Part of going through life with other human beings means sometimes experiencing hurt and betrayal. For many people, deep feelings of anger and resentment can last a lifetime. If you have been wronged or betrayed in the past, then you probably understand how difficult it may be to let go of this anger. But what you may not know is how damaging it is to hold onto it.
“If one does not attempt forgiveness, the physical toll on one’s health can be significant,” said Rennie Shuler-McKinney, MS, LCP, Shawnee Mission Health’s director of clinical services for behavioral health. “Stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, hostility and sleep disturbances are common effects of holding onto resentment.”
Holding a grudge drains energy and weighs heavily on our emotions. Gaining freedom can bring joy and a sense of peace back into your life.
Keep in mind, a grudge can become an integral part of our identity. It’s something that defines us—our anger and victimhood—which gives us a sense of solidness and purpose. And it can also be a major obstacle to becoming a happier and calmer person.
“Get-togethers can bring added stress when unresolved conflict is present within a family or a group of friends,” said Shuler-McKinney. “It can be particularly difficult when you are faced with being in the same place with someone who has caused hurt or been offensive.”
But learning to forgive other people may be a real challenge. It’s not about forgetting, as the old “forgive and forget” adage would have us believe. It’s about letting go, and choosing positive emotions over negative ones.
In reality, though, forgiveness isn’t so much about the other person as your own process of saying, I’m moving forward.
“Learning to forgive can be especially challenging if the person who’s hurt you doesn’t admit wrong,” said Shuler-McKinney. “The first step in forgiveness is to identify the situation that created the negative feelings. Was it a hurtful statement? Was it behaviors that you found offensive or go against your morals? Did someone verbally attack you? Most importantly, can you understand the wrongdoing from the other person’s perspective?”
Of course, identifying and discussing your feelings about the wrongdoing with a neutral party can really help. Reflect on the facts of the situation, how you’ve reacted, and how this combination has affected your life, health and well-being.
Then, you can make a conscious decision to know that you are not going to allow the person who offended you to control your feelings. This last step takes time.
“To let go of our grudge, we have to be willing to stop thinking of ourselves as someone who was offended or mistreated,” said Shuler-McKinney, “and step into a new vision of ourselves, someone who is defined by the present, not a past injustice.”
The act of forgiveness can often bring feelings of accomplishment and a sense of being free—you no longer have to focus on other person. Now, you are able to focus on you and creating positivity in your life.
Living without the burden
Keep in mind, forgiveness does not always include reconciliation.
“There will be times when you might still get emotional when facing the individual who created the hurt,” said Shuler-McKinney. “Remember that forgiveness doesn’t equal forgetting.”
Having a relationship with someone in the future is about whether they are reliable, dependable and trustworthy.
“The most important aspect of forgiveness is to recognize that you are not denying the wrongdoing or the hurtful act that occurred, but rather freeing yourself from the emotions that are tied up with the situation,” said Shuler-McKinney. “By offering forgiveness, you are giving yourself permission to live without the burden of the feelings you have been experiencing. You are allowing yourself to return to a life full of love and empathy.”
—Rennie Shuler-McKinney is Shawnee Mission Health’s director of clinical services for behavioral health.