Forgiveness has less to do with the person who caused you harm and everything to do with your mental and physical health and well-being. If you’re holding onto a grudge, it might be time to consider letting it go.
I’ve been thinking about forgiveness quite a bit lately for a couple of reasons. I’m working with several different clients right now on conflict issues and the sticking point really comes down to forgiveness. People want justice, which is hard to achieve, so they hold on to their anger or resentment tightly. The other reason is related to last week’s news events, like the stabbing of Salman Rushdi, the armed Navy veteran who tried to breach the FBI Cincinnati field office, and closer to home, the traveling nurse from Houston who crashed into multiple cars at over 100 mph killing six people here in LA. That’s a lot of harm and that’s a lot of people that are going to have to grapple with how to heal.
How long do we hold resentment or grudges before they finally explode externally or wreak havoc internally? How long do we ruminate over real or even perceived wrongs towards us? I had a coaching session a few weeks ago where the client expressed that she holds grudges forever and honestly sounded quite proud of it, as if it was a badge of honor.
The first problem with that is that holding anger, resentment or grudges harms us, literally. The second problem is that the only way to let it go is forgiveness and most people don’t really understand what forgiveness means.
Unresolved conflict, whether a simple disagreement with your significant other or a long-brewing resentment toward a family member or neighbor, results in damage to ourselves, both physically and mentally. According to Dr. Karen Swartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed. Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions.“
This could be why Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
I don’t know anyone who hasn't been hurt by the words or actions of someone else. Human relationships are complex to begin with but add in the fact that most of us have unresolved emotional issues and therefore react to events based on those issues, not necessarily what is occurring in the moment, and it’s understandable that a lot of people hurt others or feel harmed by others.
From an overly critical parent through childhood, to a partner having an affair, to physical or emotional abuse by someone you know, the hurts are real and can run quite deep. These wounds can leave us with lasting feelings of hostility, bitterness and even vengeance. I’ve certainly been wounded many times over the years, but one of the most egregious was as a child by my stepfather and I carried a lot of anger and fear for many years. I had no contact with him at all after I turned 18, so I just carried all of these negative emotions around with me everywhere, with no idea what to do with them. It didn’t occur to me for a very long time that my physical health problems could have been related to those events or that I was making decisions based on the need to feel safe and in control.
I operated for years under the misunderstanding that forgiveness is for the other person, and I certainly wasn’t going to forgive him. According to Swartz however, “[Forgiveness] is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.”
I think I first discovered this from another quote from Buddha that for whatever reason resonated on that particular day, which was “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” I immediately recognized that I was definitely harming myself by hanging on to my resentment.
Thankfully, I also discovered that forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting or condoning the harm done to you or making up with the person who caused the harm. It can be different for different people, but the process is one of releasing the negative emotions you’re holding. For some, releasing the anger and resentment can lead to feeling empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged you. I didn’t go that far, but I did reach a point of a little empathy. Most importantly however, I reached a state of healing and my health greatly improved.
When we hold onto the hurts imposed on us, we’re actually keeping ourselves in a victim role and giving our power to the perpetrator. By forgiving the person, we take back our control and power and are no longer defined by how we’ve been hurt. Louise Hay said, “Forgiveness is for yourself because it frees you. It lets you out of that prison you put yourself in.”
Forgiveness can be extremely challenging, however, especially if the person who hurt you doesn't admit to it. Again, we want justice. We want an apology. Sometimes, we want a reconciliation. But those things are not within our control. We can’t change other people or make them do what we want. We can only control ourselves and our responses to life’s events. There are many ways to approach forgiveness, but you can start by letting go of expectations from the other person. Forgiveness can be a completely inside job, so start by focusing on you.
The first step is to decide to forgive. Once you make that choice, take action. You don’t need to talk to the person who wronged you if that makes you uncomfortable or if the person isn’t even available due to a refusal by them to meet, or geographic distance, or in many cases, death. You can start by writing about your experiences in a journal or talking to someone else in your life that you trust. If your harm was traumatic, you might consider talking to a therapist or counselor.
Again, hurts can run deep, so give yourself permission to acknowledge and honor the pain. Pay attention to where you feel it in your body. Ask yourself, “What do I need right in this moment?” Perhaps you need to feel supported or to do something kind for yourself. Creating space for the pain in this way can help you know whether you’re ready to release it from your heart and mind or whether you may need to take some more time.
Start by reflecting and remembering, including the events themselves. How did you react at the time? How did you feel? How has the hurt and resulting anger or resentment affected you since? Be very gentle with yourself in this process as it can be quite painful if you’ve tamped down these memories and feelings and remember to see yourself non-judgmentally. If you experience self-judgment rising strongly, start with self-forgiveness before you attempt to forgive someone else.
We all make mistakes and misunderstand conversations, situations and intentions. I recommend that you start with forgiving yourself for judging yourself so harshly. How would you treat a friend or loved one in your position? Would you judge them? Shame or blame them? Probably not. You’d probably be compassionate, empathetic, and supportive. Do that for yourself as you work through your self-judgments.
It's common to blame the perpetrator of your harm, but researcher Brené Brown states that “Blaming is a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” It gives us a false sense of control but inevitably keeps the negativity kicking around in our minds, increasing our stress and eroding our relationships.”
Unlike blame or shame, if you made mistakes or have regrets about something you did, guilt is a normal response and helps us not repeat those same mistakes. Take responsibility for anything that you did, decide if you want to take any action such as apologizing to someone else, and most importantly, recognize that it’s in the past. It’s done, so there’s no point in ruminating or carrying shame or any other negative emotions with you into the future. Forgive yourself.
When you’re ready to return to forgiving someone else, once you’ve talked about or written down everything you can remember about the event, try stepping back and viewing it from a neutral perspective. Try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Question why he or she might have behaved as they did. Consider whether you might have reacted similarly in their situation. Remember, you’re not condoning the behavior. You’re simply looking at it from a different perspective.
We can sometimes reach empathy by reflecting on situations where we hurt others, which most of us have done at one point or another, or when someone else has forgiven us. Spend some time reflecting on that and notice how you feel. Again, if you’re struggling with this process, you can always seek professional support or talk to someone you trust. The act that hurt or offended you might always be with you, but forgiveness can lessen its hold on you and release you from the control of the person who harmed you. Forgiveness can lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you, but that isn’t the goal. The goal is to release the anger, hatred or resentment that is harming your well-being.
If you’re thinking that this all sounds way too difficult to manage, consider the impact of holding a grudge on your quality of life. In addition to all of the physical harm it can cause, it can also bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience, lead to depression or anxiety, create feelings that life has no meaning or purpose, and can put you at odds with your spiritual beliefs. When we get too wrapped up in the wrong that has occurred, we can’t enjoy the present.
Studies show that the act of forgiveness can reap significant benefits for your health, including lowering the risk of heart attack, improving cholesterol levels and sleep, reducing pain, lowering blood pressure, strengthening the immune system and decreasing levels of anxiety, depression and stress.
Studies have also found a correlation between traits of mindfulness and forgiveness, so the more you practice mindfulness, the more you strengthen your capacity for forgiveness. Guided meditations can also help you through the process of forgiveness and support you in understanding your feelings as you progress through the many stages of releasing anger, resentment or hostility. Forgiveness is not a quick fix, it’s a process that may take some time. Keep in mind that you can take your time and always have a choice about how and when to proceed.
I’ll close with one more quote from Buddha. “Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.” Is it time for you to let go of any grudges and start enjoying peace and fulfillment?
Until next time. I encourage you to meditate daily and be mindful in all of your everyday activities. Simply bring your full awareness to the present moment to build your mindfulness skills, paying attention to every detail of what you’re doing, from washing dishes to work tasks to taking a walk. Your mind will wander and that’s normal. Each time you notice it has wandered, that’s mindfulness. Consider how wonderful the world could be if everyone was mindful. You can help make that happen. It all starts with a mindful moment.
This podcast is part of the Airwave Media podcast network. Visit AirwaveMedia.com to listen and subscribe to other great shows like The Daily Meditation Podcast, Everything Everywhere and Movie Therapy. We’d deeply appreciate your support at patreon.com/amindfulmoment. Please be sure to subscribe to A Mindful Moment and follow us on Instagram @amindfulmomentpodcast. Visit our website, amindfulmoment.com to access podcasts, scripts and book recommendations. A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.