How would you feel if you were judged to be no better than the worst mistake you ever made? What if you got caught in a lie? Betrayed a friend? Caused a car accident? What if there was no opportunity to learn from that mistake, to mend a broken relationship, to do better next time?

Now flip that around. What if you found out you’d been lied to? What if your friend betrayed you? What if you got rear-ended by someone more focused on their cell phone than the road? How would you react?

If the answer is that you would feel hurt and angry, that’s completely understandable. But if you wrapped yourself in that hurt, fed off your anger for days, weeks, or even months, publicly “canceled” the liar on social media, permanently broke from your friend without any attempt at reconciliation, or continued to paint the negligent driver as the worst kind of criminal, then we’re talking about two sides of the same potentially very destructive coin — lack of forgiveness.

When we have been harmed or belittled, it can be a defense mechanism to build ourselves up by putting the offender down, to keep them at arm’s length by cocooning ourselves within walls of bitterness and indignation. And we may successfully damage the person who hurt us in return — but there is a cost to putting such value on negative feelings. Indeed, says Mayo Clinic staff (2020), “if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly.”

You Lose in a Grudge Match

Young adult novelist Isabelle Holland said, “As long as you don’t forgive, who and whatever it is will occupy a rent-free space in your mind” (Hopler, n.d.). To focus on pain and anger rather than healing opens you up to long-term negative physiological and psychological consequences.

“When we hold onto grudges and resentment, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick,” says licensed psychotherapist Angela Buttimer, MS, NCC, RYT, LPC. “It causes us to carry negative, tense energy in our biology” (Piedmont, n.d.).

Buttimer further explains, “Living in a chronic state of tension disables your body’s repair mechanisms, increasing inflammation and the stress hormone cortisol in the body . . . Your brain doesn’t know what is real and what is imagined. When you replay in your mind an experience you had six months ago, your body reacts as if you’re having the same experience over and over again.” In other words, dwelling on how someone has wronged you can take a toll on your immune system (Piedmont, n.d.).

It’s easy to see the repercussions of unforgiveness; just look around. Instances of road rage are way up, with people reacting violently to being cut off or other perceived slights on US roads (Kates, 2022). And cancel culture is in full swing — the consequences of individuals’ mistakes, intentional or otherwise, play out every day on social media, in our school halls, and even at summer camp.

“Unfortunately, canceling often turns into bullying. Like bullying, if you’ve been canceled, it can make you feel ostracized, socially isolated, and lonely,” says public health professional Lindsey Toler, MPH. “And research shows that loneliness is associated with higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates” (2021).

“Instead of creating a dialogue to help you understand how your actions hurt them, the cancelers shut off all communication with you, essentially robbing you of the opportunity to learn and grow from your mistakes or insensitivities,” explains Toler (2021).

“Think about your own childhood,” she says, “What if your parents canceled you every time you hurt or disappointed them? Where would you be now?”

“The most fundamental flaw of cancel culture is that it falsely proceeds as if we’re all perfect,” wrote Joshua Mitchell in a 2021 Orange County Register opinion piece. “We all make mistakes, and we have all done wrong. Certainly, we all have said or taken actions we could be cancelled for.”

The Heart of the Matter

Observational studies point to an association between forgiveness and lower levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility; reduced substance abuse; higher self-esteem; and greater life satisfaction (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021). Indeed, writer Jeremy Sutton, PhD, believes, “Forgiveness is essential for a fully functional society and has considerable personal benefits — increasing our potential for making connections with others and having a more positive, happier outlook on life” (n.d.). Of course, forgiving people — stranger, friend, or family member — isn’t always easy. So what can we do to actively improve our forgiveness skills and the quality of our lives in the process?

Harvard Health Publishing suggests practicing the REACH method (2021), which utilizes the following steps:

  1. Recall. Think about the wrongdoing in an objective way. “The goal is not to think of the person in a negative light nor to wallow in self-pity, but to come to a clear understanding of the wrong that was done.” Picture what happened and allow yourself to feel all the feelings associated with the hurt; don’t push anything aside.
  2. Empathize. Without minimizing the wrong that was done, try to understand the other person’s point of view regarding why they hurt you. “Sometimes the wrongdoing was not personal, but due to something the other person was dealing with.” People who are hurt themselves and in a state of fear or pain can lash out without really thinking through their actions.
  3. Altruistic Gift. Recall a time when you treated someone poorly and were forgiven. This recognition of your own shortcomings, and the grace you’ve received in return, is a good reminder that forgiveness is a selfless gift that you can give to others.
  4. Commit. Take your commitment to forgive seriously. Write about your forgiveness in a journal or tell a friend. These acts of follow-through help to cement your decision.
  5. Hold. Keep hold of your forgiveness. While this can be a challenge, because memories of the hurt will often resurface, forgiving is not about forgetting; it’s about changing the way you react to those memories.

Hurtful acts committed against you can be so large that they might always be with you, “but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help free you from the control of the person who harmed you,” according to Mayo Clinic staff (2020). “Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy, and compassion for the one who hurt you.”

It’s a much better solution than allowing unforgiveness to jeopardize your relationships and future health. Welsh poet George Herbert put it well when he said, “[One] who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which [they themselves] must pass” (Hopler, n.d.).

Love over Hate

Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” So do what you can to turn the negative, angry feelings you get when someone has wronged or offended you into positive action.

And remember, if you’ve made a mistake or caused emotional injury to someone in your life, the person you may need to forgive is you. Don’t hold grudges against yourself. Try to look at your mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow. The physical and emotional benefits of forgiveness are many — and this is a gift you can also give to yourself.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe a time when you experienced a lack of forgiveness. Were you on the giving or receiving end of the unforgiveness? How did it make you feel?
  2. Is there someone in your life you need to forgive to heal? What’s one step you can take today to begin the healing process?
  3. How can you model forgiveness for the campers in your charge this summer?


Gillespie, C. (2021, October 24). How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected bullying? Verywell Mind.

Harvard Health Publishing (2021, February 12). The power of forgiveness. Harvard Medical School.

Hopler, W. (n.d.). Motivational quotes on benefits of forgiveness. Center for Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University.

Kates, G. (2022, April 4). Deadly road rage shootings hit record high in 2021, data suggests. CBS News.

Mayo Clinic. (2020, November 13). Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness.

Mitchell, J. (2021, December 26). The problem with cancel culture is the lack of forgiveness. Orange County Register.

Piedmont. (n.d.). What does holding a grudge do to your health?

Toler, L. (2021, April 30). The mental health effects of cancel culture. Verywell Mind.

Marcia Ellett, MPW, is Camping Magazine’s editor in chief.

Alliance for Camp Health