Remember your childhood nemesis? For Ann Eide, it was a neighborhood girl who was older, more worldlywise – and who seemed to go out of her way to make Ann seem like an uncool dud by comparison.
“I had really overprotective parents who constantly bombarded me with questions about where I was going and what I was doing,” recalls Ann, now 37 and a stay-at-home mom. The older girl spread the rumor that Ann’s parents were protective because Ann was mentally “slow.” She also labeled Ann a tattletale, which resulted in her being ostracized by other kids.
“Because I was shy and wouldn’t speak up for myself, I think she knew that she could get away with it,” says Ann. But the gossip and ridicule ate away at Ann’s self-esteem.
“I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t good enough,” she says. As the years passed, that self-doubt was replaced by a simmering anger. Eventually, Ann grew up and moved away, and the unexpressed pain went underground. But it quickly resurfaced whenever a confidence-shaking encounter or critical offhand comment stirred up old memories.
A few years ago, Ann ran into her former tormentor at a reunion of old friends from the neighborhood, and just seeing the woman made Ann realize how much anger she was still carrying around. Shortly afterward, Ann decided that, for the sake of her own emotional well-being, she needed to forgive and move on.
“I sent this woman an email,” Ann recalls, “and told her that I forgave her for everything, like all the times growing up when I would try to talk to her and she would just laugh in my face.” The response was hardly a movie-worthy reconciliation: Ann received an email that was the virtual equivalent of smug laughter. “In essence, her reply said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t matter, because you’re never going to amount to much anyway,'” Ann says.
This time around, though, the sting was gone. In its place was a welcome sense of resolution. Part of the shift for Ann came as the result of examining the other woman’s likely motivations for taking such cruel jabs at her in the first place: “Maybe she didn’t have good mentors growing up,” Ann observes. “Maybe she saw other people acting that way.” Despite the fact that she would likely never have a satisfactory explanation for all that she’d endured, Ann came to terms with the reality that this other person’s unkind behavior toward her wasn’t an accurate or meaningful reflection of her own worth or value.
Interestingly, Ann’s forgiveness experience corresponded with a significant and positive change in her physical health. “Once I forgave this woman, it was like a weight lifted,” she says. Ann, who suffers from a muscle-weakening disease called mitochondrial myopathy, had noted that emotional stress made her symptoms worse. Once the stress of carrying around all that old hurt and anger was replaced by forgiveness, she says, “My health started to improve noticeably.”
Ann’s spirits rose as well, and her religious faith deepened. “It just made me a better person,” she says. “I don’t hold grudges the way I used to. Things still get to me, but I can get over them and move on and do what I need to do in my life.”
Ann’s experience isn’t unusual, say psychologists who study forgiveness. “Research has shown that forgiveness has positive value for emotional, physical and relationship well-being,” says Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project at Stanford University and author of Forgive for Good (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).
“Emotionally, a grudge is a sign that you haven’t yet figured out how to work through something in your life, and that grudge can lead to depression and hopelessness. Physiologically, a grudge is just another name for stress, and when you’re under constant stress, it eventually wears out parts of your body.”
In relationships, unresolved anger toward someone who has hurt you not only colors all your interactions with that person but also influences your future relationships. “You have to work things through,” Luskin says. “Otherwise, you’ll just bring this baggage everyplace you go.”
So why do we hold grudges? For one, we’re genetically programmed to remember situations that have been hurtful. “There’s a built-in mechanism in the brain to alert us to stimuli that are unsafe or unhealthy,” Luskin says.
One part of the brain that scientists have implicated in this grudge-holding process is the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure that plays a key role in the fight-or-flight response. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala sets off a rapid-response system that mobilizes a person’s brain and body to deal with the danger at hand. To protect that person against the same threat in the future, a blueprint of the learned fear response is then etched onto the amygdala. The same process that helps you remember never to touch a hot stove again may also make it hard to forget being dumped by an ex.
In addition, the mind tends to dwell on difficult situations in order to work them out. “A grudge is what happens when that system goes haywire,” Luskin says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I need to figure out what to do so that I don’t get dumped again.’ It’s another to keep doing that for nine years.” Yet that’s exactly what may happen when people get stuck mentally replaying a past experience over and over again.
According to Luskin, one reason people become trapped in replay mode is simple habit. “We become better at what we practice,” he says. As a result, every time you mentally circle back to dwell on a past wrong, the habit of thinking that way becomes stronger. Fortunately, you can also improve your forgiveness skills through repetition. Luskin likens the process to mastering a sport. “If you practice forgiveness, you get better at it,” he says. “And professionals can teach you skills that help you do it even better.”
The Art of Forgiveness
In some cases, like Ann’s, forgiveness is a spontaneous decision. “That’s not as common as you might hope, but it is possible,” Luskin says. For most people, though, forgiveness takes some preparation and effort. These pointers can help you get started.
Lay the groundwork. Robert Enright, PhD, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cofounder of the International Forgiveness Institute and author of Forgiveness Is a Choice (American Psychological Association, 2001), recommends first taking some time to explore your anger. Have you faced your anger, or have you avoided dealing with it? How has the anger affected you, mentally and physically? Have you been obsessing over the grievance or the offender? Has the situation caused a permanent change in your life or the way you view the world? Enright suggests writing about these issues in a journal. Set aside time each day (10 or 15 minutes) for that purpose, but don’t pressure yourself to write a certain amount. Just keep up the daily writing until you’ve answered the questions to your satisfaction.
Don’t rush the process. “Forgiveness should be a joyous gift, not a grim obligation,” Enright says. If you try to force it, you’ll just end up feeling pressured – and perhaps guilty if you’re unable to follow through. Set your intention to forgive, and then do it at your own pace, knowing it might take days, weeks or months.
If you find you aren’t making any headway after months of focused intention and exercise, you might want to consider working toward acceptance rather than forgiveness. Like forgiveness, “acceptance is a life-affirming, authentic response,” says Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Westport, Conn., and author of How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To (HarperCollins, 2005). Acceptance involves making a thoughtful decision to face what has happened and deal with it in a way that’s in your best interest – even if you feel that true forgiveness is not an option. You can still stop obsessing over the hurt and move on with your life.
Change your story. Do you have a longstanding “grievance story” that you constantly repeat to yourself and others? “A grievance story typically describes how somebody else ruined your life,” Luskin says. “And it’s not true. In reality, somebody else did something painful or difficult. Then you didn’t handle it well.” Turn your grievance story into a hero story that focuses on what you did to recover from or cope with the situation. “By shifting from ‘poor me’ to ‘here’s what I did,’ you no longer cast yourself in the role of victim,” he says.
Focus on here and now. You may feel upset about something that happened in the past, but what’s distressing you at this very moment are the feelings, thoughts and physical reactions you’re having right now, Luskin points out. Actively calming the body and mind for even six to 10 seconds can help short circuit your ongoing stress response, he says. His suggestion: Take a few moments to “breathe deeply, pray, look at something beautiful or remember how much you love someone.”
Make it about you. You might have a chance to tell the person who hurt you that you forgive him or her (see “Talking It Out,” below). Or you might not. You might receive heartfelt gratitude and reconciliation in return. Or you might not. Regardless, Luskin says, you can still choose to forgive. The aim is to find peace for yourself, with or without the offender’s help. Whatever the outcome, you can still free up the personal energy you’re spending on holding a grudge and begin using it for more constructive purposes.
Take baby steps. “You wouldn’t walk into a weight room for the first time and try to lift 300 pounds. You’d work your way up to that heavier weight gradually,” Luskin says. The same principle holds true when learning to forgive. “Don’t start with the worst thing that ever happened to you,” he advises. “Begin with something smaller, and work up.”
Have elastic expectations. Forgiveness won’t necessarily erase all your pain. “When somebody has deliberately betrayed you, and something reminds you about what that person has done, it’s natural to still feel hurt or resentment or even spasms of hate,” Spring says. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean you lose all negative feelings forever. But it does mean that the hurt is no longer center stage.”
Forgiveness is best regarded as an evolution rather than a one-time event. Especially for egregious offenses, you may need to revisit the process repeatedly, but it should get easier each time. Eventually, you’ll realize that your feelings about the other person’s choices and behavior have changed in a deep and abiding way. That’s when you’ll know you’ve learned to forgive for good.