Imagine if someone had gotten a pair of tongs and dropped hot coal onto your palms. How would you respond?
A sensible response would be to immediately let go of the coal to minimise the scorching pain, and fortunately, we have a nervous system that prompts us to reflexively do so at the point of contact. In such cases, the pain is brief and we have a level of control to keep the sting within constraints. Unfortunately though, pain can be enduring and harder to manage, especially if the burn is emotional.
Hurt can result from different causes: damaging words that were said… affirming words that were unsaid… actions that had inflicted injury… inaction that had caused harm. It is safe to say that as humans, it is inevitable that we would have undergone such experiences in one form or another.
Unforgiveness is holding onto a past hurt inflicted by a purported offender. Oftentimes the people we find difficult to forgive are the ones whose love and validation we wanted; as the poet William Blake said, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend”.
While most of us would have promptly released the hot coal in the literal sense if it was dropped into our hands, unforgiveness can be likened to metaphorically holding onto the hot coal and maintaining a firm grip on it, as we indignantly tell the offender with outstretched arms “Look at what you did to me!”. There is usually a part of us that also feels compelled to hold onto the narrative that we have been wronged, figuratively studying the hot coal from different angles, and replaying the event to ourselves to confirm our suffering (Witvliet & McCullough, 2007). Given that hurtful actions usually entail a breach of moral code that causes us pain, the abovementioned behaviours are understandable, if not part of the human condition. Nevertheless, in trying to validate our experience of pain by revisiting it repeatedly, we ironically run the risk of re-injuring ourselves over and over again.
The individual may also harbour unforgiveness to attain a sense of control over the past hurt – in defense through self-protection, at times in offence such as through the desire to get even (Mullet, Neto, & Riviere, 2005), or they can very well occur simultaneously. This is also very understandable considering that pain, especially if it came from abuse, can often be accompanied by a sense of reduced control and a diminished sense of self (Ozlem, 2012). Therefore, unforgiveness can be seen as a way of regaining equilibrium after you have felt like you have been knocked off balance.
Before the imagery of the metaphor fades, imagine yourself holding onto the hot coal with the intention of showing it to the offender, except the offender is absent. Oftentimes the person we hold a grudge towards is no longer active in our lives – perhaps the friend we had a falling out with, or in an arguably more severe case, the ex-partner who was abusive. Even if the person to whom we hold resentment is still active in our lives, a common example being a family member, they may have already moved on from the event. In such cases, we are not only re-injuring ourselves, but unintentionally allowing someone from the past to continue to hurt us in the present.
While there are valid reasons for maintaining unforgiveness, as aforementioned, it does not come without a barrage of negative consequences on our physical and emotional health. Research has found that anger or resentment activates the fight-or-flight response, which causes stress hormones to increase (Worthington, Witvliet, Pietrini, & Miller, 2007). When we feel stressed, our ability to think rationally and communicate effectively can be stifled, and we are more likely to act out of our emotion. Just as the offender had figuratively made us pay a price that is not ours to pay, we – in our anger – can also make others pay a price that is not theirs to pay, therefore doing unto others what was done to us. Longer term impacts include lower immunity, cardiovascular issues (Lawler et al., 2003), and high blood pressure (Toussaint & Williams, 2003). Considering the notion that depression is anger turned inwards (Choi & Murdock, 2017), and that anger is usually a secondary emotion to fear and hurt, it therefore comes as no surprise that unforgiveness correlates with poorer mental health (Witvliet & McCullough, 2007).
Having considered both sides of the coin, are the benefits (whether real or perceived) of unforgiveness worth the price you are paying?
I have noticed that quite a number of Christians like to quote Matthew 11:28-30 as one of their favourite passages, especially in the context of a conversation about mental health. In reflecting on this popular choice, I realised that these verses are very relevant as it speaks to our universal need for physical wellness and for security (Horne, 2019), at the same time pointing us to a steady source who can provide this.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Consider the burdens that have weighed you down – perhaps your memory of the painful event, the negative consequences of the event on your sense of self, your anger towards the offender, or the injustice you wish to rectify. As you ponder on these verses, what would it look like if you were able to surrender your burdens to our Heavenly Father in exchange for His peace and rest?
Is there someone towards whom you may be harbouring unforgiveness which, by releasing them, can simultaneously allow you to release yourself of further pain?
In next week’s post, we will explore the notion and application of forgiveness, and how it reconciles with both Christianity and psychology.
by Constance H, Clinical Psychologist