A Brain on Forgiveness

eweber   September 17, 2011   56 Comments on A Brain on Forgiveness

Most people have been judged in ways that bring to question their very mission in life. Far fewer find an amygdala‘s mental tools to forgive, accept without expectations, and move on. cool mita image

Well  beyond  harsh judgments  or words that leave you feeling like a  slug on skid row,  lies the brain’s  ability to embrace genuine reconciliation. Need to forgive, be forgiven, or both?

Good news  – your brain comes with equipment that  segues into peace and recaptures gratitude, hope and joy.  It’s rarely easy to pardon though, and has little to do with showing your side of a story in defense. Rather than recycle guilt,  see yourself – along with others – as worthy of care without demands for change as a condition.

Forgiveness literally alters the brain’s wiring – away from distortions brought about by the past,  and beyond fears that limit the future. It leads from misery of a broken promise, to wellness that builds new neuron pathways into physical, emotional and spiritual well being.

How do brains forgive?

From a brain’s perspective, forgiveness takes far more than merely letting go. It takes deliberate decisions to move beyond another person’s  judgment of you.   Replace a sad or disappointing encounter with memories of events that stoke healing, for instance, and your brain shifts focus.

The willingness to drop any need to blame diminishes your need to explain your perspective.  A brain forgives as a commitment to understand the other side, to feel empathy for another, or to regain compassion for a person you care about who hurt you.

The event that caused conflict in the first place may not change, but forgiveness opens new segues into empathy, delight, and care for another person. Pardon designs mental escape routes  for your thoughts – that may otherwise  be relegated into corners that distrust or fear.

Forgiveness rarely opens  another person’s eyes to see your inner value.  Nor does it validate hurtful words or callous acts.  To exonerate is not even to quell harsh judgments.  It simply adds a peace that allows you to move on, and to embrace your mission with new delight.

Forgiving brains fuel unconditional love. How so? Speak of another’s genuine value,  rather than replay disappointment’s darts – and sorrow fades from the brain’s amygdala, like clouds float off on a sunny day.

Mental benefits emerge in forgiveness

Crave healthier relationships? Rewired brains can unleash kindness without demands, or enjoy perceptions not colored by past perspectives. Since care cannot co-exist in human brains alongside attempts to change another, simply enjoy each moment without such limitations.

Long to find new freedom with those you value most? One way to let go of hurts is to replace grudges with generosity.  Make kindness more important than hostility.  Extend gestures of care to others and you’ll rewire the brain from victim modes,  into habits that default to healthy relationships.

Not everybody will value your strengths, and those you love most will likely spot your flaws first. Convert compassion into  daily practices that show care though, and  expect well being to follow. Project images, words and icons of acceptance, and these gradually become your perception of people who differ from you. Your brain rewires to delight in differences!

Stress defaults to unforgiveness

Stress comes from hostility – and while it gets dubbed by many names stress shrinks the brain and anxiety drains mental life. Simply stated,  stress flips your brain into shutdown or shotgun mode. Cortisol chemicals fuel all such stressful states, in ways that rob your courage to communicate kindness or show genuine care you feel.

Sadly, you may have defaulted to ruts or triggered further problems. How so? Research shows  dangerous effects of cultivating cortisol reactions in human brains. Here’s the skinny –   stress from unforgiveness may mask as savior, but it strikes as killer!

Forgiveness, restores past wonder, because it leads to:

  • Healthy relationships where others see efforts to make peace larger than personal gain.
  • Restoration of a past relationship that you broke or damaged by missteps you may not even understand.
  • Fewer loneliness tanks and higher spiritual and psychological peaks to wellbeing
  • Stress-free friendships that sidestep hostilities by yielding personal desires for shared harmony
  • Fewer risks associated with depression, stress, and substance abuse that follows

Brains holding grudges slow to the speed of a slug

Most people want trusted relationships, yet many seem unable to attain these, because fear confuses people and distorts perceptions about what’s going on. When hurt by people you trust and love, your brain slips into confusion and sadness tends to follow.

Replay painful incidents mentally, or dwell on hurtful  events, and negative feelings begin to crowd out possibilities and you may drown in a sense of sorrow or regret.  The brain’s basal ganglia  stores every reaction to severe disappointments.  And if negative or bitter – these reactions limit your chances for finding well-being in a similar situation.

Brainwaves slow to a grind and serotonin supplies diminish under excessive weights of a grudge. Over time feelings of anger, sadness or resentment can rob your contentment, because these can form the engine that drives behavior.  If you repeatedly find yourself drowning in a sense of injustice or bitter disappointment – you may create a pattern of bitterness.

Toxins will follow you into new relationships, and the cost tends to be far higher than the pain of disappointment. Your actions become tainted by the sense of loss – so that you lose sight of your ability to enjoy the present. Unable to understand your feelings, you use anger to cover up your hurt.

Depression and anxiety spring from an inability to forgive. You begin to sense your life lacks meaning to others you love most, and you seem to be at odds with all that you hold dear. Unless checked – you begin to lose ongoing connections with those you care about most.

Holidays can be the worst time for depression and loneliness to spawn! But it doesn’t have to be this way, if you create space for mindfulness, stress shrinks by default!

How does the brain deal with forgiveness?

Laugh more as you keep alive in you – that three year old – active, curious and ready to be surprised by joy from others. To forgive is to choose change and graciousness in spite of conflict or accusations encountered. The first stage of forgiveness is the awareness that to forgive is far greater than the need to be right. It’s typically about your calm reactions to conflict rather than about gaining ground in a difficult situation.

Forgiveness is measured in health and well being – in spite of injustices and disappointments. To forgive a person who judges or hurts you is to refuse the role of victim and to unleash a new chemical and electrical circuitry for letting go of grudges. Once you leap past hurdles of anger or grief, you often find yourself ready to enter new doors of compassion and understanding for others who face let-downs or disappointments.

If you demand justice as a door into well being, you’ll likely find it harder to forgive folks who fail to see the problem or admit the pain it caused. If you value a person deeply, forgiving that person is likely  harder because your amygdala stores its memory and your mind replays each sting. It takes a stronger desire for integrity, peace and wellbeing to move forward.

You can sense forgiveness if you no longer feel stress or tension in that person’s presence. No longer will you need to be understood, when you begin to understand, what Khalil Gibrand pointed out:

If you love somebody, let them go.  If they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.

Here’s where an open mind helps to sustain forgiveness – and it doesn’t depend on another person feeling regret or sharing in your hurt. Admit your own mistakes quickly and treat others as if you walked in their shoes when conflicts arise. The brain responds with a warmth of compassion, care and curiosity – as forgiveness reconnects you to people you cherish.

Ever see entire communities flourish, when one or two people project  mind-bending forgiveness?

Related tool: Yearly planner with brain boosters and prompts to reboot your brain so that you tap and develop hidden and unused capabilities.

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56 thoughts on “A Brain on Forgiveness

  1. John S

    Hi Ellen,
    I am currently writing a thesis on the reasons spiritual healing is not accepted in the Western Evangelical Church. In a nutshell healing ministries are not able to subject themselves to academic examination (which I am willing to be as I am one of “those” ministers). I am gathering information about the brain and its activity during the act of choosing to forgive. Could you tell me what you know about Glial Cells and their activities in the brain and have these cells been linked into the forgiving process?
    They have multiple ‘maintenance’ functions but what do you know in terms of specific activation?
    I am looking into the question of do they (Glial Cells) activate/react in answer to forgiveness as a trigger?
    Your thoughts would be very welcome.

  2. eweber Post author

    Glial cells are quite unknown in many circles, John. We know that while glial cells don’t share the nerve impulses of neurons – they support and protect (or insulate) neurons in several key ways. There are many more glial cells in the brain than neurons.

    You make quite a leap to design a thesis on “the reasons spiritual healing is not accepted in the Western Evangelical Church,” John. Interesting.

    Interesting question John, “I am looking into the question of do they (Glial Cells) activate/react in answer to forgiveness as a trigger?”

    It’s not an area of mine – since I connect a person’s expressions of spirit and faith more in one’s intrapersonal intelligence and have shown links to brain parts here in this post – but have not seen specific links between forgiveness and glial cells. Good luck with your thesis. Ellen

  3. Pingback: The conversation of Forgiveness continues « Rev. Randall's Notebook

  4. Sharon

    I read an article on forgiveness a while ago & was looking for it when I found this. It’s all very interesting! What the article was talking about was the effect of the brain when a person goes to sleep in unforgiveness. It stated something along the lines of: if you forgive an offense before going to bed at night, it’s gone. However, if you don’t, it starts a process of leaving an imprint there that changes the brain in some ways. I know I’m not verbalizing this well at all & your article goes right along with that but do you know what I’m talking about? I want to be able to explain what happens & I’m not doing very good at this… lol I can’t seem to find the article & really want a better understanding . . .

  5. 3SecondsOfHope

    “To forgive a person who judges or hurts you is to refuse the role of victim”

    Love this 🙂 Lets take our power back and start living our lives, instead of playing a victim….

  6. eweber Post author

    Good point, 3SecondsOfHope and thanks for stopping by. It takes courage to forgive, and it takes finding the inner strength to be good to yourself as well. People who care about and nurture their own wellbeing, are better situated find inner resources to care about and forgive others. What do you think? Best, Ellen

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