What Unforgiveness Does to Your Brain

We’ve all been deeply hurt in some way…a betrayal by a spouse, a behind-your-back criticism from a friend, hateful judgment from someone at church, a false accusation by a co-worker, unfair treatment by a boss or a parent. And the deeper the hurt, the harder it is and the longer it takes us to forgive. But sometimes we simply don’t forgive. We harbor a grudge. Resentment builds in our hearts. We nurse the offense. As a result, we remain prisoner to our pain and we harm our brain.

broken brain

When someone hurts us, it’s natural and normal to feel pain. God created our brains to help us survive when we feel threatened. It’s called the fight-flight-freeze response generated in our emotional centers, primarily mediated by two almond shaped clusters of brain cells called the amygdalae.

When the amygdalae are activated, a series of bio-chemical processes begin. The adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys release the stress hormone cortisol into our bodies and the brain releases neurotransmitters into the brain. Those in turn activate part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, among other things, our attention gets highly focused on survival, our digestive system stops, our pupils dilate, our saliva glands slow, our blood pressure and heart rate increases, and our muscles are readied for action. Our body prepares itself to fight, flee, or freeze.

This process can happen whether or not we are in real danger or whether or not someone really hurts us or we simply perceive that they did.

Unforgiveness can keep our bodies and brains in this state of high alertness and leads to these unhealthy results.

  • Rumination: we nurse and rehearse the hurt which reinforces our negative emotions and burns the event and pain even deeper into our neuropathways. When we’re not focused on a task, our inner self-talk will often default to rehearsing the painful situation.
  • Diminished memory: when we remain stressed for longs periods of time (i.e., we refuse to forgive), cortisol actually causes our brain to atrophy, especially our memory center called the hippocampus.
  • Amplified negative emotions: prolonged stress also amplifies our amygdalae’s sensitivity making us even more susceptible to further hurt and pain.
  • Schadenfreude: this concept describes the secret pleasure we feel when we see those who have hurt us experience misfortune themselves. It actually causes our brain to produce the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. It actually feels good to see bad things happen to those we don’t forgive. It’s the opposite of praying for your enemies which Jesus commanded us to do.

So, unforgiveness not only keeps us chained to our offender but it profoundly affects our bodies and brains.

So what can we do? Consider these insights to forgive those who have hurt you.

  1. First, admit the pain. When we name a painful emotion (not stuffing or rehearsing it) we actually decrease that negative emotion’s intensity.
  2. Journal. Processing our pain through writing it down can lessen the pain and help us gain better perspective. However, don’t let journaling become another way to rehearse and reinforce your pain. Through journaling seek to gain God’s perspective and healing.
  3. Begin to choose to forgive the person. Notice that I used the word ‘begin.’ Some offences can be quickly forgiven. Some may take a long time to fully forgive. Forgiveness is a process. The deeper the pain, the longer it takes. It’s not so much forgive and forget. Rather, true forgiveness is more like remembering it less and less.
  4. Draw deeply from God’s grace. At the root of the Christian faith lies grace, receiving God’s grace and extending it to others who have hurt us.

The Apostle Paul reminded us in Colossians 3.13 to forgive others as Jesus has forgiven us.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

What insights have you learned about forgiving others?

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11 Bad Listening Habits Leaders must Avoid

Listening is one of the most important competencies a leader can use. Leaders who listen well, lead well.

But sometimes even good leaders slip into bad listening habits. As you read these bad habits below, mentally check which one(s) you most easily slip into.

listen

Lisa J. Downs, author, listening expert, and former president of the American Society for Training and Development believes this list captures our worst listening habits.

  1. Daydreaming: thinking about unrelated topics when someone else is speaking.
  2. Debating: carrying on an inner argument about what is being said.
  3. Judging: letting negative views influence us.
  4. Problem solving: yearning to give unasked for advice.
  5. Pseudo-listening: pretending to be a good listener.
  6. Rehearsing: planning what you want to say next.
  7. Stage hogging: redirecting the conversation to suit your own goals.
  8. Ambushing: gathering information to use against the other person.
  9. Selective listening: only responding to the parts of the conversation that interest us.
  10. Defensive listening: taking everything personally.
  11. Avoidant listening: blocking out what you don’t want to hear

How many of these bad listening habits have you inadvertently slipped into?

If you mentally checked one or more, consider these tips.

  1. Ask a close friend to give you feedback on how well you listen.
  2. As you listen to someone, monitor your thoughts to catch yourself before you slip into one of these habits. The term for monitoring your thoughts is called metacognition, thinking about your thinking.
  3. Simply talk less. The acronym WAIT has helped me listen better and talk less. It stands for Why Am I Talking?
  4. Read the book Words can Change Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman. It’s an insightful book on communication from which this list came.

What other bad listening habits have you experienced from yourself or from others?

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Is the Best Term ‘Christian’ or ‘Follower of Christ?’

As a pastor I try to read broadly enough to understand the current Christian vernacular. One great read, Deep Church, unpacked the terminology of the emerging/emergent church and those that think more traditionally and suggests an in-between position. I recommend it. Through such reading I’ve noticed the past few years that the church’s vernacular seems to be in constant flux, depending on who you read or listen to. The church growth movement told me to avoid certain words or phrases for fear of turning off the listener. Other recent voices suggest new terminology as well, such as these.

Theology Word Cloud Concept with great terms such as study, religion, God and more.
  • Some replace such terms as justification, sanctification, and atonement with other words with less syllables.
  • The term seeker was/is used as a preferred word for  a lost person.
  • Salvation is now cross the line of faith.
  • The newest replacement phrase is follower of Christ in lieu of Christian or believer.

When I preach and teach, I try to use theological terms that make sense to the listener. If you listen to any of my messages, you’ll probably find that my word choices do change.

But the last one, follower of Christ, even though I sometimes use it, can sometimes feel a bit forced.

I’m not sure why I feel that way.

Is it because I’ve used believer and Christian for so long that subconsciously I don’t like change?

Is is it because I feel like I’m trying to be theologically hip by using the coolest new words or phrases?

Or, is it just too new for me to feel comfortable using it?

I’m still wrestling with this one.

What are your thoughts on updated theological vernacular?

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What I Learned from Kids who Survived Cancer

My youngest daughter, Tiffany, has survived a brain tumor and multiple brain surgeries. As a result, she has a heart for hurting people. A few times a month she takes her dog LuLu to hospice care to visit patients.  A few years ago for several summers she served as a counselor at a camp for kids who survived cancer. Each year that camp would invite the kids, counselors and family to a dinner/dance the day after U.S. Thanksgiving. That year I took Tiffany. After dinner, Tiffany, the other counselors, and the kids took to the dance floor. That’s when, as I fought back tears, I jotted down these insights that I learned from these kids who survived cancer.

Cancer Word Cloud Concept with great terms such as disease, chemo, survivor, patient, doctor and more.
  • We all yearn for a place where others accept us “as is.” All these kids had this in common, they battled cancer. Many that night carried the obvious evidences of that battle–bald heads and puffy faces due to chemo, wheelchair confinement, or visible scars from surgery. But these things didn’t matter to them. It was as if they were oblivious to each others’ physical limitations. They accepted each other “as is.” (Jer. 31.3, I have loved you with an everlasting love.)
  • We all need moments when something transports us away from thoughts about our problems. One rule the camp rigidly enforces is, “We will not talk about our illness.” That same spirit carried over into the comments by the director that night as she spoke of joy, hope, and future. That same spirit pulsated from the dance floor as these kids jumped, danced, and twirled to the beat of the music and the direction of the rotund DJ. (Phil. 4.8, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.)
  • God’s image that He implanted into every human heart shows itself when we sacrificially give ourselves away to others. Each camper is assigned an adult that spends 24/7 with that child during camp. At this dinner the adults sit next to their ‘companion,’ as they are called, and they joyfully dance with them on the dance floor. One counselor Tiffany introduced to me had served 15 years straight. Her effervescent personality oozed love for these kids. (Gal. 6.2, Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.)
  • God wants us to celebrate each other’s milestones with great joy. Each year at the dinner they play Pomp and Circumstances as the camp’s high school seniors march to the podium. This year only one made it. Two others couldn’t attend due to their illness. The high school senior whom the group celebrated that night had attended camp 13 years straight. Although surgery scars marred her face, she walked across the room and held her head high for she had not only survived, but thrived. After she received her ‘diploma’ the DJ began the dance music and this senior, dressed in her graduation robe, became the center of attention. The kids rushed into a circle as they danced and celebrated her milestone. My thoughts drifted back to when Tiffany graduated from high school. We weren’t sure that she would make it that night because the effects of her brain surgery often left her unable to stand on her own. The teachers had assigned a big football player to stand at her side and help her if needed. But, with a sense of great accomplishment, she walked across the platform on her own and received her diploma. I rejoiced. Then I cried. (Rom. 12.15, Rejoice with those who rejoice.)

I never expected to learn about acceptance, thinking about the good, sacrificial service, and celebration from kids who had cancer. Yet that night I committed, for Tiffany’s sake, to stay as long as she wanted so she could relish those magical moments with people who accepted her unconditionally.

Modifying the line from My Fair Lady, “I could have danced all night,” I could have stayed all night as Tiffany danced all night.

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Traits of Catalytic Leaders

In The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leadership Organizations authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom highlight the value of what they call ‘leaderless’ organizations. Although I don’t endorse leaderless organizations per se, one chapter describes tools that successful non-leader leaders use to catalyze their respective organizations. I’ve listed below some of their insights from this unusual perspective.

Catalyst - Shallow Depth Of Field Macro Close-Up Selective Focus Of Word Highlighted In Dictionary In Orange

Qualities they suggest would apply to any leader.

  • Genuine interest in others
  • Loose connections (they don’t limit themselves to a few close friends but have many connections)
  • Mapping (catalysts think of who they know, who those people know, how they all relate to one another, and how they fit into a huge mental map)
  • Desire to help others
  • Passion
  • Meet people where they are (there is a difference between passionate and pushy; catalysts rely less on persuasion and more on meeting people where they are )
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Trust
  • Inspiration (catalysts often inspire others to work toward a goal that often doesn’t involve their own personal gain)
  • Tolerance for ambiguity (they learn to be OK when they don’t have concrete answers to big questions)
  • Hands-Off approach (they are less apt to use command and control)
  • Receding (after they accomplish what they intended, they get out of the way)

The authors also contrast CEO’s to Catalysts.

CEO’s vs Catalysts:

  • the boss vs a peer
  • command-and-control vs trust
  • rational vs emotionally intelligent
  • powerful vs inspirational
  • directive vs collaborative
  • in the spotlight vs behind the scenes
  • order vs ambiguity
  • organizing vs connecting

What do you think about leader-less organizations? Do you think leadership is either one or the other?

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