Sometimes forgiving the people who have hurt you is the best path to peace of mind and moving forward with life.

John Welshons's early life was a series of devastating physical and emotional hurts. At the center of this maelstrom of pain was his alcoholic father, "a raging demon" who embarrassed the family and fought viciously with Welshons's mother. "A dark, sinister, angry, hateful soul from the nether world would burst forth as soon as the alcohol loosened the bars of his cage," Welshons writes in his book Awakening from Grief. "He hated everyone, especially my mother, my sisters, and me."

Forgiveness for Yourself

After years of carrying resentment and anger toward his father, Welshons decided that enough was enough. He didn't want to live his life in a constant state of hatred; his feelings were consuming him and damaging his life. So he did something he never imagined, he forgave his father.

Welshons, now a counselor who helps others with their feelings of grief and anger , says he forgave his father for his own peace of mind. "Forgiveness is for the forgiver rather than the forgive," he says. "it was me who wasn't living life fully because I was angry at my father and he had hurt me so badly."

When you hear stories like Welshons's, it makes you wonder how anyone can forgive another for such grievous transgressions. Forgiveness sounds good in theory and makes intuitive sense, but the actual mechanisms of the process can elude us, especially when we're suffering from another's actions.

Movement Toward Forgiveness

Forgiveness is such a compelling field that the Campaign for Forgiveness Research is putting $10 million into scientific research to study it. "It was kind of a topic waiting to happen. I really look at this decade as the decade of reconciliation," says Everett Worthington, PhD, executive director of the Campaign and head of the psychology department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Despite the interest and the research, there is still much confusion surrounding the topic of forgiveness. These misconceptions keep us from finding forgiveness and can be harmful, experts say. Conversely, by letting go of our negative emotions, we can significantly improve the quality of our lives.

To Forgive is…Healthy?

While the jury is still out on the long-term health benefits of forgiving others, we can extrapolate the results from documented research in other areas. For instance, we do know that chronic stress and anger can have negative effects on our overall health. "Unforgiveness is a form of stress," says Dr. Worthington. "If we maintain this for a long time, we're going to experience cardiovascular disorders, stress-related disorders, and maybe anger and fear-related disorders as well."

If physical health isn't enough for you to consider forgiveness, ponder the mental benefits. Put simply, unforgiveness just doesn't feel good. "It's really not a good state of mind," says Welshons. "In the end, you suffer even more." In other words, unforgiveness can hurt you more than it hurts the object of your emotions. Nine times out of ten, he or she could care less.

What is Forgiveness?

One of the reasons people don't practice more forgiveness is that they misunderstand what it actually entails. It doesn't mean that you approve of someone's actions or condone their behavior. "There's a big difference between forgiving someone and condoning what they've done," says Margaret Paul, PhD, lecturer and author of Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by God? .

Forgiveness does not mean that you continue to subject yourself to abusive behavior, nor do you have to agree to spend time with the person you are forgiving. It may be that in order to protect yourself physically and/or psychologically, you have to distance yourself from the other person. You can do so and still forgive, says Welshons.

So if forgiveness isn't about reconciliation or excusing behavior, what is it about? "Forgiveness is an experience of feeling compassion in one's own heart for the other person. You move out of judgment and into compassion and understanding for the other person," says Dr. Paul. "Forgiveness is an emotional replacement of unforgiving emotions such as resentment, hostility, anger and fear, with more positive emotions such as love and empathy for the person who has hurt you," adds Dr. Worthington.

The Process

So perhaps you're ready to forgive your parents for their over-zealous punishments, your ex for dumping you, or your next-door neighbor for stealing your newspaper every morning. Is that it?

Unfortunately, it's usually not that simple. "As a rule, it doesn't happen in the blink of an eye," says Welshons.

Though there are cases of miraculous forgiveness, like when a murdered child's parents declare immediate forgiveness for their child's attacker, in most cases forgiveness is a process rather than an instantaneous decision. This is especially true when the hurt is deep-seated or especially severe. "If you've got a giant, humongous thing to forgive, it's probably going to take a long time," says Dr. Worthington.

Getting Started

In addition to taking time, forgiveness is also going to take work. Dr. Paul and Welshons agree that individuals need to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and to concentrate on creating their own happiness rather than looking outside for fulfillment. "Forgiveness is a natural outcome of doing our own inner work," says Dr. Paul.

There is no single way to forgive. Dr. Worthington, for instance, has created a five-step process to lead people through the process of identifying and recalling the hurt, empathizing with the transgressor, giving the gift of forgiveness, and committing to and reinforcing the process. "We have a good deal of evidence that we can actually help people forgive," he says.

You may find that other methods, including meditation, yoga, religion, or therapy will assist you on your quest. Though talented therapists or teachers can put you on the right track, it's important that you own the process. What path you choose depends on your personality and the kinds of hurts you're working to forgive.

Though it may take time, don't get discouraged. Research shows that if you work at it, you will get better at forgiving. Dr. Worthington says, "The longer that a person works to emphatically forgive, the more forgiveness they feel."