One of the traits I’ve worked hardest to release in my life is the tendency to harbor a grudge. Listening to my clients’ stories of wrongs done by childhood friends, mistreatment by bosses, and ancient family wounds that have never been healed, I learned that forgiveness doesn’t come easy to many people. Grudges, in fact, are often one of the first signals I receive from a client that there is psychological territory to be covered. Sticky and smelly, a grudge continues to mark the place of an earlier injury to ensure that it is not forgotten.
The cost of resentment
Lately, I’ve found myself looking at grudges in a different way for several reasons. Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “Positive Energy”, talks about all of the ways that we “pour out our stores of energy.” Her point is that our personal vitality has to be consciously managed or renewed and that anything that saps us of that is ultimately harmful. With less energy to squander now than I had earlier in my life, I find I am no longer willing take the time and energy a grudge seems to require for its maintenance.
“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
I was once privileged to work with a torture survivor who, at the age of 21 was imprisoned and tortured for the crime of marrying a man who was the political enemy of the government in charge. Repeatedly raped by some of the prison guards, she lost the baby she was carrying. The day before her slated execution, she escaped, aided by a guard she knew from her village. To save her life, she fled her country, leaving behind everyone she knew and loved. In our work together, she found the courage to forgive the guards who had tortured her. A devout Muslim, she was willing to let go of the hatred that could have kept her imprisoned the rest of her life.
Forgiveness is not accepting what the offender did was “ok.” Rather, it means choosing to release that person’s power over you so that your life can go on. As long as you allow resentment of old wounds a place in your life, the offender stays in residence in your psyche. Do you really want him or her there?
Interestingly, research shows that there are not only psychological but physical benefits from forgiveness. Families from Northern Ireland who had lost loved ones to violence and then participated in a forgiveness training program showed significant reductions in stress related symptoms—including headaches and stomachaches as well as lowered blood pressure.
Forgiveness doesn’t just release you, it can create unanticipated and far reaching ripples. When African American family members of the members of Emanuel AME Church chose to forgive the white racist who had shot their loved ones in cold blood, they did not minimize their own pain. But that spectacular act of courage and empathy set into motion reflection and dialogue that has brought down more confederate flags. Or, as my so very eloquent friend Barbara says, “Racism in the face of that grace became intolerable.”
Tips for letting go of a grudge
- Examine the impact that the grudge is having on your life. Has it brought you closer to the people that you love or put distance between you? Is it making you stronger or weaker?
- Imagine yourself without the grudge. Do you feel lighter? That’s probably a good sign that the grudge is sapping energy from you.
- Figure out what exactly the grudge is about. Often at the root of it is a personal fear that we are unlovable or unworthy. Or, it may be a fear that if we let the memory go, we will be in danger of it happening again. It may be time to work through that belief with someone that you trust.
- Create a ritual or ceremony for letting go. I use affirmations, visualizations, letters that I burn rather than send, and prayer. My favorite affirmation comes from Catharine Ponder. “I let you loose and let you go.”
- Laugh. Humor always helps get perspective. Comedian Buddy Hackett perhaps said it best. “I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.”