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March 11, 2024

To Forgive

The act as defined as I see it - to release consciously another person from your negative feelings based on an event that was hurtful toward you from them whether it is perceived on your part or known by both parties.

What I find fascinating is that often the act of forgiveness may have to push past an unconscious threat injury in order to take root. This is to say that we can be harmed at a conscious and an unconscious level. The unconscious harm is understood at the vagal nerve level which is a primitive emotional safety response state that all mammals have that developed a long time ago. This is the essence of polyvagal theory which states that when humans feel safe, their nervous system supports the homeostatic functions of health, growth and restoration, while simultaneously become accessible to others without feeling or expressing threat and vulnerability. (Porges S. 2022) Thus, the opposite exists, when humans are threatened, their nervous system supports a break in homeostasis that can be short lived or long persistent based on the severity and chronicity of the harm. This break can lead to persistent mental and physical health challenges.

This aside is necessary for in the coming months we are going to look at why people get stuck? Why they cannot forgive? Why they cannot move on? I believe that polyvagal theory is a piece of that understanding.

To forgive another is not about them. It is about you and your ability to process negativity, negative emotions and pain of experience. This is also critical thematically as many people will say that the perpetrator does not deserve forgiveness and thereby causing one not to exercise the act of forgiving. Unfortunately, this is a key sticking point in any healing process. As I begin to learn more about polyvagal theory and human evolution, forgiveness is a key to resiliency and ventral vagal motor function, which is the route to accessing higher order thinking and not emotional lower order thinking.

Forgiveness is an unfortunately underutilized cure for heartache and pain. We all at some point in life, likely frequently, will suffer from an intentional or unintentional wrong that leaves us wounded, angry and potentially vengeful. This feeling can persist for months or years. This triad of dangerous feelings will usually worsen our sense of self if we act upon them or hold them close. How many movies have we seen or books read that show the lead character suffering from anger held too tightly? 

An acute or, worse yet, chronic unremitting sense of anger and wounding will engage our sympathetic nervous system's fight or flight mode to protect us from further harm. In an effort to save ourselves, we are likely to run away from the stressor or attempt to compartmentalize it, aka wall it off. How often does this work? Rarely! And over a long time or during a severe acute stressor, the fight or flight mode can settle into a different part of the vagal nervous response mechanism called the dorsal vagal which is a most primitive response. It is characterized by being stuck, frozen, emotionally paralyzed. This is a very protective mechanism to engage during a traumatic event. All mammals have this ability. These are all protective mechanisms that are detrimental over time while serving a purpose initially.

In a Daily Stoic newsletter a few years back, the authors wrote about a quote: "The great C.S Lewis observed that we all find forgiveness to be a lovely idea...right up until we have someone to forgive. It's true. Forgiveness is one of those virtues that's easy to talk about, but incredibly hard to practice. Particularly when we are hurt, or when we have been seriously wronged. Yet, isn't that sort of the point? Forgiveness wouldn't be that impressive, it wouldn't be that meaningful, if it came naturally. If it could be so easily tossed off." 

This statement sums it up very succinctly. 

I have lived long enough now to know that most great things are not easily attained. Hard work and the act of giving away is the route to happiness and self esteem. In this case, the giving away of anger, pain and resentment is the ask and the work is the do.

How do we model and teach our children to forgive, love and heal? Do we ask them to sit and meditate on the pain to release it? Do we tell them to suck it up buttercup? Do we show them that we are never vulnerable as mom and dad? Are we perfect? When someone cuts us off in traffic, do we cus and verbally castigate them in front of our child? 

Many times in my life, I have had to choose the path of release and forgive or hold and fester. I remember a time in early High School when I overheard some "friends" talking about me thinking that I wasn't nearby. Alas, I was and I heard them. It was exceedingly painful of an experience. My youthful response was to say $%^# you all and be done with them. And I was for a long time. I knew that I should forgive them and move on. My father taught me so. It took a while, and eventually, I did. I never trusted them again which was my protection from untrustworthy people. The pain subsided as I stuck to true friends that accept you as you are, imperfect but trying to be the best version of yourself. I have carried those lessons throughout my life.

My children have seen me offer forgiveness many times over their lives. I wanted to and frankly felt it a need in my life. There is no problem that can hold me anymore. And this is not do to a lack of struggle or a lack of conflict. On the contrary, life is a study in conflict. It is a study in resilience and response to conflict. How and how quickly do you resolve conflict and offer forgiveness? This is critical for a homeostatic cellular response system. If we are to age gracefully, then offering forgiveness and grace to others is one major key to physiological solvency. If this is really hard for you, you may want to look at your trauma and see if it is deep and paralyzing.

So what is forgiveness? When looking for definitions of forgiveness, I found this one: Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. ... Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. (

The Bible is littered with forgiveness ideology. Christ taught over and over again to turn the other cheek, treat others as you would like to be treated. Don't we all want to be forgiven? I can guarantee you that my life would have been very different if my parents had not loved and forgiven my stupidity over time as there was plenty of it. 

I go out of my way to make sure that my patients know that they are loved and forgiven regardless of their failings in my eyes or anyones. Having the awareness of self forgiveness with a guide to let this happen makes for a more rapid healing process. We discuss that consequences still exist for poor quality behavior, but love and support are not taken away. This is the critical piece. To effectively change a behavior, a person must be able to recognize the problem, feel motivated to change, and have the support system in place to follow through on the change. I think that our world could do with a lot more love and forgiveness. A lot more support as children grow. Hate, anger and wounding never serve a person's well being. These feelings just grow, fester and destroy. 

Think of this excellent movie, I Can Only Imagine (PG). The young man, Bart Millard, is in a nightmare family environment with every negative bullet coming his way as emotional and physical abuse from those that should love and protect him. To trust after what he went through is so difficult. Yet, faith, friends and his pain sublimed into music produces the ultimate forgiveness and release that not only heals the young man but also his abusive broken father. This is forgiveness personified! If you have not watched this movie, that is your homework for this week. Watch it, reflect on it and discuss it with your age appropriate kids. 

Other great movies on this theme are:

1) Good Will Hunting (R)

2) Pay It Forward (PG13)

3) Invictus (PG13)

4) Wonder (PG) (favorite)

5) Dead Man Walking (R) A more difficult movie. Not for the light hearted.

6) Atonement (R)

A recent favorite is Daisy Jones and the Six. A deep and captivating drama with lots of parentally traumatized humans making their way throughout life. It is powerful, heart wrenching and heart warming simultaneously. Oh, and the music is great. Forgiveness is found in the end with a great teacher showing the path that was dimly lit.

To forgive is to heal and live stronger tomorrow, 

Dr. M 

Porges Frontiers Integ NeuroSci