Almost 70 percent of Americans admit to holding on to a past grievance. But as the famous Buddhist saying goes, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” In other words, allowing resentment to fester will hurt you more than it hurts anyone else. Here, experts provide six easy tips to help you let go of a grudge, say goodbye to bitterness, and embrace the joy of forgiveness.
Our expert panel
- Kathryn J. Norlock, PhD, author of The Moral Psychology of Forgiveness
- Robert Enright, PhD, founding member of the International Forgiveness Institute
- Alice MacLachlan, PhD, Associate Professor of Philosophy at York University; research focuses on the aftermath of conflict
Look a little deeper
The first step to moving on from a grudge is examining the surprising effects it’s having on you, says expert Robert Enright, PhD. “It’s often a revelation for people when they start to explore how their resentment is actually hurting them,” he says. “Have you been more irritable? Are you having intrusive thoughts? Becoming aware of its emotional and physical costs helps you want to begin letting go and lighten your heart.”
Picture a better future
A grudge is backward-looking by definition, which is why looking ahead can dislodge its hold over us, says expert Kathryn Norlock, PhD. “Research shows just imagining a better future with the person who hurt you helps you want to make that future a reality,” she reveals. “Ask yourself what interacting with them more positively would look like. By involving your imagination, your brain has an easier time planning specific things you might say and do to improve the dynamic.”
Try a new perspective
We tend to overestimate others’ intentions to hurt us, while they underestimate how much they’ve wounded us, studies show. “It’s helped me to remind myself that most people aren’t bad — more often, they’re just thoughtless,” says Norlock. This simple shift in perspective curbs your resentment by helping you see people in a more understanding light.
Give yourself this gift
Forgiveness is something you do for you, says Enright, who suggests changing your perspective in three ways. First, the personal: “Ask yourself how they may have been hurt, because wounded people wound others.” Next is global: “What do you share with them? This could be that you both have worth as people.” Finally, spiritual: “Pray for help in letting compassion into your heart. Each step helps you see their humanity, so you can begin to heal.”
Stop blaming yourself
Just as important as forgiving others is forgiving yourself: “A grudge is a weight you carry, and speaking to yourself kindly can lessen the burden,” says expert Alice MacLachlan, PhD. “Tell yourself, ‘I have faith in my choices — I’m not going to blame myself for trusting the wrong person.’” Releasing guilt restores your confidence, allowing you to build resilient relationships.
Find comfort in rituals
When reconciliation isn’t possible, let yourself grieve. “You can’t unbreak a heart, but you can find wisdom in the fault lines,” says MacLachlan, revealing that rituals help us move on. “For example, you might write a goodbye letter, telling someone your friendship can’t continue, but you’ll miss them.” Accepting your emotions lets you hold out hope that one day things may be different: The path to forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t always a straight line, but it’s worth taking for your heart.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.