Power Tool: Forgiveness vs. Bitterness

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By: Andrea Winzer

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you”


Forgiving someone who hurt us is one of the most difficult things to do. Feelings of disappointment, anger, frustration, revenge, and resentment settle deep inside of our hearts and it is hard to let go. We want the other person to pay for their actions and we are longing for something that will ease our pain. Forgiving ourselves is equally hard to do and many of us live with a burden of guilt or shame. We consciously or subconsciously punish ourselves for our past or present actions, mistakes, and stumbles. This bitterness, however, acts like poison in our hearts and can affect our entire life. Holding on to grievances is like being chained to a tree, feeling paralyzed and unable to move forward.

As Wayne Dyer says, “Resentment and unforgiveness is like venom that continues to pour through your system, doing its poisonous damage long after being bitten by the snake. It’s not the bite that kills you; it’s the venom.”

What is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge; a choice to set ourselves free from the pain and psychic imprisonment of our grievances. Forgiveness is a very powerful act of love – love for ourselves, but also for others. Forgiveness is a change in our thinking; a healing process that restores us to peace as we let go of thoughts, interpretations, and judgments that lead us deeper into separation, anger, and fear. Forgiveness is also the willingness to accept responsibility for our perception, to recognize that we have a choice in how we look at and interpret whatever occurs in our lives.

What forgiveness is not?

Forgiveness is not condoning or approving of negative, hurtful or inappropriate behavior or denying our own feelings of pain and upset. Forgiveness is not about giving up on ourselves and our emotions, fair rights, and dreams or pardoning the actions of others without consequences.

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt us, or condoning of their actions. Forgiveness neither means to deny the responsibility others have for their own actions, nor does it minimize the injustice that was done.

What are the benefits of forgiveness?

Forgiving and letting go of our grievances releases us from the grip of our toxic emotions and supports healthier relationships, greater spiritual and psychological well-being, less anxiety, stress and hostility as well as better physical health.

“Forgiveness is as important to the treatment of emotional and mental disorders as the discovery of sulfa drugs and penicillin have been for the treatment of infectious diseases”

(Unnamed therapist, quoted in Marc Ian Barsh, The Compassionate Life)

What are the effects of bitterness?

Many studies have shown that lack of forgiveness has a measurable impact on our bodies. Clinging to anger, frustration, fear and emotional pain creates tensions in our bodies that can tremendously affect our immune system, our hearts, brains, and basically all other organs and organs systems. By being unforgiving, we also repeatedly bring bitterness into every relationship and new experiences. Our lives become so wrapped up in the pain, the injustice, the wrong, that we miss out on enjoying what we do have, the present moment, the wonderful experience that life can be.

Depression and anxiety are common side effects of bitterness and we might experience a lack of meaning, purpose or fulfillment. Unforgiveness can lead to isolation and may cause the loss of the valuable experience of being connected with others.