It's easier said than done, of course. If the offense was unintentional, like your sister borrowing and then losing your favorite necklace, you probably let her off the hook fairly quickly. Offenses that take a little longer to overcome might include overhearing some friends spreading hurtful gossip about you or a co-worker sabotaging your efforts on an important project. And if you endured a devastating transgression—like unfaithfulness in a marriage or a serious family betrayal—forgiveness may seem a long, long way off, if not an impossibility…especially if the offender isn't seeking it.
Or maybe the person you haven't forgiven yet is yourself. If you've fallen off the exercise bandwagon or relapsed into bad eating habits, the first step to getting back on track is giving yourself grace for your missteps.
Have you ever noticed that when you're very angry or hurt, your heart beats faster and you just feel crummy overall? These are physical manifestations of negative emotions. "There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed," says Karen Swartz, M.D., in an article on the Johns Hopkins Hospital website.
Letting go of a long-standing grudge doesn't just lift your spirits—it also improves your physical and mental wellness. According to the Mayo Clinic, forgiveness has the power to reduce stress and anxiety, strengthen your immune system, alleviate symptoms of depression, lower your blood pressure and even improve your heart health. You may find that you sleep better, have more energy and are more motivated to pursue life-enriching goals, like eating better and exercising. Once the burden is lifted from your shoulders, that spinning class, trip to the farmer's market or morning walk around the block may suddenly seem more attainable.
Science backs up these claims: A study published in Social Psychological & Personality Science showed that people who chose to forgive transgressions perceived hills as less steep, and were able to jump higher in a fitness test. This reinforces the idea that our minds are inextricably linked to our bodies.
Read on for all kinds of other unexpected perks that come with burying the hatchet.
Mastering the Art of Forgiveness: 5 Steps
Simply saying the words "I forgive you" won't necessarily release you from deep-seated resentment and hostility. Lisa Bahar, a family therapist who practices Dialectical Behavior Therapy, maintains that forgiveness is a process. "There are steps to forgiveness, which you have to move through before actually experiencing the mental health benefits," she says.
These steps may look a bit different for each of us, but here's a rough road map:
- Recognize your resentment. According to Bahar, the first step is to be aware that you're not in forgiveness mode. "It's all about willingness versus willfulness," she says. "You have to be willing to admit the reality that you're attached to a resentment that's making you angry and/or sad, and that you're choosing to hold onto the transgression instead of letting it go."
- Share your pain. Suffering in silence only magnifies your feelings of hurt and anger. Find a trusted friend or family member with whom you can share your experiences and emotions. You can also find relief through journaling: One idea is to write a letter to the person who wronged you, explaining why you felt hurt and then expressing your desire to forgive. Whether or not you actually deliver the letter isn't as important as taking that ceremonial step.
- Accept the situation. Once you've recognized that the transgression is creating a sense of anger, sadness or both, you'll be in a position to turn your mind toward acceptance, which is a form of forgiveness. Maybe that means coming to terms with the fact that your spouse isn't coming back, you're not getting that well-deserved promotion or you can't trust a friend as much as you thought. Bahar calls this radical acceptance: "This doesn't mean you're approving of the situation, just that you're willing to turn the mind toward accepting what has occurred and letting it go in order to decrease the intensity of the emotions." You may feel a twinge of sadness after accepting a harsh reality, but it can also be a cleansing release that brings a sense of peace and calmness.
- Give up control. At its core, harboring a grudge is a form of control. Some psychiatrists call this the "hook" that is holding you back from forgiveness. You may not be able to control how someone treats you, [talks] about you or fails to do for you, but you can control your reaction to it. When you refuse to forgive, it may seem like you hold some sort of power over the person who has wronged you, but that power comes at a high cost: Your health and happiness.
- Practice empathy. This may be easier in some situations and downright laughable in others, but it's worth a try. Even if you can't understand why someone behaved a certain way, you can make an effort to recognize the feelings or experiences that triggered that hurtful behavior. Let go of any revenge fantasies, as these won't get you any closer to forgiveness.