We all love the feeling of being forgiven. But to be forgiven, we have to hurt someone first.
The jury is in on the benefits of forgiving.
Deepak Chopra extols the way forgiving strengthens our cardiovascular and immune systems.
Harvard Women’s Health Watch cites five ways forgiveness improves our physical health and emotional well-being.
And HuffPo has chimed in with “How To Forgive And Why You Should,” with study-based evidence from experts, such as Psychologist Robert Enright, author of The Forgiving Life, and psychotherapist Frank Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good.
But not much, if anything, has been written about the brain rush we experience—either from a biochemical or basic emotional perspective—when we are forgiven. Of course, the Bible has something to say about being washed clean of our sins, but the message comes in a context of fear: accept Christ and you will be saved and forgiven, or else …
Being forgiven offers perhaps the most intense joy we experience: it feels better than the triumph of our greatest accomplishment, the throb of the most mind-blowing orgasm; or the delirious delight of winning the lottery. Being forgiven combines relief and elimination of worry with the surgical removal of guilt. Absolution is absolute bliss.
As a child, I thrived on being forgiven. I grew up with a single mother; my father died when I was nine. My mom was always present and wonderfully supportive, but she could also be mercurial, and if I got on her bad side, I felt the shame of her disappointment and the sting of her anger. Sometimes, we’d go a few days without speaking to each other, and I would inevitably break the ice with an apologetic gesture—taping a handwritten sign on her bedroom door that said, “I love you,” turning down her bedcovers and placing a candy on her pillow, or simply ending the silence with, “I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better next time.” The return of my mother’s love—or of her expression of it, since I know she never stopped loving me—felt fantastic. Everything was right in my world again. What I didn’t realize was that this cycle of pain and relief, judgment and forgiveness, would become a behavior pattern that I brought into my first marriage, not only by choosing a partner skilled in emotional withholding, but also through subconsciously doing little things to hurt my ex so I she could forgive me. I never cheated, never abused her, never demeaned her or withheld support when she needed it. But I was pretty good at disappointing her and pissing her off in smaller ways. Not calling when I knew I’d be late. Giving her a bunch of drugstore birthday presents. Giving lip service to a need and failing to meet it. Much of my self-worth as a child was wrapped up in being “good,” and being restored to goodness after being bad became a means of validation.
I have a friend whose soon-to-be ex-husband took the forgiveness syndrome ten steps further. He abused, demeaned, defamed, and dumped on his wife in every possible way, using her Christ-like forbearance and superhuman ability to forgive him to form the core of his worthiness and self-esteem. Not only did her forgiveness enabled him to continue his toxic behavior, but he also based his value—in their relationship and the world at large—on her tolerance of his hurting her. It was as if he said to himself, “If I can do these awful things to her, and she will still stay with me, I must be worthy and deserving of love.”
I bet many of you have experienced similar situations in your own lives. You’ve screwed up with a partner, family member, or friend—or vice versa. And they’ve forgiven you. Time after time. And the bitter sense of feeling rotten about what you did was quickly replaced by the sweet relief of being forgiven. Ahhhh, that’s better. And maybe, just maybe, consciously or not, you did it again. This doesn’t mean you’re a scoundrel. It means you’re controlled by psychological forces operating outside your conscious awareness.
The brain loves shortcuts—tricks that simulate the feeling of well-being—and to be able to go from the depths of despair to the snow-cap of contentment in the switch of a moment is a neat trick to perform. Running will get your endorphins going, but running requires motivation and trading pain for your gain. Drugs fool the brain, too, but they often come with undesirable side effects. Forgiveness is like drinking a magic elixir. You didn’t have to work for the brain boost; it was given to you as a gift. But there’s a dual problem with using screw-ups to attain the rush of forgiveness. First and foremost, you’re hurting someone to start the cycle. And second, you’re simulating the real happiness that flows from making someone else happy, the fulfillment engendered by generosity, the grace that comes from receiving gratitude. It’s real gratitude, and not forgiveness, that makes us feel truly worthy. You see, your forgiver isn’t actually happy with you, though it may feel that way when you’re forgiven. Your forgiver has simply returned to a state of not being unhappy with you, which feels better than the pain you were previously experiencing. It’s the difference between the absence of pain and the presence of real pleasure. You feel great when your backache is gone, but you’d feel much better if you were getting a massage.
Understanding how our brains use the payoff we get from unconsciously screwing up can help us make conscious choices to make better choices. Instead of hurting people to get our “feel good,” we can invest our effort and energy in pleasing the people we love, an investment that brings a much larger and lasting reward.