Mindfully Observing Your Thoughts and Emotions May Promote Forgiveness
Some time ago, Esther and Sonia both had a very similar experience. Their romantic partners did not show up at a dinner appointment, and both initially felt quite upset and hurt. Esther soon got over it, whereas Sonia still felt angry and disappointed even a few weeks afterwards. Whereas Esther found it easy to forgive her partner, Sonia struggled to do so.
You have certainly experienced times when you felt hurt or offended by someone. Hurtful moments are bound to occur in our relationships with others, and being able to forgive is crucial to keep our close relationships healthy and stable. In the past few decades, scientific studies have uncovered many of the factors that promote forgiveness. For example, taking the offending person’s perspective helps a great deal.
Research also has revealed several obstacles to forgiveness. A key factor that prevents people from forgiving is thinking repeatedly about the hurtful event. In the wake of a hurtful event, people can get caught up in a stream of thoughts and emotions, which tend to fuel their anger. Of course, some offenses are clearly less easy to forgive than other offenses, but forgiveness also depends on whether we can step out of the stream of thoughts and emotions about what happened.
Are there ways to intervene in this process, so that people can more easily let go of their thoughts and emotions and approach offending partners in a more forgiving manner? We wondered whether mindfulness would be a likely candidate. Mindfulness involves directing attention to one’s experience in the current moment and approaching these experiences, whatever they may be—thoughts, emotions, or body sensations—with curiosity and acceptance. Some people are dispositionally more accepting of their experiences than others—they have a higher level of trait mindfulness—but mindfulness can be developed through mindfulness meditation practice.
The reasoning that guided our research is as follows: In the wake of an offense—such as when one’s partner fails to show up for dinner—mindfulness should help people become aware of their thoughts and emotions and observe them with some distance (which is sometimes called decentering), which may prevent them from getting stuck in the train of hurtful thoughts and feelings. If people are less immersed in their experiences of hurt, perhaps there is more room to take the other person’s perspective, which could help promote forgiveness.
Our research found support for these ideas. In a first study, people who had practiced mindfulness not surprisingly showed higher mindfulness on self-report questionnaires than people without mindfulness practice, and their higher mindfulness was associated with a greater tendency to forgive other people. In addition, the more that people had practiced mindfulness, the more forgiving they were.
In three other studies, people with higher trait mindfulness reported stronger forgiving tendencies or were rated by their romantic partner as more forgiving than people who were lower in trait mindfulness. Moreover, people who were higher in trait mindfulness were less likely to ruminate and were more likely to take the perspective of people who had hurt them, which in turn made them more forgiving.
In another study, we explored whether we could lead people to approach their hurt feelings and thoughts in a mindful manner, and whether doing so would make them more forgiving. Participants were asked to recall a past hurtful event, which most of them could. Then, half of our participants received guided mindfulness instructions to observe their experiences while they thought about the hurtful event and to watch how their thoughts and feelings appear and disappear in consciousness, moment by moment. The other half of our participants received guided instructions to immerse themselves in the thoughts and feelings that arose while thinking about the hurtful event. As we expected, participants who approached their experiences more mindfully reported higher forgiveness regarding the hurtful incident, and this effect was maintained after two weeks, although only among participants who were high in trait mindfulness to begin with.
More recent studies found similar results: people who received guided mindfulness instructions reacted to imagined hurtful events in a more forgiving manner. These studies suggested that mindfulness may lead people to give those who hurt them the benefit of the doubt. Participants who had been given mindfulness instructions were more likely to see another person’s negative behavior as less intentional than those who did not receive mindfulness instructions.
Together, these findings provide some initial support that mindfulness can promote forgiveness. We have known for many years that mindfulness helps people cope with stress and increases their wellbeing. These studies suggest that mindfulness can also enhance the quality of our relationships with other people by affecting how forgiving we are.
For Further Reading
Karremans, J. C., van Schie, H. T., van Dongen, I., Kappen, G., Mori, G., van As, S., ... & van der Wal, R. C. (2019). Is mindfulness associated with interpersonal forgiveness? Emotion, 20, 296-310.
van der Schans, K. L., Karremans, J. C., & Holland, R. W. (in press). Mindful social inferences: Decentering decreases hostile attributions. European Journal of Social Psychology.
Johan Karremans is an associate professor at the Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University, the Netherlands. He studies close relationships.
Kim Lien is a PhD student at the Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University, the Netherlands. She studies the interpersonal effects of mindfulness.