There is an old tradition in Bulgaria called Forgiveness day. In the past, it used to be celebrated with lots of festivities and preparation for spring planting. Today, however, when there are few rural communities left, the holiday is more about asking your friends and family for forgiveness. I never particularly liked Forgiveness day because I always felt the pressure of mandatory participation. Relatives would call and say something like, “Hey, how are you? Won’t you ask me for forgiveness?” Of course, I’d do it but how sincere can an apology be when it’s forced out of you? Just because of a tradition, at that. I was also never particularly fond of the fact that if you ask someone for forgiveness on this day, they have to forgive. But what if they’re not ready? What if they are still in pain because of whatever you’ve done?

Forgiveness - traditions, psychology and how to do it
Photo: Andrik Langfield

This year, however, I read something new about Forgiveness day and it made me rethink my entire stance on it. It was about the old roots of Forgiveness, way before organized religion, and I thought it was interesting enough to look into. So, I researched the tradition, its psychological explanation and what science says on how we can forgive easier. Apparently, forgiving has a significant physiological and psychological impact. So much so that people who forgive more are healthier, suffer from anxiety and depression less, and even live longer.

With everything I read and summarized here, I hope to help more of us ask for forgiveness, as well as forgive, sincerely from the bottom of our hearts and build a stronger bond with our loved ones.

The Tradition

“For every mistake there is forgiveness,” says an old Bulgarian proverb. It might be difficult to talk about our mistakes, apologize and forgive in our daily lives, but that’s why the traditional Bulgarian calendar has dedicated a week to this act. As you’ll see later on in this article, forgiving is crucial mostly for your own physical and mental wellbeing. Perhaps our ancestors were somehow aware of that fact, and Bulgarian traditions have made an elaborate, important ritual out of it.

The focal point of this holiday, called Sirni Zagovezni, Sirnitsa, or Forgiveness day (a few of its many names) is on Sunday, 7 weeks before Orthodox Christian Easter. It’s the frontier between winter and spring, so many of the rituals during Forgiveness week reference new beginnings, health, and fertility.

From the morning, bonfires are set up in high places around the city or village. It’s important that the fires are big because legend has it that people, animals, and the soil will be fertile if they are illuminated by the flames. When the fires burn out, kids jump over them as a token of good health, the adults dance traditional Horo and sing folk songs.

Another ritual related to fire is Oratnitsi – the head of the family lights torches made of wood, straw, or cloth and spins them around to chase the evil spirits away. Or more literally – the fleas (this was done on farmhouses decades ago, after all).

Forgiveness - traditions, psychology and how to do it
Photo: Ihor Malytskyi

The fire on Forgiveness day is also associated with love. In old times, young men would make their own bow and arrows, then perfect their archery for months. On Forgiveness day they would gather and shoot fiery arrows into the yard of the girl who had stolen their heart.

Even though the church had a significant influence on Forgiveness day, the holiday’s roots are much older and deeper. According to some sources, the bonfires are a reference to the sun and the male beginning. The fire arrows shot to the yards (the earth is a symbol of the female beginning) represent fertilization and are a reference to the Thracian goddess of hunting and luck – Bendis.

The traditional evening meal on that day includes a lot of cheese and milk products, which is why the holiday is called Sirnitsa (comes from the Bulgarian word for “cheese”.) You’d also see pastries with cheese on the dinner table, as well as eggs, boiled wheat, and snake-shaped bread, which has the symbolic function of chasing evil away from the home. During dinner, there is another tradition especially beloved by children, called “Hamkane.” A boiled egg or a halva (a type of sweet treat) is tied to a long red piece of string. The oldest man in the house would spin it around and the rest of the family would try to touch it with their teeth, for an omen of good health. In the end, the family’s elders would set the string on fire and read tell the house’s future with it.

Forgiveness - traditions, psychology and how to do it
Photo: Tomothy Meinberg

Of course, an important part of Forgiveness day is asking for forgiveness. The tradition, as I knew it and most sources would have you believe, is that younger people ask older ones for forgiveness and kiss their hands. That’s one of the reasons why Forgiveness day was never on my list of favorites. Recently though I read a book called “God’s Keeper” by Rozmari De Meo. Her version of the tradition was much more relatable and seems to make a lot more sense. So it was what got me interested in Forgiveness day.

“God’s Keeper”

I am copying here a few lines from the book (I’ve translated them from Bulgarian) that completely transformed the way I see Forgiveness day:

“The elders are the most important in the family, they are the leaders. But their turn comes as well. And if an older person is also wise, he will ask for forgiveness. His children, and his grandchildren too. For wounds are measured by depth, not by age.”

And also:

“Each plea for forgiveness must be clearly stated! A wound must be given a name, and that will be its remedy. Imagine I call you on the phone and tell you. “Forgive what I might have done to you, willingly or unwillingly. Let’s just call it a truce.” But what if I don’t know exactly what I’ve done to you? If I have no idea about it? Or if I don’t see it as a harmful deed? The wound in your soul needs me to give my fault a name. To say to you, “Two years ago, Rayno, I did this or that. It’s a bad thing that I did, it lays heavy on my soul and I ask for your forgiveness.” Then your soul knows that mine truly repents. It is my honest repentance that will heal your soul. You can’t deceive the soul with “willingly or unwillingly”, it wants to hear that I’ve understood. That I feel the sorrow of what I’ve done and that I am asking you for forgiveness from the bottom of my heart because you’re important to me.”

These words piqued my curiosity and I decided to find out what is the psychological foundation of forgiveness.

The Psychology of Forgiveness

I went deep down the peer-reviewed rabbit hole to dig up the most important psychological effects of forgiveness. You’ll find them summarized below and I’ve also linked to each study, in case you want to read more. And if you’d like to know something else but don’t have the time to do your own research, you can leave a comment below the article or contact me on Facebook and I’ll do my best to answer your questions 🙂

Forgiveness - traditions, psychology and how to do it
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– According to a 2011 study, the more we forgive, the longer we live. Presumably, it’s connected to the effects that anger and grudges have on stress and anxiety levels, which directly impact physiological functioning.

– Forgiveness helps us let go of both emotional and physical pain, according to this study.

– A book called “Handbook of Positive Psychology” has a chapter on forgiveness. It describes several interesting studies:

– The older we get, the easier it is to forgive. It’s probably because with time and experience we learn that few things are truly important and that holding a grudge is damaging primarily for the one holding it.

– One of the most popular personality models is called The Big 5: extroversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness. Willingness to forgive correlates with agreeableness and has a negative correlation with neuroticism.

– Having someone ask you for forgiveness is indirectly beneficial, in that it helps us associate the other person with something other than the pain they‘ve inflicted.

– We are more willing to forgive people whom we have fulfilling relationships with, where both are honest, dedicated to each other and have a strong bond. However, asking for forgiveness also brings us together.

– Forgiving ourselves means that we are less likely to experience anger, depression, anxiety, and lowered self-esteem. Besides, people who are more willing to forgive are kinder to others and less irritable, it’s less likely that they will suffer from depression and see themselves as mediocre.

– A brand new study, from February 2019, says that when we forgive ourselves we also lower the risk of depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm. The latter might seem extreme for most of us but if you think about it – do you not do things that get in your own way or are harmful to you, directly or indirectly?

– А 2001 study examined the psychological and physiological correlates to forgiveness. Apparently, forgiveness helps us maintain a healthier lifestyle, decreases anxiety, irritability, and increases task coping. Also, people who are more willing to forgive are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular diseases and their bodies are better equipped to fight infection.

How to Forgive Easier

To ask for forgiveness and to forgive isn’t easy, even when you know how good it is for you, your relationships, and your overall wellbeing. Sometimes we know that we have to do it and still we can’t seem to gather the strength or it feels like there is something in the way. Often this “something” might stem from not understanding exactly what happened and how we feel about it.

Forgiveness - traditions, psychology and how to do it
Photo: Zavatos

 

According to Rubin Khodamm, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and researcher, forgiving doesn’t mean excusing. It’s actually accepting whatever happened, without labeling it as good or bad, and moving on: “Forgiveness can mean you step into your present rather than anchoring to the past.”

Easier said than done, as we all know from experience. Still, there are several things you can do to forgive easier, even when you don’t know how.

Face Your Anger

According to Rubin Khodamm the first thing we need to do is come face to face with our feelings of anger and hurt. It’s difficult because as long as we remain angry we are in a “safe space” that keeps us from dealing with the reasons behind feeling hurt. This process, however, is necessary. Without going through it first it’s not possible to forgive from the heart because you can’t let go of something if you don’t figure out what it is first. That‘s why it’s helpful to examine whatever happened from several different angles – what led to it, what part of it was hurtful and why. It’s important to consider how it might relate to previous painful experiences. Perhaps this new situation has opened old wounds, from your childhood for instance, and that’s why you feel so hurt.

If you can think of any examples like that from your own life, I’d love to hear them. You can share by leaving a comment below or contacting me on Facebook.

Empathy

Writing with the goal of improving your empathy has tremendous effects on forgiveness.

Forgiveness - traditions, psychology and how to do it
Photo: Kinga Cichewicz

Say, for instance, that I am angry with a client. As I write down what happened, I should try to put myself in the client’s shoes and consider why he might have acted the way he did. Is there anything with our project that is bothering him, is he dealing with a personal issue at the moment, etc. There is a very subtle nuance here though – it’s not about excusing behaviors that have hurt or angered me. It’s simply about understanding it from the other person’s point of view. That’s a great way to let go of anger.

Forgiveness Therapy

Another psychologist, Rober Enright Ph.D., founded a method called Forgiveness Therapy. It has been applied to both individual and group therapy and seems to help with PTSD, addictions, anxiety, depression, and people who’ve suffered emotional abuse. It contains 20 steps within 4 categories: uncovering the negative feelings regarding the event; making the decision to forgive; working towards understanding whoever has hurt you; building empathy (not excusing negative behavior).

Forgiveness - traditions, psychology and how to do it
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This is definitely a long and hard process. In the studies I read it was applied gradually, by trained professionals. But I am sure that each of us can find a way to make use of those steps in our daily lives. As Enright himself says in the Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, “There’s a strong dose-response relationship between the amount of time people try to forgive and the amount of forgiveness they’re successful at experiencing. It’s all about the time spent.”

In 2006, this study used Enright’s method during psychotherapy with women suffering from depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and PTSD, due to psychological abuse inflicted by their husbands. They attended therapy once weekly, for an average of 8 months. After, these women’s results were significantly different than when they first started therapy. They were now less anxious and depressed, were more confident, had gained a different perspective on what happened, and were thus able to move on, building happier, healthier lives.

I was impressed by the study and so I thought it would be a good idea to share here the process that these women went through, in the hopes of making forgiveness easier for each of us as well:

– Defining forgiveness (what it is and is not) and the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.

– Examining psychological defenses (these are subconscious psychological mechanisms we use to suppress or deal with emotional pain – they are often ineffective, such as avoidance, and so it’s important to understand the ones you use so that you can let go of them and adopt healthier mechanisms instead).

– Understanding anger – what it is, when do we feel it, what does it feel like, etc.

– Examining shame and self-blame.

– Understanding cognitive rehearsal (mentally or verbally rehearsing possible future events that we’re worried about so that if they do happen we’d have an easier time coping).

– Making a commitment to the work of forgiving.

– Grieving the pain and losses caused by the hurtful situation.

– Reframing the person who has hurt you – his personality, personal history, problems and needs (through empathy, instead of blame).

– Exploring empathy and compassion.

– Practicing goodwill (restraining ourselves from seeking revenge, being generous, treating others with kindness).

– Finding meaning in unjust suffering (for instance how it’s made you a better, stronger person, what lessons you’ve learned, etc.)

– Considering a new purpose in life of helping others.

Forgiveness - traditions, psychology and how to do it
Photo: Brooke Cagle

Even though the process is smoother if facilitated by a therapist, I still think it’s useful that more people know about it. Even if you simply reflect on each step successively, without putting in months of your time, forgiveness might still become easier and more gratifying.

As a consequence of everything I’ve read to write this article, I now believe that forgiveness is strength. The strength to let go of the past, instead of allowing it to pull you back like a chain. So this year, on Forgiveness day, I made an effort to think long and hard about what I could have done wrong and how I could have hurt my loved ones. Then, in spite of being uncomfortable, I asked for forgiveness from the bottom of my heart.

If you enjoyed this piece, please share it with others 🙂 How great would it be if we thought about mental health more frequently?

And if you want to know more about how Forgiveness day impacted me and the people in my life, want to share your own experience with forgiveness, or ask something – please leave a comment below, or contact me on Facebook 🙂