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David Baxter

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Forgiveness: How to let go of grudges and bitterness
By Katherine M. Piderman, Mayo Clinic
Nov 21, 2007

When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge or embrace forgiveness and move forward.

Nearly everyone has been hurt by the actions or words of another. Your mother criticized your parenting skills. Your friend gossiped about you. Your partner had an affair. These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of anger, bitterness and even vengeance. But when you don't practice forgiveness, you may be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Here, Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., discusses forgiveness and how it can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

What is forgiveness?
There's no one definition of forgiveness. But in general, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that bind you to the offense committed against you. This can reduce the power these feelings otherwise have over you, so that you can a live freer and happier life in the present. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.

Doesn't forgiving someone mean you're forgetting or condoning what happened?
Absolutely not! Forgiving isn't the same as forgetting what happened to you. The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your life. But forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, positive parts of your life. Forgiveness also doesn't mean that you deny the other person's responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn't minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act.

What are the benefits of forgiving someone?
Researchers have recently become interested in studying the effects of being unforgiving and being forgiving. Evidence is mounting that holding on to grudges and bitterness results in long-term health problems. Forgiveness, on the other hand, offers numerous benefits, including:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Stress reduction
  • Less hostility
  • Better anger management skills
  • Lower heart rate
  • Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
  • Fewer depression symptoms
  • Fewer anxiety symptoms
  • Reduction in chronic pain
  • More friendships
  • Healthier relationships
  • Greater religious or spiritual well-being
  • Improved psychological well-being
Why do we hold grudges and become resentful and unforgiving?
The people most likely to hurt us are those closest to us ? our partners, friends, siblings and parents. When we're hurt by someone we love and trust ? whether it's a lie, betrayal, rejection, abuse or insult ? it can be extremely difficult to overcome. And even minor offenses can turn into huge conflicts. When you experience hurt or harm from someone's actions or words, whether this is intended or not, you may begin experiencing negative feelings such as anger, confusion or sadness, especially when it's someone close to you. These feelings may start out small. But if you don't deal with them quickly, they can grow bigger and more powerful. They may even begin to crowd out positive feelings. Grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility take root when you dwell on hurtful events or situations, replaying them in your mind many times. Soon, you may find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice. You may feel trapped and may not see a way out. It's very hard to let go of grudges at this point and instead you may remain resentful and unforgiving.

How do I know it's time to try to embrace forgiveness?
When we hold on to pain, old grudges, bitterness and even hatred, many areas of our lives can suffer. When we're unforgiving, it's we who pay the price over and over. We may bring our anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience. Our lives may be so wrapped up in the wrong that we can't enjoy the present. Other signs that it may be time to consider forgiveness include:

  • Dwelling on the events surrounding the offense
  • Hearing from others that you have a chip on your shoulder or that you're wallowing in self-pity
  • Being avoided by family and friends because they don't enjoy being around you
  • Having angry outbursts at the smallest perceived slights
  • Often feeling misunderstood
  • Drinking excessively, smoking or using drugs to try to cope with your pain
  • Having symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • Being consumed by a desire for revenge or punishment
  • Automatically thinking the worst about people or situations
  • Regretting the loss of a valued relationship
  • Feeling like your life lacks meaning or purpose
  • Feeling at odds with your religious or spiritual beliefs
The bottom line is that you may often feel miserable in your current life.

How do I reach a state of forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. It can be difficult and it can take time. Everyone moves toward forgiveness a little differently. One step is to recognize the value of forgiveness and its importance in our lives at a given time. Another is to reflect on the facts of the situation, how we've reacted, and how this combination has affected our lives, our health and our well-being. Then, as we are ready, we can actively choose to forgive the one who has offended us. In this way, we move away from our role as a victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in our lives. Forgiveness also means that we change old patterns of beliefs and actions that are driven by our bitterness. As we let go of grudges, we'll no longer define our lives by how we've been hurt, and we may even find compassion and understanding.

What happens if I can't forgive someone?
Forgiveness can be very challenging. It may be particularly hard to forgive someone who doesn't admit wrong or doesn't speak of their sorrow. Keep in mind that the key benefits of forgiveness are for you. If you find yourself stuck, it may be helpful to take some time to talk with a person you've found to be wise and compassionate, such as a spiritual leader, a mental health provider or an unbiased family member or friend. It may also be helpful to reflect on times you've hurt others and on those who have forgiven you. As you recall how you felt, it may help you to understand the position of the person who hurt you. It can also be beneficial to pray, use guided meditation or journal. In any case, if the intention to forgive is present, forgiveness will come in its time.

Does forgiveness guarantee reconciliation?
Not always. In some cases, reconciliation may be impossible because the offender has died. In other cases, reconciliation may not be appropriate, especially if you were attacked or assaulted. But even in those cases, forgiveness is still possible, even if reconciliation isn't. On the other hand, if the hurtful event involved a family member or friend whose relationship you otherwise value, forgiveness may lead to reconciliation. This may not happen quickly, as you both may need time to re-establish trust. But in the end, your relationship may very well be one that is rich and fulfilling.

What if I have to interact with the person who hurt me but I don't want to?
These situations are difficult. If the hurt involves a family member, it may not always be possible to avoid him or her entirely. You may be invited to the same family holiday gatherings, for instance. If you've reached a state of forgiveness, you may be able to enjoy these gatherings without bringing up the old hurts. If you haven't reached forgiveness, these gatherings may be tense and stressful for everyone, particularly if other family members have chosen sides in the conflict.

So how do you handle this? First, remember that you do have a choice whether to attend or not attend family get-togethers. Respect yourself and do what seems best. If you choose to go, don't be surprised by a certain amount of awkwardness and perhaps even more intense feelings. It's important to keep an eye on those feelings. You don't want them to lead you to be unjust or unkind in return for what was done to you. Also, avoid drinking too much alcohol as a way to try to numb your feelings or feel better ? it'll likely backfire. And keep an open heart and mind. People do change, and perhaps the offender will want to apologize or make amends. You also may find that the gathering helps you to move forward with forgiveness.

How do I know when I've truly forgiven someone?
Forgiveness may result in sincerely spoken words such as "I forgive you" or tender actions that fit the relationship. But more than this, forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life. The offense is no longer front and center in your thoughts or feelings. Your hostility, resentment and misery have made way for compassion, kindness and peace. Also, remember that forgiveness often isn't a one-time thing. It begins with a decision, but because memories or another set of words or actions may trigger old feelings, you may need to recommit to forgiveness over and over again.

What if the person I'm forgiving doesn't change?
Getting the other person to change their actions, behavior or words isn't the point of forgiveness. In fact, the other person may never change or apologize for the offense. Think of forgiveness more about how it can change your life ? by bringing you more peace, happiness, and emotional and spiritual healing. Forgiveness takes away the power the other person continues to wield in your life. Through forgiveness, you choose to no longer define yourself as a victim. Forgiveness is done primarily for yourself, and less so for the person who wronged you.

What if I'm the one who needs forgiveness?
It may help to spend some time thinking about the offense you've committed and trying to determine the effect it has had on others. Unless it may cause more harm or distress, consider admitting the wrong you've done to those you've harmed, speaking of your sincere sorrow or regret, and specifically asking for forgiveness ? without making excuses. But if this seems unwise because it may further harm or distress, don't do it ? it's not about making yourself feel better by apologizing. You don't want to add salt to a painful wound. Also, keep in mind that you can't force someone to forgive you. They will need to move to forgiveness in their own time.

In any case, we have to be willing to forgive ourselves. Holding on to resentment against yourself can be just as toxic as holding on to resentment against someone else. Recognize that poor behavior or mistakes don't make you worthless or bad. Accept the fact that you ? like everyone else ? aren't perfect. Accept yourself despite your faults. Admit your mistakes. Commit to treating others with compassion, empathy and respect. And again, talking with a spiritual leader, mental health provider or trusted friend or relative may be helpful.

Forgiveness of yourself or someone else, though not easy, can transform your life. Instead of dwelling on the injustice and revenge, instead of being angry and bitter, you can move toward a life of peace, compassion, mercy, joy and kindness.
 

brickhouse

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what of you are always the one who is "forgiving"...or just letting things go?
i'm so tired...literally, of it...i don't know what to do or where to go. i'm caught in the middle, but really at my breaking point.
 

David Baxter

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Forgiving isn't necessarily about letting things go but rather finding another way to deal with them.

And often forgiving isn't even about another person - it's about you and finding peace.
 

Mark Shaw

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This article really says a lot about the reality of myself and people who i am close to, and also people who i meet in life everyday. So many people constantly talk about an issue they have with someone else where this person or that person has offended them, never able to see that the problem can and should be the other persons.

A couple of my close friends regularly speak bitterly of occasions like this when someone has acted out of their social norm and offended them or their friends. And even though i remind them about where the source of the issue lies, they usually agree whilst looking bitter and confused.

It seems such a big part of life and is even portrayed on TV and in films. Hence when my parents rant on about how a celebrity or politician has said this or that about another celebrity, i suppose extended or virtual bitterness can be forgiven also.
 

Leo Lavoie

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Sometimes forgiving seems to get in the way of therapy. As I point out to the patient that the source of his neurosis is the way his mother or father did this or that, then the forgiveness that the patient is so fond of is just a disguise for a defense mechanism.

That is to show how forgiveness is the result of a healing process as much as part of it.

Logic and knowledge will do for rational forgiveness. The one who is offensing is almost always sure that he is defensing and that his "evil" actions are justified. Nevertheless, forgiveness does't wipe clean the slate of responsibility.

In analytic psychotherapy, I teach my patients that they can forgive all they want or not; it changes nothing about the fact that their childhood surroundings of adults where responsible for his psychological well being. Did they fail or not? Usually, if the patient is not psychologically well, then, on at least some level, they did fail. And it DID hurt.

When this is deeply aknowledged then the healing can start and when the healing is done, then it is the perfect base for true forgiveness.
 

poohbear

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I am in the middle of a very long and very frustrating divorce. My ex has made some very harsh (and wholly untrue) comments that have gotten others involved in our divorce. I am very, very angry with him. I am wanting all of this to be over, but it seems that every week or so (while waiting for all of this to end) there is a new development that has to be addressed. I WANT to (believe me I do) put all this behind me and to just GO ON in life. But it seems I cannot. Is there a way to FORCE oneself to forgive, despite constant reminders of hurt and betrayal--especially emotional hurt?--Poohbear:(
 

amastie

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Thanks David,
Saved the article.
Wondered how I could perhap apply it to forgiving oneself.
Have to read it more carefully.
 

kimmy

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I think that you can forgive someone while choosing to break the relationship. When you forgive, you do first and foremost 'FOR YOU' to you free up your grudges. But to get to forgive, you must be able to understand and feel, without trial and without charges. It is necessary to use empathy and you can feel how this person had reached its limits.
 

Budoaiki

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I am still trying to find a way to forgive my father which is really hard because every time we talk (if you can call it that) he goes on the defensive and he agitates me to the point of anger which is one of the reasons why we aren't speaking.

This article reminded me of the purpose of forgiveness and that it's not about having him justify his actions or getting an apology it's about finding peace of mind and learning to forgive myself.
 
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Forgiving isn't necessarily about letting things go but rather finding another way to deal with them.

And often forgiving isn't even about another person - it's about you and finding peace.

how do you do that?

does it need to be a conscious decision that you want to forgive and then you work on it?

can forgiveness happen gradually and on its own without actively trying to achieve it?
 

MonaLachia

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This was really helpful information David. Thanks for that. I truly feel also that grudges and bitterness hurts you more so than the person or people you're holding bitterness or grudges towards. What's crazy is sometimes the people who are holding grudges against the next person that person many times are totally unaware of it. Which makes it even worse.
 

HBas

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Forgiving isn't necessarily about letting things go but rather finding another way to deal with them.

And often forgiving isn't even about another person - it's about you and finding peace.

I have always looked for a way to explain it but you have done that for me now Dr. Baxter - Thank you - I will keep it in my head.
 

Ryan Howes

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Interesting stuff here, thanks David. I've got some interest in this topic, too (I wrote something about it a couple years ago). It seems to me that a lot of people ignore or under-emphasize the importance of emotion in forgiveness. I think this oversight is what makes forgiveness so difficult for many people.

I think there are four elements necessary for healthy forgiveness:
1. Express the emotion
2. Rebuild security
3. Understand
4. Let go

Let's say you walk over and step on my foot. My first most responses are likely feelings: pain sensations, shock, anger. Then I wonder why you did it. Then I start planning how to make sure it'll never happen again. Only when the emotion has been fully expressed (preferably to you, but that's not always necessary), I have some understanding of why you did it (you're mad at me? you're clumsy? you're drunk? okay, I get it), and I have some assurance of safety (your promise not to do it again, my wearing steel-toed shoes, or deciding not to be in the same room as you), can I even think of letting go (deciding not to hold a grudge).

I think too many people want to leapfrog over emotions and rush to forgiveness. It's difficult feeling hurt, sadness and anger, and even more difficult expressing it to the person who hurt you. But if the emotion isn't expressed, it will just sit and fester, and deep forgiveness won't take place.

One more thing: some people have difficulty with the Letting Go part of forgiveness because holding a legitimate grudge is a powerful position, and forgiveness means becoming equals again. I see this with couples all the time. They won't drop their partner's mistake from a decade ago because it's a powerful weapon to haul out when they feel the need. "You're mad I didn't wash the dishes? Well, you forgot my birthday one year!" To forgive means making a decision to drop that grudge and never use it for ammunition again. And this is much easier when the emotions have been fully expressed.
 

David Baxter

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I think too many people want to leapfrog over emotions and rush to forgiveness. It's difficult feeling hurt, sadness and anger, and even more difficult expressing it to the person who hurt you. But if the emotion isn't expressed, it will just sit and fester, and deep forgiveness won't take place.

One more thing: some people have difficulty with the Letting Go part of forgiveness because holding a legitimate grudge is a powerful position, and forgiveness means becoming equals again. I see this with couples all the time. They won't drop their partner's mistake from a decade ago because it's a powerful weapon to haul out when they feel the need. "You're mad I didn't wash the dishes? Well, you forgot my birthday one year!" To forgive means making a decision to drop that grudge and never use it for ammunition again. And this is much easier when the emotions have been fully expressed.

Both excellent points which are consistent with my own observations, perhaps especially the first in the case of couples. They want to move on with the relationship and therefore feel the need to get over the anger -> forgiveness part as quickly as possibly to avoid creating any further distance between them.
 

ladylore

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They want to move on with the relationship and therefore feel the need to get over the anger
And doomed for failure. If the forgiveness isn't authentic the anger and other feelings will come back. Maybe in a more passive-agressive way, but they will come back.
 

Fiver

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I hate this topic, I really do. I suppose that being brought up in a mostly Judeo-Christian society places a definition of "forgiveness" that makes it feel mandatory in polite company. I'm really struggling with this forgiveness crap right now, I really am.

Look, I'm an easy person to get alone with, and I'm an easier person to please. I happen to also believe that I have a large capacity for empathy and compassion, and as such I am more than willing to forgive and move forward when it's necessary. I've made more than my share of mistakes in my life, and I've been forgiven and offered the chance time and again to make things right. Hopefully, I've not let too many of those people down. But they taught me to do the same for others.

But forgiveness no matter what? Just because it's supposed to help me move on? Nope, not buying it. Let's take a specific example, the one with which I'm currently struggling. I was raped, beaten, and nearly killed by a man who had no reason to hate me, much less commit such atrocities. He never offered a reason to me or his other rape victims, never showed the slightest amount of remorse throughout his trial or his sentencing, and in fact continued to be cruel and disdainful to those he hurt (which included his wife and her daughter, who is my ex-significant other of more than a decade.)

I wasted the better part of the last fifteen months searching for some understanding of what would cause someone to become so cruel and evil, or mentally and criminally ill. I had hoped to be offered something resembling an apology, or at least glimpse a hint of remorse. In fact, I had it in my head for a long time that I needed to visit him while he was in jail awaiting trial, just to try to find some answers in his eyes. My therapist had a hard time talking me out of that one, but ultimately she was right: I will not find my answers in this man. He does not want forgiveness because he feels no remorse.

How do you forgive someone who feels no remorse, and doesn't care one way or the other if you forgive him or not? And why should I forgive someone who is not asking me for the chance to make amends? Will forgiving him make me feel better? Hell no! It took me this long to get angry and to feel some needed hatred toward him -- and now forgiving him is supposed to make me feel better?

No. It's not going to happen. I'm not Jesus Christ and I don't have to forgive anyone if I don't want to, not for them and not for me, not when they don't desire it. In time I can envision my anger and hatred waning to a healthy level, I really can see that happening as I continue to move forward. But he does not deserve my forgiveness, nor do I feel I have to give him one more thing that he hasn't already taken by force.

If there is a god that this bastard believes in, and he chooses to ask his god for forgiveness, then good for him. But I'm human, he hasn't asked me, and he's not getting it. This is one thing I get to keep.

[Geeze, I'm sorry -- did I just derail another thread?]
 

David Baxter

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No, not at all, Fiver.

There are times when forgiveness is beneficial.

There are times when it is probably impossible and probably neither necessary or helpful.

In a case such as you describe, I wouldn't even try to encourage forgiveness. Why and how would someone even begin to forgive something like that or a person who had done something like that? In such cases, I think the goal is more one of coping and acknowledging the victimization instead of searching for responsibility for that victimization.
 

Jazzey

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Ditto Fiver..Better yet, how do you forgive yourself (not intended for you) but certainly a question that creeps up on me daily because of my own circumstances...I don't know....

:hug::hug:
 
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Forgiveness to me is not at all about the other person. To me it's about being able to truly let go of the hold the other person has on my life. So maybe the word forgiveness isn't really even accurate. I think it's more a letting go or a cleansing of this person out of my life.

And everyone views it differently. Everyone's experiences and lives are different. For me, some kind of forgiveness will be necessary for me to move on. That's just my own personal belief. If someone else thinks differently there's nothing wrong with that either.
 

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