Knowing your strengths
Knowing and developing one’s signature strengths is a core feature of Positive Psychology. Regularly using our top strengths, rather than focusing on our weaknesses is an evidenced based means of promoting well-being. That’s not to say we should ignore our weaknesses, just that being true to our natural and authentic patterns of behaviour, thoughts and feelings brings greater return in terms of performance, energy and happiness. Carrying out a strengths based assessment such as the Values in Action survey (free at viacharacter.org) can help identify personal character strengths. One thing I have noticed personally and with clients and colleagues is that people are often somewhat disappointed by their top strengths. My top strength is forgiveness. My initial reaction was, “what kind of a useless strength is that?” Why can’t I have courage or creativity? People often fail to recognise their top strengths, simply because they are strengths and come easily and naturally. This can lead to undervaluing them, assuming everyone finds them easy and not looking for ways to embrace and refine them.
What’s so good about forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the tendency to grant pardon to those who have done wrong, show mercy and let go of negative responses to wrongdoing, accepting the fallible nature of humanity. Forgiveness is the antithesis of hate. Forgiveness is not the same as justifying, pardoning or condoning wrongdoing. Neither is it equivalent to reconciliation, which refers to mending relationships and restoring trust. Forgiveness does allow a more positive view of the transgressor and potentially opens the door to relationship healing. Perhaps in a world with so many divisions, forgiveness is not such a bad strength after all.
Research shows a number of well-being benefits associated with dispositional forgiveness including physical, psychological and spiritual health and well-being, social support and improved relationships. It is also linked to emotional stability and likeability, good teamwork, job satisfaction, flexibility and problem solving.
Decisional Vs emotional forgiveness
Worthington, Van Oyen Witvliet, Pietrini and Miller (2007) distinguish two components of forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness refers to the behavioural intention to resist being unforgiving, while emotional forgiveness involves the replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with more positive other focussed affect. The latter is associated with psychophysiological changes and more robustly linked to the health outcomes of forgiveness. It appears the benefits of forgiveness can operate both through the reduction of the negative consequences of being unforgiving and through the increased positive emotions that go with true emotional forgiveness.
My experience of trying to develop my strength of forgiveness suggests that adopting a decisional forgiveness approach (“I believe in showing mercy and not dwelling on past mistakes, I know we all do things wrong and it is congruent with my values to try to move on even though I may be upset by what has happened”) actually promotes emotional forgiveness quite naturally.
Underusing and overusing forgiveness
Like all strengths forgiveness can be both over and underused. Forgiveness can be compromised in those who have a co-occuring strength of justice or fairness. The drive to see punishment or reparations for wrongdoing can override the sense of forgiveness. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, contains a great speech, “The quality of mercy is not strained..” encapsulating this issue (Act IV, Sc I)! People also sometimes withhold forgiveness when they fear it may make them vulnerable to ongoing hurt by a transgressor. However, forgiving and letting go of the emotional hurt does not mean allowing a relationship to continue unchecked. I certainly have friends whom I have truly forgiven for past issues, I maintain positive relationships with them and enjoy their company. I am however, more careful about sharing sensitive issues with them. Another underuse of forgiveness may be seen when people have particularly high perfectionist personal standards and have difficulty forgiving themselves in the way they would others (see my previous blogs on self-compassion). Ultimately, even if you are unable to find positive emotional connections as part of forgiveness, avoiding the negative effects of being unforgiving and harbouring grudges is important for your health. This is summarised in the quote attributed to the Dalai Lama; “holding on to anger is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.”
Forgiveness can free us from resentment and regret and contribute to improved relationships. However, as suggested in my example above, perspective needs to help us temper overuse of forgiveness so that we can make appropriate decisions about ongoing relationships. Fortunately for me, perspective is also one of my top strengths and using these strengths together is one of the things that helps me feel at my best.
Some suggested ways to help develop the strength of forgiveness include:
- Adopting a decisional forgiveness approach as described above and/or working out where forgiveness fits in with your values.
- Remembering the negative effects on yourself of being unforgiving.
- Practice letting go of minor hassles or transgressions in your daily life such as someone being impolite to you. Perhaps you might think about what might be making them so inconsiderate today?
- Journaling or talking to a trusted individual about issues which you find difficult to let go of. If appropriate this could lead to letter writing or considering reconciliation. It is important not to deny difficult feelings associated with the act that needs forgiveness without ruminating on them. Exploring difficult emotions and allowing them to be there without being overwhelmed by them, through journaling, talking or using an emotion based meditation such as “soften, soothe, allow” can help them to be processed.
- It may also be useful to consider areas of personal growth that have come from challenging situations where you have been wronged as part of this exploration process.
- Practicing loving-kindness meditation, compassion meditation or Self-Compassion meditation (self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations). This is particularly relevant for those who have difficulty forgiving themselves.
Whether forgiveness comes naturally to you or not, the personal health benefits alone suggest it may be worth cultivating. If we were all to cultivate forgiveness, the potential for improving our wider society could ultimately save humanity from the unhappiness that flows from hatred and the desire for revenge.
Worthington, E. L., Jr, Witvliet, C. V. O., Pietrini, P., & Miller, A. J. (2007). Forgiveness, health, and well-being: a review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30(4), 291–302.
Photograph by permission of Martha Monk
About the author: Sarah Monk