This is a question I continuously ask myself when working with my clients, especially when dealing with trauma. Trauma encompasses a very wide range of experiences. Very often, in my practice I deal with clients who have experienced serious violent trauma. My clients are immediately thrust into the role of victim, and behind the vast amount of emotional shock, fear and stuck trauma lies a deep level of anger and unforgiveness.
According to Dr David Hawkins in his book Power vs Force, anger serves a vital role in our society. It mobilises us, forces us to take action, and creates a forward momentum in our lives. Anger also has another role. It provides that raw, animalistic need for revenge and retribution. The anger becomes a vital protector aiding our survival. It forces us to want to balance the scales of justice and right the wrongs.
Unfortunately, in our modern society, these instinctual rage and anger emotions most often become heavily suppressed and repressed. Justice is fulfilled through the court of law, providing a very civilised, yet unemotional form of justice. Many times the offenders never get caught, or are let free on a legal technicality. What about the events that we experience as traumatic, that are not criminal acts, or even total accidents? And what about the events in which we hold such anger towards ourselves?
The repercussions of this emotionally are that the anger and rage never gets fully expressed in a healthy way. The victim is left in limbo; the anger buried deep, causing havoc on our mental and physical health and well-being.
As Mandela so wisely once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Another issue with letting go of anger and allowing forgiveness in, is our often distorted view of the concept of forgiveness. For many, forgiveness equates with pardoning those who have wronged us. It becomes muddled with a judgement of what was done to us, and a strong belief that letting go of the anger will somewhat condone what happened, or potentially lessen the severity of the event. Somehow forgiving the people who created the hurt allows them off the hook.
The anger and rage also has a protective role to play. It keeps us wary of potential future events. Letting go of these emotions makes us feel vulnerable to the hurt again.
So what is the true cost of unforgiveness?
I usually explain that holding onto anger and unforgiveness in our lives as the idea of holding onto a very, very heavy, red hot rock. With every day that passes, we have carry around with us such heaviness, burning us constantly. Our anger never truly affects the “wrongdoer.” The only person it hurts is us. Forgiveness has nothing to do with judgement, but rather it is the act of putting down that heavy, burning rock – laying it on the floor and walking away. It is total act of personal kindness and self-care. It does not take away what happened, nor the severity and meaning of the event. It does not judge the event nor the perpetrator. That judgement is not for us to either care about or consider.
By not forgiving, we, alone are left to suffer daily for what happened to us. We block new experiences into our lives. We close off our hearts to those around us. We judge more and therefore accept ourselves and others less. Our life experiences diminish and we see less beauty in the world.
Physically, our bodies and minds bear the burden. Dr John Sarno, an American orthopaedic surgeon, in his book “The Divided mind,” discusses how repressed anger and rage, among many other emotions causes so much physical suffering. In his seminal work on Tension Myositis Syndrome, he describes how these emotions cause significant changes in physiology of the muscles, tendons and joints, and by working through the emotions, how the body is able to oftentimes fully reverse the damage.
Traditional Chinese medicine talks about anger affecting the liver and gall bladder, and therefore causing a serious cascade of physical changes in the body. The latest research on the effects of stress on the body (and unresolved anger is a major stressor) all points to the fact stress is a major risk factor for almost all diseases, specifically chronic diseases.
In both my opinion and experience, the true cost of unforgiveness is not something that we can afford. The constant physical and emotional drain on our lives is a burden that none of us should ever choose to hold on to. The good news is that there is hope. I see it in my clients all the time. There are therapies and techniques that out there that can effectively release and heal these traumas and the involved limiting emotions from our minds and bodies. The results are heart-warming and transformational, both to the client and the therapist, as we get to watch the changes occur so deeply and quickly.
C.R Strahan so perfectly summed up forgiveness. He said “Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim--letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”