went a long way in my desire to connect with him. In my conversations with him over email, I have been equally impressed with his kindness and true commitment to growth of forgiveness for all, particularly as it can be used as an intervention for health and wellness.

Research from Dr. Worthington as demonstrated that forgiveness has a positive impact on mental and physical health.1 At Doctor of Living, I believe that true wellness comes from the mind, body and soul. Spiritual health is often neglected. Many of the secular culture today interprets spiritual as not important to them. But, spiritual matters. In fact, it may matter more than anything else. As such, spiritual health interventions are of great interest to me. If withholding forgiveness, leads to medical problems, then regular practice of forgiveness, which can be learned is at the top of our list of wellness interventions. We see the practice of forgiveness as a learned behavior that, if done regularly, will lead to improved health and wellness. The act of forgiveness reduces the incidence of certain chronic condition: cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, chronic pain.1 There is no doubt that forgiveness works, can be learned, should be part of your wellness plan and will lead to improved health and wellness.

What exactly is forgiveness though?

Dr. Worthington writes that one of the most useful ways of understanding forgiveness is to understand what forgiveness is not. “Forgiveness is not condoning or justifying the offense.1 Whatever the offense it may be serious and the seriousness of this offense must not be minimized.1 Forgiveness is also not justice or reconciliation. It is not the restoration of the damaged relationship.”1 There are two types of forgiveness. The first type of forgiveness is decisional1. “Decisional forgiveness appears to be primarily motivated by a principal of religious belief and beneficence or by a desire to start to restore the relationship with the offender.”1 “The second type is emotional forgiveness which is motivated by empathic attunement with the offender in recognition of the fallibility of human beings.”1 Both types of forgiveness have health benefits, although somewhat different pathways to obtaining health improvement.1

Think of the first type of forgiveness as a conscious choice. You choose to forgive, because it’s the right moral or religious thing to do. You also consciously choose to restore your relationship. Perhaps,  it’s someone you know like a parent, spouse, or sibling. The second type of forgiveness is more of forgiveness because of the recognition that “no one is perfect.” We are all human and that, while there may be pain, true empathy allows you to see things from the other persons side. There are always 2 sides to the story. When you can hear things from the other person’s side of the story, it allows for true empathy and, thus, forgiveness. This may be easier for someone you don’t know. We are often called upon by family and friends to forgive people we do know, but for those that we don’t the second type of forgiveness may be a bit easier. The human condition is one of trespassing on others. Forgiveness reflects an individual’s empathic understanding that they too have trespassed and we all deserve a second chance. There are instances where it seems that certain people may never improve themselves, but even then the condition of constantly trespassing on others is a miserable condition filled with ultimate affliction of sadness and despair.

How do we offer forgiveness?

There is agreement among experts published in Forgiveness and Health, regarding 5 Steps to Forgiveness.(1) In practice, these don’t have to be linear. While numeric for the purposes of presentation, the point isn’t that the be proceeded upon in a linear fashion.

  1. “Recognition that an offense has occurred, along with any feelings you might have about this offense: anger, guilt, frustration, disappointment.” (1) It happened. It’s ok that you feel the way you do…
  2. “Recognition of negative thoughts and emotions in response to the offense.”(1)  The offense has created negative thoughts and emotions which continue to impact your life. This is where people say that the only person that is hurt by withholding forgiveness is YOU.
  3. “Recognition that previous strategy for dealing with hurt is not working.” (1) We all have strategies for dealing with offenses. Some avoid the person or the circumstances. Some become angry and lash out. Some become vindictive. The key is none of these work.
  4. “You have freely chosen decision to forgive.” (1) You have not been coerced into this by anyone, including yourself. You must do this completely freely or no good will come. It won’t be honest and so will not have lasting impact.
  5. “You develop an affective, cognitive, and/or behavioral change in response to the offender.”(1) We have all heard someone say that they have forgiven someone, but there is no change in response. There must be a change in response to the offender that is witnessed and felt. That’s pure.

How do we put it all together?

Unforgiveness leads to major health problems. Witvliet, et al found that unforgiveness leads to rumination, avoidance, and revenge, which invites attentional, physiological, and behavioral components of emotion, causing outcomes such as anxiety, depression, hostility, and heart disease.1 All of us commit trespasses against ourselves, our neighbors, friends and families. We are all in a perpetual state of needing to forgive and needing to be forgiven. Some of us are practicing forgiveness regularly, but most of us, could use a little work. We are prone to anxiety, depression, hostility, which can predispose us to heart disease and perhaps even some cancers.

One of the key elements of wellness, unlike health, is that health problems require interventions. Of course, there are health problems that may benefit from forgiveness and there is research that supports the positive impact of forgiveness as an intervention and shows reduction in depression and improvement and self-perceived physical health.1 So, while forgiveness could be used as an intervention, it is my opinion that it may be best used if adopted as part of a wellness plan in improving of one’s lifestyle. In order to do this, we need wellness plans, which guide us, encourage, remind and support us in giving forgiveness regularly, as a way to achieve our best selves. If you haven’t been talking about how forgiveness may improve your health, isn’t it time?

If you are interested in topics like forgiveness, then the Well90 may be the perfect wellness program for you. The program looks at forgiveness as one of many variables for health and wellness. Click on the link Well90 to learn more. If you are an employer and interested in a forgiving culture at work, which may lead to less animosity, negative competitive behavior, more collaboration, and less anxiety and stress, check out the Wellness Improvement Program.

Thanks to all for reading, spreading the word about a new type of wellness and most of all for caring about your health and wellness!


[1] Forgiveness and Health. Scientific Evidence and Theories Relative Forgiveness to Better Health. Toussaint, Worthington, Williams. Springer. DOI 10.1007/978-94-017-9993-5

[2] Dr. Worthington Profile. Accessed February 3rd, 2020.

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