Orius Medical

The Importance of Forgiveness: Why Letting Go Is Necessary for Mind and Body

Being hurt, offended, upset and mistreated by others is an unfortunate and inescapable reality that comes part and parcel of normal social and family life.

Much of the time these offences are small and likely not deliberate; not acknowledging the work that you put yourself out to do for someone, unkind comments or jokes, or ignoring you when you could use a little help, but it can also extend to bigger mistreatments which can rip families apart and leave permanent scars.

Many times it can be tempting to become resentful in response to these insults and even to feel a desire to pay them back for what they have said or done.

Most of us are aware, however, that this attitude is condemned as harmful and unproductive by everyone from modern psychologists to ancient religious philosophers.

Instead, we are told, we should “forgive and forget”. But as we all know, this is easier said than done, particularly when the person responsible has failed to adequately apologise or make an effort to right their wrongs.

In addition, there are certain caveats that need to be considered when trying to practise forgiveness, as there are circumstances where there are legitimate reasons to take action to protect yourself from future harm; practising forgiveness does not mean becoming a doormat or accepting abuse.

First then, it is important to understand exactly what forgiveness is- a conscious or deliberate decision to release the feelings of resentment or vengeance towards a person group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.

This last point is crucial and often missed- forgiveness is a conscious choice made by the person forgiving, and as such is independent of the merit or contriteness of the person who has caused the harm.

Receiving a sincere apology makes the process of forgiving someone a whole lot easier, but it is not a requirement since forgiveness is about an internal acceptance of the harm that has been done, and a resolution not to hold it against them any longer.

How Forgiveness Can Help You

While forgiving someone may seem like a selfless act, it is in fact a necessary step towards freeing yourself from a damaging mental state. In practising forgiveness you may experience some of the following benefits.

Positive effects of forgiveness on your mental wellbeing

Emotional Release

When we hold on to a grudge, our minds become enslaved, ruminating endlessly on what the person has done and continually reigniting feelings of anger and distress. This can make us become bitter and unhappy. By forgiving someone you set yourself free from this cycle, releasing the negative energy associated with it.


On a related note, forgiveness is a crucial step towards achieving mindfulness.

It has been shown that living in the present is important for your mental health as by focusing on the present moment you are less weighed down and more able to enjoy the simple things in life.

But in order to achieve this, it is necessary to let go of the past, and this is only possible when you decide to let bygones be bygones by forgiving those who have hurt you.

Improved Relationships

It is impossible to have fully satisfying and positive relationships with people when you are holding grudges against them.

Many marriages break down when one or both partners start “keeping score”, holding on to the small wrongs their partner does and consequently becoming embittered towards them.

This is equally true in other relationships. In order for a relationship to flourish it in vital that both parties are able to trust the other to accept sincere apologies for their missteps, and making a conscious effort to be forgiving is the best way to foster this trust.

In addition, forgiveness can open the door to reconciliation in situations where past wrongs or misunderstandings have caused a rift between people. While you are not owed their forgiveness, and reconciliation is obviously only possible if the other party is also open to letting go of the past, by adopting a gracious mindset you are at least making reconciliation possible.


The importance of forgiving yourself is a central and easily overlooked aspect of letting go. Many people hold themselves hostage to regret, agonising over past wrongs and convincing themselves they are a bad person as a result.

In forgiving yourself you accept that you can’t change the past and that your responsibility now lies in dealing with the situation as it is, regardless of your mistakes.

Being compassionate towards yourself is often the first step that will enable you to become more accepting and compassionate in your dealings with others, and reflecting on the grudges you have held against yourself may be a good opportunity to seek forgiveness from those you may have harmed.

Positive effects of forgiveness on your body

Practising forgiveness may also be important for your physical health. This is because holding grudges can trigger the sympathetic nervous system to go into fight or flight mode. Prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system may be associated with many negative outcomes including affecting the following systems:

The Immune System

High levels of fight or flight hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol in the blood are associated with lower levels of natural killer cells, a part of the body’s immune system that plays an important role in the prevention of disease.

There is also evidence that forgiveness may strengthen the immune systems of immunocompromised individuals, as it is associated with higher T cell percentages.

Long-Term Memory

Chronically elevated cortisol, which is associated with stress, shrinks the portion of the brain called the hippocampus needed for the conversion of short term memory to long term memory.

Blood Pressure

Elevated blood pressure is a key component of the fight or flight response, but over time high blood pressure is associated with many adverse health effects, including increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and dementia.

NB. All the above are complex biological systems and emotional dysregulation associated with grudges is just one of myriad factors that may affect them.

How do I Reach A State Of Forgiveness? (Steps Involved)

Forgiving someone is a highly personal action and there are often many layers to a grudge, with context such as your relationship with the person, expectations and other personal problems meaning that there is often much to be unravelled. As a result, there is no one size fits all solution. There are, however, some general guidelines you can follow that will help you figure out your path to forgiveness.

  • Reflect on the situation- take sufficient time out to understand your emotions. If you have been holding a grudge against someone for a long time then it is likely there are many things that you are holding on to or that are blocking you from forgiving the person. By gaining insight into these things it may become easier to take the next step.
  • It is important to note that this is different to rumination- instead of continually going over what the other person has done and why it was so wrong, you are reflecting on your own response in search of clarity and solutions.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It can be easy to forget that other people have complex lives and are subject to all kinds of stress, and may be dealing with circumstances you don’t know about were influencing there behaviour. Equally, it may be that when you consider the situation from their perspective, certain things you said or did may have been unreasonable.
  • Talk it through with a trusted friend or therapist. When we are stuck in our own head we often develop a warped perception of situations. By talking with someone emotionally mature, we can gain perspective and feel emotionally supported. It is important, however, that the conversation be constructive; as with the first point, the goal is to come to terms with the situation and find solutions, not to linger on the offence or validate your negative feelings towards them.
  • Choose to learn from the experience- experience they say is the best teacher. Often the most painful experiences provide the most opportunity for growth. While each situation is different, every time you practise forgiveness you are building the habit of being gracious.
  • Move on. If you have gone through the steps listed above, and are still not free from resentment then the best approach is likely just to try and drop the issue; some problems cannot be resolved and the best solution is to redirect your mind to something more fruitful. This may include avoiding certain people and situations if negative sentiment persists on exposure.

In closing, holding grudges is a problem faced by everyone at some point, but there are many reasons why it is important to deal with this issue in our lives.

In the words of Lewis B. Smedes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”