Kiss and Make Up

Prevention Magazine . February, 2007
5 steps that get you past your anger–and into a happier, healthier life

I was about 10 when my mother had a fight with her best friend, Selma. Summer days at the Smiths’ pool suddenly were a thing of the past; so were the festive Wednesday night poker games at our house. Any mention of the woman I’d thought of as an aunt—indeed, Selma’s very name—was enough to make my mother livid. They didn’t reconcile for more than a decade. The grievance that split them apart? An argument over who would pay for a bag of groceries.

Buddha would say that my mother’s resentment was like a hot coal: She picked it up to throw it at someone else, but she was the one who got burned. Frederic Luskin, PhD, and Carl Thoresen, PhD, who run the Stanford Forgiveness Project at Stanford University, have shown that a grudge is a gift that keeps on giving—misery, that is.

It causes anxiety, depression, anger, paranoia, isolation, insomnia, and physical pain. But by forgiving your transgressor, you take back control of your life, and that brings just as outsized a list of benefits. There are physical payoffs, like lower blood pressure; maybe more important, you feel less anger, anxiety, and depression, and more self-esteem.

One of the most moving of Luskin’s studies was the Stanford-Northern Ireland Hope Project, in which 17 men and women from Northern Ireland, all with family members murdered in the violence there, went to Stanford for forgiveness training. After just a week, these men and women who’d lost parents, children, spouses, and siblings reported a 35% decline in headaches, stomachaches, and other symptoms of stress, and a 20% drop in symptoms of depression.

Most people think forgiveness is a good idea, Luskin says—”until they have something to forgive.” That may be because so many of us just don’t know where to start. Fortunately, the path has been well marked, and one of the best decisions you can make this New Year is to learn how to follow it. Here are five steps to start you on your way.

1. Understand what forgiveness isand what it isn’t.

A lot of people don’t want to forgive because they think it’s wimpy, or that it means they’re saying the offender did nothing wrong. It’s neither: You can send an offender to jail and forgive him. People also think forgiveness requires reconciling with the person who mistreated them.

It can—but it doesn’t have to. Forgiveness isn’t really about the offender at all. Instead, it’s about letting go of the anger that eats at you—accepting that you were wronged but deciding to move on from your hurt. It’s an act of profound self-respect and self-care that takes courage and commitment on your part.

2. Grieve for what you’ve lost.

Premature forgiveness has been compared with squirting whipped cream over garbage. The result may look good, but the underlying problem remains and will fester. To truly forgive, you must feel your sorrow, and that can take time. Even after you’ve decided to let go of your anger, you may feel it flare from time to time.

You need to be gentle with yourself, counsels educator Robin Casarjian, founder of the Lionheart Foundation, a national prison rehabilitation program. In time, the memory of what happened will return less often and feel less painful.

3. Don’t wait for an apology.

Sometimes the person who hurt you isn’t even aware that he’s done so. In other cases, he’s incapable of understanding or caring. The simple words I’m sorry can be healing, but so is deciding that you no longer need to hear them.

4. Try to understand what drove the offender.

Generally speaking, bad behavior is the result of emotional immaturity, a state more to be pitied than judged. For example, studies show that many of the criminals in our federal prisons were abused as children. If your ex-friend betrayed a confidence, what insecurity must have driven her? If your father never showed you love and affection, how damaged must he be? Empathy can force out corrosive anger and transform your life—and sometimes the lives of others.

Last May, I was a guest on my friend Naomi Judd’s inspirational television program, Naomi’s New Morning. The topic of the show was forgiveness, and one of Naomi’s guests was a woman named Cheryl Ward, whose husband had been killed and her daughter raped when a gang of teenage boys broke into their home looking for money.

Cheryl told a story of radical empathy: Rather than being consumed by her grief and anger, she chose to visit the young men in prison and try to understand what had prompted them to commit such a heinous crime. Developing compassion not only lessened her pain but also led her to become an advocate for inmate rehabilitation.

5. Celebrate who you have become.

In a recent study at the University of Miami, psychologist Michael McCullough, PhD, and his colleagues asked approximately 200 people who’d been hurt by someone to write about either the traumatic aspects of the betrayal or things they’d gained as a consequence, like becoming less selfish or discovering that they had unexpected strength. Those who wrote about what they’d learned or how they’d grown described feeling less bitter than the others did and were also more likely to forgive.

Life is a school for learning, and some of the lessons are painful ones. We can’t avoid being hurt. But we can decide not to let our hurt overshadow the rest of our lives. Choosing to let go and move on doesn’t leave you the same as you were before. It brings you greater understanding and maturity and more compassion—toward others, and toward yourself, as well.

Smart ways to really move on

Take a calming breath.

When an upsetting memory arises, use deep breathing or another stress-management technique to allow yourself to feel your emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Change the way you describe yourself.

You were badly hurt—but you’re also someone who was brave enough to choose to forgive.

Tell it one more time.

Acknowledge your hurt to someone you trust, and then stop telling your grievance story once and for all. These stories keep hurt alive and can prevent you from being fully open to the people you need and love.

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