To Forgive Is Divine and Very Good For Us Too
Recently, I was lucky enough to see the mega-smash Broadway musical Hamilton, the powerful tale of Alexander Hamilton’s short and controversial life. As one of the largest musical theater geeks of all time, the excitement I felt for this absolutely cannot be overstated -- and in case you’re wondering, it really is that good.
I found one moment in the show especially compelling. As a historical reminder, after the famous Reynolds-Hamilton affair (i.e., America’s first sex scandal), Hamilton elected to come clean to the public rather than be labeled as corrupt. He told his lurid tale in the pamphlet, Observations on Certain Documents, a remarkably boring title for such an explosive confession. His wife, Eliza, was disgraced and furious.
Years later, after the death of their son, the show imagines the moment that Eliza decided to forgive him (lyrics: “there are moments that the words don’t reach / there is a grace too powerful to name / Forgiveness. Can you imagine?”). Not only did Eliza forgive Alexander, she dedicated nearly five decades after his death to preserving his legacy. Eliza Hamilton is a powerful reminder of both the difficulty and power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness means deciding to move forward after we’ve been wronged. As the great Oprah Winfrey once said, it’s “giving up hope that the past can be any different.” Both in life and at work, this seemingly simple action is seldom easy. In life, we are all hurt, betrayed and wronged. At work, we face constant power struggles, arguments over resources and even the occasional narcissist.
But when we hold tightly to our resulting grudges, they hurt us more than we realize. The damage can be especially great for leaders because of the ripple effect to their teams and organizations. Perhaps that’s why David K. Williams, CEO of software provider Fishbowl, recently called forgiveness the “least understood leadership trait in the workplace.”
Though it’s a fairly new area of scientific research, the last decade has revealed the positive effect of forgiveness on our immune system, well-being, mental clarity and even problem solving ability. In one study, participants who forgave a romantic partner (à la Eliza Hamilton) showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In another study, when cardiac patients went through forgiveness training, they had better blood flow to their hearts and fewer subsequent coronary problems.
Perhaps most surprisingly, fresh-off-the-presses research shows that forgiveness even improves athletic performance. Researchers instructed one group of students to write about a time when they were upset but forgave someone, and another group to write about a similar event, but where they held onto their negative feelings. Then, participants were asked to stand up and jump as high as they could. After controlling for things like physical fitness level and amount of exercise, the forgivers jumped significantly higher than the grudge-holders. The researchers suggest that when we forgive others, we have more energy to put to better uses. It’s a great metaphor.
At work or in your life, what grudges are you holding onto? How much better off would you be if you let them go? Thankfully, there’s strong evidence that our ability to forgive is squarely in our control—and quite learnable. Here are four scientifically supported steps you can take to move past your grudges.
1. Commit to forgive.
In a meta-analysis of over 50 studies on forgiveness, one of the strongest predictors of success was making the decision to forgive. Try to rise above your current feelings and ask what you want in the long-term. How personally important is the relationship to you? Is your success or happiness dependent on reconciling? What is within your control and out of your control (for example, you probably can’t have your manager fired if he or she betrays your trust; you might need to figure out a way to let go)? If there are more pluses than minuses for forgiveness, make a decision that you’ll do it, even if it’s the scarier choice.
2. Imagine the impersonal.
Dr. Fred Luskin, cofounder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, recommends exploring your “grievance story”—is there any chance that you’re taking something personally that might not have actually been personal? Many or most of the things we perceive as personal affronts are not committed with the intention of harm. For example, given the impersonal nature of email, we often project emotion into messages far more than we should. This doesn’t mean that all offenses are unintentional, but even considering this question can help you develop a greater context.
3. Take their perspective.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: if you can rise above your own perspective and take on the other person’s, you can change your narrative of the event to be less painful. Admittedly, this can be a difficult part of the process—most people (myself included) are more inclined to double down on their version of the story than to consider another. But the more we try to understand the other person’s motives and actions, the less we can blame or resent the person we want to forgive.
Related: 5 Easy Ways to Gain Perspective
4. Give yourself time.
Quite often, when we’re having trouble letting go of anger or resentment, it’s because we need more distance from the offending event. Don’t be too hard on yourself—remember that forgiveness isn’t a one-time event—it’s an ongoing process that might come with both progress and setbacks.
Let me close with some perspective from one of the greatest, and most forgiving, leaders in human history. As the Civil War was winding down, Abraham Lincoln came across a critic who blasted him for his vision of reconciliation—the Confederates were the enemy, she told him, and they needed to be destroyed. “But madam,” Lincoln was said to have replied, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”