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Mental Health

Expert Advice: How Do I Let Go of a Grudge and Embrace Forgiveness?

Restore your inner peace and joy.

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When your phone buzzes, you let it go to voicemail. The message you’re not ready to listen to is from an old friend with whom you’ve had a falling out. I just can’t forgive her, you think. Despite your pain, part of you thinks it feels good to hold on to a grudge because it validates your experience. But forgiveness is first and foremost something you do for yourself, proven to replace hurt with healing, stress with solace.

“There are so many physical and mental health benefits of forgiveness, including a significant reduction in stress chemicals,” reveals leading expert on forgiveness Everett Worthington, PhD. “In fact, the ability to forgive is a top predictor of ‘flourishing,’ long-term well-being, stemming from the ability to feel more positive emotions like joy and hope.”

There are two types of forgiveness: decisional and emotional. The former is an intention to let go of anger, while the latter takes that resolve a step further and replaces negative emotions with positive “other-oriented” feelings, like compassion and empathy, says Worthington. “Making the decision to forgive helps, but emotional forgiveness is key to reducing rumination, the impulse to replay the hurt.”

Indeed, while reconciliation is the restoration of trust between two people, forgiveness occurs within your own heart — it’s a gift you give yourself. Read on for empowering ways to overcome “unforgiveness” and restore the inner peace you so deserve.

You’re not ready to grieve.

You open your email and are surprised to see “I’m sorry” in the subject line of a new message. It’s your mother addressing a painful estrangement caused by her refusal to respect your boundaries. I don’t even want to look at it, you think. “It hurts to feel unsupported by those who are supposed to love us,” says Susan David, PhD, author of Emotional Agility. “But if we nurse resentment long enough, it starts to define us, crowding out joy.”

The Fix

“When we hold a grudge in one hand, we often hold grief in the other,” says David. “Picture loosening your grip on the past — this helps your heart expand.” One way to move forward is by leaning on your spirituality, adds Worthington. “Those who identify as spiritual tend to have an easier time forgiving because they give over their burden to a higher power.” This could mean anything from praying to going on an awe-inspiring walk to simply journaling.“Giving yourself time to reflect ultimately leads to healing.”

You can’t forgive yourself.

After your sister confides in you that she just lost her job, she asks that you keep it under your hat until she’s ready to tell people. But, when out of concern for her, you let it slip at a family dinner, you’re mortified. While your sister instantly forgives you, you’re unable to show yourself the same grace, and wince every time you think about it. “Self-forgiveness tends to be the most challenging type of forgiveness,” says Norlock. “That’s because guilt is a function of memory: We keep replaying our transgression in our mind, making it hard to show ourselves compassion.”

The Fix

If you’re beating yourself up right now, picture being kind to a future version of yourself, urges Norlock. “It’s much easier to forgive that distant self because it almost feels like showing someone else forgiveness.” Tell yourself, “Because I want to be happier tomorrow, I accept myself today.” Then repeat this mantra…again and again. Guilt is involuntary, coming back in waves, which is why we need to commit to re-forgiving ourselves. “You may take wedding vows only once in your life, but in a way, you renew them every day — that’s what self-forgiveness is: a promise to keep giving yourself this gift.”

You need an apology.

When a co-worker invites everyone on your team (but you!) to lunch, you can’t believe it. Did she mean to snub me? you wonder. You’re expecting an apology, but never get one, causing a minor slight to grow into a major rift. “We often have trouble forgiving unless the other person expresses regret,” says Worthington. “Yet this holds us hostage, preventing us from moving forward.”

The Fix

The simple strategy proven to help us move forward even in the absence of an apology, is called REACH, says Worthington. It stands for recall the hurt; empathize with the other; show forgiveness as an altruistic gift; commit to this feeling; hold on to it when you’re in doubt. That final step is key to long-term healing. “Once you’ve forgiven, write a note to yourself as simple as, ‘Today, I forgave X for hurting me.’ This helps your sense of inner peace last.”

You’re still angry.

Just the thought of seeing your sisterin-law for the first time since you got into a huge argument fills you with dread. “The bad news is, not everyone deserves our forgiveness — and the good news is, not everyone deserves our forgiveness,” says Kathryn J. Norlock, PhD, author of The Moral Psychology of Forgiveness. “In other words, it’s not about them — it’s about you and the gesture you’re willing to make when you’re ready.”

The Fix

“We tend to overestimate the harm others intended, while they underestimate how their actions are perceived — it’s called the ‘magnitude gap,’” explains Norlock. To bridge this chasm, put yourself in their shoes and picture where they may be coming from, as flexing your empathy fosters a more forgiving mindset. “You might say, ‘I don’t think you meant to hurt me when you said X, but I felt criticized.’” Showing such understanding helps us repair relationships that otherwise may have seemed too difficult to restore.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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