New research shows humble forgiveness-seeking is good for the heart, metaphorically and literally

New research lends credibility to what kindergarten teachers have long enforced on the playground: When you hurt someone, you should say you’re sorry. 

Research published online in The Journal of Positive Psychology has found that seeking forgiveness and allowing for self-forgiveness, rather than ruminating about one’s own wrongdoing, had beneficial emotional and physical effects. Rooted in humble repentance, forgiveness-seeking and self-forgiveness alleviated guilt and negative emotions, increased a sense of control, decreased heart rate and improved parasympathetic activity.

In other words, ruminating about wrongdoing and its effects impaired the parasympathetic nervous system, a regulating response in the body that calms the “fight or flight” response. On the other hand, humbly seeking forgiveness and allowing for self-forgiveness buffered the cardiac response—it allowed the parasympathetic nervous system to do its job and calm the heart.

“We spend a lot of time in our heads thinking about relational wrongs and hurts,” says Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, professor of psychology at Hope College and author on the paper. “There’s the act itself, but then there’s how we think about it and relive it, and how it continues to come up as we reflect on relationships."

The study asked participants to do just that. Eighty participants were asked to recount and reflect on a time when they did harm to someone else while hooked up to a cardiograph, a first for forgiveness research. They imagined being humbly repentant and seeking forgiveness from that person and either being granted or denied forgiveness, and they imagined forgiving themselves for their actions. They were then asked to rate their emotional state, including anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, control and empathy.

Those who imagined self-forgiveness and being forgiven by the victim had lower heart rates and better parasympathetic responses compared with those who ruminated on their act. Surprisingly, though, the data suggested that even seeking forgiveness and having it denied exerted a calming effect—even if someone is not forgiven, repentant forgiveness-seeking had good side effect for emotional and physical wellbeing.

“The way our hearts beat is shaped not just by the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response, but also by the parasympathetic calming response,” says Witvliet. “Ruminating about wrongdoing impedes the cardiac regulatory response. We are less able to adapt to what is needed. But humble repentance, the basis for seeking forgiveness or self-forgiveness, buffers that response. People were more able to regulated their emotional and cardiovascular responses."

While research on forgiveness in general has increased dramatically, studies of self-forgiveness represent less than 6 percent of the current 1,431 articles, and studies of forgiveness-seeking represent less than 4 percent. This is the first study to look at both forgiveness-seeking and self-forgiveness, and the first to measure physiology.

“From previous research, we know that self-condemnation is not the same as repentance—and it’s not the way to create a deep change in the transgressor that can positively shape future behavior,” Witvliet says. 

“It turns out self-condemning rumination, where we rake ourselves over the coals again and again, actually doesn’t move us in the direction of positive change or healing the relationship, or having those other beneficial side effects, emotionally or physically,” she says. “Rather, when we come to terms with our wrongdoing, humbly acknowledge our role, confess, apologize and do the repair work—when we invest in that relational work that is so morally needed—there is emotional and physical change that we can’t ignore."

The paper, titled “Self-forgiveness and forgiveness-seeking in response to rumination: Cardiac and emotional responses of transgressors,” was published in May 2016 and was co-authored by Sergio P. da Silva and Blake Riek.  

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Hope College
Professor of Psychology