The Power of Forgiveness in Recovery

Updated: Jun 21, 2020





By Drew Edwards, EdD, MS and Sean C. Orr, M.D.

May 26, 2020


"Grace is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it." -Unknown

Recovery from addictive disease is marred by feelings of resentment, hurt, and unforgiveness.


Unforgiveness is the inability to reconcile unresolved feelings of anger and hurt for past wounds. It can impair physical health and cause immeasurable emotional damage to individuals and relationships. On the other hand, forgiveness offers the possibility of healing when emotional and spiritual wounds seem irreconcilable. Forgiveness, like nothing else, restores the possibility of emotional and spiritual health, intimacy, and the creation of new and gratifying relationships. In his book Forgiveness Is A Choice Dr. Robert D. Enright, writes. “Forgiveness is a matter of a willed change of heart, the successful result of an active endeavor….”


A nationwide Gallup poll showed that 94 percent of American’s believe that is important to forgive others – however the same survey also showed that less than half (48%) said that they actually had tried to forgive those who offended them. It would seem that although most agree that forgiveness is a good idea, yet knowing when, who and how to forgive remains elusive.


The ability to forgive is a critical component of recovery, and unforgiveness so often sabotages the return to a productive, sober life. However, new insights from neuroscience are shedding light on how acts of punishment and forgiveness function within the brain itself. These discoveries hold the exciting potential to help us develop forgiveness as a skill and rapidly accelerate the recovery process through the healing of emotional wounds.

Research on Forgiveness


Several controlled studies have shown that forgiveness training can be effective in improving health and reducing hurt and stress. Psychologist Michael McCullough, PhD, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has investigated the physiological aspects of forgiveness on overall health. During the study, subjects were asked to think about someone who had hurt them significantly and to reflect on that person in both forgiving and unforgiving ways while their heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, and facial patterns were monitored.


While engaging in unforgiving reflection, subjects had higher heart rates, higher blood pressure, increased sweating, and increased frowning. In other words, holding a grievance in mind elicited the same reaction as the fight-or-flight response, the most primitive, protective response of the brain to an external threat. This key finding hints at how damaging a chronic lack of forgiveness can be on our health and reveals a fundamental link to why so many who suffer unforgiveness as part of a larger syndrome of depression.


From a neuroscientific perspective, we now know which distinct brain circuits are involved in the act of forgiveness. Specifically, three principle circuits balance our response to someone who has caused us to feel offended, violated, victimized, or experience any other form of loss.

  • One of these circuits evaluates the social impact of transgressions against us, measuring and judging the magnitude of damage we’ve sustained.

  • Another circuit involves taking a perspective, and it decides what kind of mindset one will hold in light of a transgression.

  • The third and highest circuit manages and controls our responses, deciding whether punishment should be delivered and how much of a response to dole out. These evaluative processes form the basis of what we recognize as justice.


In the absence of a structured system of justice, our natural instinct is to lash out and punish transgressions. In fact, the research shows us that we actually experience a bit of a “high” when we engage in the punishment of someone who has transgressed against us. The sense of righteous reward that is evoked when we reflexively engage in punishment activates a part of the brain known as the "ventral striatum,” a structure that is a key part of the reward center and which often gets hijacked by addiction. When we reflexively punish a transgressor, we are rewarded by the same good feeling that comes when one takes a drink, smokes a joint, wins a hand of poker, copulates, or injects an opiate. Because this part of the brain is so quick and automatic, it becomes a powerful influence over how we handle the act of punishment. It’s all too easy to default to the reflex of lashing out and thoughtlessly punishing transgressive behavior, but as with all quick fixes, there may often be a price to pay.


Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a much more slow, deliberate, and energy-consuming process that is not intuitive. The benefits of forgiveness should be obvious, in that it allows us the ability to avoid escalating a conflict. It breaks the rhythm of reflexive punishment, which can get out of hand quickly when it’s lobbed back and forth. Developing forgiveness takes foresight, it takes mindfulness to remember, and it requires a certain amount of practice to reinforce and refine it. Forgiveness is really a skill, and like any other skill it requires a certain discipline to achieve mastery.


Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Anatomically, forgiveness is centered largely in the part of the brain called the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC). This is very far forward in the brain, in a region that also is responsible for our imagination, our abstract thoughts, and our ability to discern right from wrong. As part of the Central Executive Network (CEN), it uses a set of circuits that are very energy demanding and span a much larger volume of brain tissue than the more primitive punishment-oriented circuits. As a result, it is relatively slow, deliberate, and vulnerable to the effects of Brain Failure.


As with any other form of organ dysfunction, Brain Failure occurs when one or more factors interfere with the function of the brain, causing certain operations to “go offline.” Where the brain is distinctly unique in contrast to other organs is that some areas are more vulnerable than others based on how energy-demanding and fragile they are.


The frontal lobes are particularly delicate and thus the most vulnerable to Brain Failure. It doesn’t take much to knock our higher cognitive functions offline. When we’re tired, fatigued, sleep-deprived, inflamed, hungry, thirsty, in pain, or angry, it becomes very easy to lash out, to punish. It’s a very common, human thing to experience Brain Failure, and you can be forgiven if you’ve reacted instinctively. We all have.


On the other hand, when we are rested, well nourished, physically fit, and free of distractions, our frontal lobes are much more capable of functioning as designed. In that state, it’s much easier to resist against our primitive urge to carry out punishment and retribution, to give the gift of forgiveness. The act of forgiveness causes us to take an intentional pause and re-evaluate the stakes of reacting. It causes us to ask ourselves whether we could we handle things differently, in a way that doesn’t just escalate tensions but actually resolves issues that are nuanced and complex in a way that is fair and best for everyone involved.


It should be self-apparent, then, that increased forgiveness can be a tool for enhancing existing interpersonal relationships. Assessing the impact of forgiveness on marriage, investigator Peter Larson, Ph.D. found a significant correlation between marriage satisfaction and forgiveness. According to the study results, one third of marriage satisfaction is related to the ability to forgive and be forgiven. As forgiveness ability increased, Dr. Larson found that marriage partners reported fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fatigue These results are powerful and suggest that mental health professionals and marriage counselors should be helping people develop the skill of forgiveness.


The Stanford Forgiveness Project has taken on the challenge of assessing the impact of forgiveness training. They investigated 259 participants with unresolved interpersonal hurt over a period of 18 weeks, enlisting the subjects to participate in educational training groups. The study revealed that young adults who felt hurt or offended made substantial improvements in reducing anger and blame and increased their willingness, and their confidence, to forgive others in offensive situations. As a result of the training, the participants reported a 70% decrease in feelings of hurt; 13% reduction in long- term experience of anger; 27% reduction in physical symptoms of stress (backache, dizziness, sleeplessness, headache, stomach upset, etc.); 15% decrease in emotional experience of stress; and a 34% increase in forgiveness for the person who hurt them.


“What results from the act of forgiveness is grace, which cannot be described in psychological language.”

Spiritual Aspects of Forgiveness


Lewis B. Smedes, author of Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve writes, “Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which, despite their best intentions, people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He (Jesus) began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.”


There's a reason that forgiveness plays such a prominent role in religious traditions. A higher calling inspires us to become the best versions of ourselves, but holding on to grievances, as we have seen, degrades performance and reduces hardiness. If we are to be held up as examples, as leaders, as spiritually enlightened people, we can't be nursing grudges and smoldering with unforgiveness. Forgiveness is often the first step on the path to justice and righteousness, and in an area when truth and alacrity are under assault, it's never been more critical to use good judgement, to exercise discernment. These are skills that emanate from the prefrontal cortex, and practicing forgiveness strengthens those skills.



It is forgiveness that restores relationships ravaged by addiction


In the final analysis, forgiveness is not a psychological or emotional issue. It is an act of volition based on the tacit understanding that even at out best, the human condition is self-centered and largely self-serving. What results from the act of forgiveness is grace, which cannot be described in psychological language. Grace is the realization that in spite of all of our mistakes, sins, brokenness and bad choices, forgiveness and redemption are possible. Perhaps the best way to describe grace is that it is the opposite of shame and resentment. Forgiveness, like nothing else produces equal amounts of grace and healing for both the wounded and the aggressor.


As the world moves through the largest transformation in the history of humanity, we are faced with a choice. Do we continue to focus on the petty fears and nurse grudges that keep us in a place of conflict and craving for quick fixes to soothe our despair? Or will we embrace each another, lift one another up and heal wounded relationships so that we may move forward into the NeuroEconomy with vigor? It is time to look at forgiveness as a practical strategy that breaks down barriers and enables exponential growth on a personal and societal level.



Personalized Behavior Management


In previous posts, we've discussed how Reward Deficiency Syndrome, Depression, and Addiction share genetic and environmental factors that interact with one another to degrade performance and interfere with healthy relationships. Fortunately, an emerging model of treatment provides real hope for the rescue and recovery of people suffering from these factors. Our approach is to provide access to Personalized Behavior Management using tools that lower the barriers to care. Our dream is to help bring about personal transformation on a large scale so that mental health and quality of life flourish. To get started with your own Personalized Behavior Management therapy, schedule a meeting with us today!




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