Set yourself free from holding a grudge: How to forgive and forget

The art of forgiveness holds many benefits

Forgiveness is a huge stumbling block for many. When you don’t forgive, you carry the story of hurt within yourself for a lifetime. Eventually this hurt becomes part of the story you tell yourself.

The moment you recognise the burden of that story and let it go, you can begin to live freely again. It’s a powerful act that may allow the forgiven person to undergo an awakening and allow them to grow into a better person. Most importantly, it helps the person who forgives.

As researchers continue to search for the holy grail to a long, healthy and fulfilled life, more and more evidence shows us that the answer is forgiveness, giving and, ultimately, love.

There is no medicine that can help you love and forgive – you alone have that power. Sometimes we need to forgive, not for the other person but simply in order to set ourselves free.

Forgive yourself first

It’s said we find it harder to forgive ourselves than others because we are so self-critical. We all bear emotional scars and work to hide our deepest fears, because we’re scared of being exposed and being found vulnerable.

Yet vulnerability, according to international bestselling author Brené Brown, allows us to change our lives and become “wholehearted people”. There’s usually a bit of anger in the mix too – for something we should or should not have done.

How can we forgive anyone else if we cannot forgive ourselves? Forgiveness is central to thriving in life. If you’re challenged by forgiving yourself and/or others and need support to move what’s holding you back, it could be time to seek professional help. Find a therapist, get to the bottom of your deepest fears and forgive yourself.

Learn the limits of a grudge

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s a natural reaction to become angry when somebody has hurt you – it’s a form of self-protection. According to Kenneth Pargament, a spiritually integrated psychotherapist and author, anger, fear, hurt and resentment are actually coping techniques, enabling us to stay in touch with our energy and power to help us survive.

His research shows hurt is actually a source of comfort. It reminds us that we deserve better. What’s more, expressing resentment can help remind others of our difficulties.

However, according to Kenneth, there is a fine line between feeling hurt and allowing hurt to rule our life. When you get trapped in a cycle of hatred and bitterness, it is simply then hurting yourself.

The power of an apology

Julie Exline is a Professor of Psychology with a special interest in the virtues of humanity and forgiveness. She found that a sincere apology helps to restore a relationship and wash away resentment and bitterness.

“A powerful apology is admitting responsibility for a mistake, expressing remorse and offering to repair the situation.” According to Stephen G. Post, research shows true remorse conveys distress, self-awareness and regret.

It also elicits empathy from the person who has been hurt. His advice is to always apologise from the heart, with absolute sincerity.

If you’re waiting for an apology from someone and it’s not coming, try to have compassion and empathy for them. They may be suffering because they are unable to forgive themselves and, as a result, are unable to apologise to you.

They may not know how to apologise or may believe it’s a weakness to do so. Not apologising can often show up their weakness or expose their fear of failure. Remember, waiting in resentment for an apology that may never come is only hurting you, not them.

Nature does nurture

Another positive contribution to connection and health is our very real need to regularly be in nature. A study showed that the awe we feel in the great outdoors may help lower levels of inflammatory proteins, which improves our health and wellness.

According to the study, whenever we experience awe in the presence of nature, art and spirituality, we get a boost to our body’s immune defence system.

Positive emotions are associated with lower levels of inflammatory cytokines, proteins that signal the immune system to work harder. Sustained higher levels of cytokines are associated with chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, dementia and clinical depression.

We all need to find our flow with, and within, nature. Maybe, for you, it’s a walk in the park every day, a swim in the ocean, planting some food or flowers and spending time with your pets.

Humans are designed to connect with the elements of Mother Nature. When you rise with the sun and go to bed early, your body flows into its natural circadian rhythm. It is this rhythm that is the foundation for your wellbeing. This essential rhythm is kept in check by your connection to yourself, to one another and to nature.

Setting boundaries

Boundaries are safe environments – whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual – we create in order to help ourselves thrive. Personal boundaries are where our internal world meets the external world, and how we preserve our sense of self and wellbeing.

By considering where and what your boundaries are, you communicate to yourself and others what you will, and won’t, accept. Boundaries are indicative of the way we treat ourselves and how we would like others to treat us, personally and professionally.

Forgiveness as medicine

Forgiveness reduces the powerful mixture of anger, hatred and fear that comes with seeing ourselves as victims. Chronic anger has been well-documented to have harmful effects on the cardiovascular and immune systems.

People who score high on forgiveness are less likely to be depressed, anxious, hostile, narcissistic or exploitative, and are less likely to become dependent on drugs and nicotine.

Combat veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience less depression and fewer symptoms of trauma if they’re able to forgive themselves and others.

High forgivers show less reactivity in blood pressure and arterial stiffness. In contrast, those who score low in forgiveness show higher blood pressure and slower recovery.

How to let go of a grudge

Kenneth suggests practising a metaphysical exercise. “Imagine taking a permanent marker and writing ‘grudge’ on your palm. Let the ink dry, then try to wash it off with soap and water. Little by little, it will become lighter with every wash. Forgiveness is a process. With practice, your burden becomes lighter every day.”

Start them young: 10 small steps for kids

Teaching children forgiveness is a life skill that can help them build healthier relationships, improve their emotional wellbeing and promote empathy

1 Model forgiveness

Children learn by example, so it’s essential to demonstrate forgiveness in your own life. If you make a mistake or have conflicts, show them how you can resolve these issues through forgiveness and reconciliation.

2 Explain what it is

Use age-appropriate language to explain forgiveness to children. Describe it as letting go of anger or resentment and choosing to move on from a hurtful situation. Emphasise that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting or condoning bad behaviour.

3 Use examples

Share stories or examples from books, movies, or real-life situations that illustrate forgiveness. Discuss these stories with your child and ask them how they would feel in similar situations.

4 Encourage empathy

Teach children to empathise with others by helping them understand the feelings and perspectives of the person who hurt them. Ask questions like, “How do you think they felt when they did or said that?” This helps children see the other person as human with their own struggles and emotions.

5 Validate their feelings

It’s crucial to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings when they’ve been hurt. Let them know that it’s okay to feel angry or upset but that forgiveness can help them feel better.

6 Teach problem-solving skills

Help children develop problem-solving skills to resolve conflicts peacefully. Encourage them to express their feelings and needs, listen to others and find mutually acceptable solutions.

7 Set clear expectations

Establish clear rules and consequences for unacceptable behaviour, so children understand the importance of taking responsibility for their actions. This helps them recognise when an apology or forgiveness is needed.

8 Use exercises

You can introduce forgiveness exercises, such as writing a forgiveness letter (even if it’s not sent) or drawing a picture to represent forgiveness. These activities can help children process their emotions and practice forgiveness in a tangible way.

9 Be patient

Forgiveness is a skill that develops over time. Be patient with your child’s progress and allow them to learn at their own pace. Avoid pressuring them to forgive quickly.

10 Reward positive behaviour

Praise and reward your child when they demonstrate forgiveness or resolve conflicts peacefully. Positive reinforcement can motivate them to continue practicing forgiveness.

Edited extract from How to Be Well by Dr Karen Coates and Sharon Kolkka (Harper Collins, rrp $49.99).

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