Many things influence your mental health: your genes, your upbringing, your relationships, your finances, your housing and your employment. But whatever combination of factors are influencing you, good mental health also depends on your attitude. There have been many studies to try and work out why some people with a traumatic past or a terrible upbringing still manage to be happy, mentally healthy individuals. There’s no single answer, but most people with positive mental health share an ability to feel good about themselves, to see the best in others and to accept the possibility of change. All of these things are involved in the process of forgiveness.
Forgiveness matters for mental health because it allows you to move on from your past mistakes. This is true whether you’re being forgiven by another person or you’re forgiving yourself. In fact, being able to forgive yourself is essential for good mental health, because if you can’t do that then you’re unlikely to accept forgiveness from others. Each year around one in seven people experience anxiety, depression or both. Being able to forgive yourself won’t cure these conditions, but it will help you manage them. Anxious and depressed thinking deals in absolutes: “I’m a terrible person” or “Awful things are going to happen.” Thinking that is more focused on forgiveness encompasses change and flexibility: “I’m not the same person I used to be” and “I have the capacity for change.” Forgiveness allows you to look at yourself with hope. This is exactly the opposite of depression and anxiety, which portrays you as horrible and hopeless.
Forgiveness matters for mental health because it enables positive relationships with others. Support from other people is a strong predictive factor for good mental health. Many people with mental health problems know that social isolation makes their situation worse. You’re less likely to feel isolated if you have someone to talk to that you trust. But trust and sharing must include forgiveness. Without the ability to leave the past behind and without a willingness not to hold someone’s previous behavior against them, it’s not possible to have a genuine, open and trusting relationship. If you are prepared to forgive others, they’ll be more likely to admit their mistakes. If someone else is prepared to forgive you, you’ll be better able to move on and change.
Forgiveness matters for mental health precisely because it’s so closely related to change. To forgive someone is to acknowledge that things are no longer the same. They might have hurt you in the past, but you no longer think of them as a hurtful person. You can’t do that unless you believe that change is possible. Where anxiety sees the future as fixed and depression sees it as dreadful, forgiveness sees it as full of potential. Many people with mental health problems say that they feel stuck. Forgiveness, in essence, means letting go of past hurt. Forgiving other people or yourself won’t solve every problem in your life, but it’s certainly easier to stop being stuck if you’re prepared to let go. Being able to forgive other people and forgive yourself enables you to have a more positive self-image, to build stronger relationships and to embrace the opportunity to change. All of these things are part of good mental health. If you do have mental health problems, seek professional help and advice. But remember that it’s more difficult to get to a positive future if you’re holding on to a negative past.