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Seven Principles for Letting Go of Grudges and Forgiving Someone

In modern fights for justice, inclusion, and opportunity, forgiveness is a superpower. Close friends and family let us down. Strangers harm us. Colleagues annoy us. How can we forgive people who negatively impact our lives? Science offers seven principles for retaining mental health and desired relationships during hard times.

Going through painful interpersonal stressors is unfortunately common. Upon asking 68,894 adults across six continents, approximately 7 out of 10 recall experiencing at least one traumatic event. Another person often bears responsibility: being stalked/threatened/assaulted/threatened or witnessing it happen to someone else, struggling to survive in a violent region of the world, or being injured by an automobile or man-made accident. Beyond the confines of trauma, we are well-versed in being ignored, criticized, rejected, excluded, betrayed, and in some cases, discriminated against. Political disagreements offer yet another negative life event to the mix. We often find it repulsive that someone holds a view different from our own on gun rights, abortion, white supremacy, vaccines, or transgender rights. Consider:

  • 39% of Americans had at least one serious argument with a close friend or family member
  • 15-16% stopped talking to them because of politics
  • 17% blocked them on social media
  • 13% ended a close relationship.

Relationship endings might be deserved. Though knowing the best predictor of happiness and meaning in life is the presence of close, significant relationships, it’s worth considering whether there is something worthy of being salvaged.

Thanks to modern civil rights movements, our attention is being directed to sources of injustice, unfairness, and harm. Survivors who spent years suffering in silence are voicing grievances. The path to justice in the aftermath of wrongdoings is treacherous, and often outside of our control. What we can manage, however, is our own psychology.

Nourish Well-Being with Forgiveness

To be an exceptional soccer player, you must be able to dribble the ball up field while noticing various options of what to do next:  is it better to battle defenders or pass the ball? which teammates are in position to receive a pass? Possessing vision of the available options, and switching to the most promising among them, is a potent strength. We must possess the same psychological flexibility in the arena of social conflicts – noticing and shifting through multiple options in search of the best possible outcome for all parties. When we are harmed by another person, avoidance, verbal aggression, and excising relationships serves us well in the short-term. These same strategies detract from our well-being over longer periods of time. Science offers a better strategy for dealing with people who offend or harm us: Forgiveness. Begin by asking, “Who would it be helpful to forgive?” With this question answered, here are seven principles to better living.

Principle 1: Know What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t

By forgiving someone, we are not condoning actions. We are not suggesting that a legitimate excuse exists. Dr. Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Good, offers this definition,

“Forgiveness is the feeling of peace that emerges as you take your hurt less personally, take responsibility for how you feel, and become a hero instead of a victim in the story you tell… Forgiveness is for you and no one else. You can forgive and rejoin a relationship or forgive and never speak to the person again.”

Forgiveness is different from reconciliation. Perhaps there will be no return to the relationship, maybe it will morph in a positive direction, or permanent damage persists. Begin the process with hope that irrespective of what happens to relationships, we can be unburdened.

Principle 2: Know What You Feel

Being able to precisely describe how an emotionally intense event makes us feel increases our capacity for resilience. Articulate the emotions felt in response to someone’s wrongdoing. Take time detailing exactly what disturbs you. For instance, let’s resist saying we feel upset and instead point out the disappointment because our values, beliefs, and reactions were discounted. Verbalize surprise that a friendship is being taken for granted. Clarify the anxiety felt when talking to them because our words are being misunderstood and twisted in arguments. Use your own language to capture the texture and origin of pain felt.

Principle 3: Share Experiences

It is a burden to keep hurt feelings and relationship ruptures to yourself. There is a sense of solidarity in sharing the pain. Do not underestimate the power of feeling heard and understood. We feel empowered with a voice. We gain wisdom from listening to lessons learned from a trusted ally who also tried to manage a relationship rupture. By pooling knowledge, each of us levels up in knowledge and skill. Caveat: be sure to share these thoughts offline, as a public conversation feeds vengefulness — which is an impediment to well-being (see Principle 7).

Principle 4: Highlight Heroism

Minimize the influence of transgressors in life narratives. It is a heroic act to feel negative emotions, process them, accept them, and when ready, move forward toward meaningful goals despite them. Make a mental note that attempting forgiveness is a heroic act. By moving toward forgiveness, there is evidence of agency. We are not being controlled by anyone else. We are working to transcend what happened, be assertive, and build fortitude. We are revising the boundaries of what you will and will not accept in the future. When we assume mutual respect exists, and it is violated, this hurts. The sanctity of a friendship depends on safety, security, respect, and trust. Pain can linger even if the person who transgressed against us is no longer present (or alive). The more we dwell on the event, the more gravitational force keeps us rooted in the past instead of the present and future.

Principle 5: Soothe the Self

Our body benefits from techniques that offer moments of clarity, calmness, and low physiological arousal. Build a regular habit of deep breathing, yoga, meditation, a walk in nature, or simply staring at the clouds. Develop better sleep hygiene: sufficient, uninterrupted rest. These habits will be easier to develop and automate when we decide on when it will happen – particular times or situations.  It could be embedded into morning rituals or before going to sleep. It could be a regimen that starts with placing a smartphone in a room out of view. (Be sure to read my favorite book on the topic, Atomic Habits.) It is easier to handle pain when bodily care is given due diligence.

Principle 6: Be Discerning

We think of the word judgmental as bad as if it is possible to hold identical preferences for every human being in our orbit. Reclaim discernment: where you decide who gains access into your social network. We are allowed to be highly selective. We are allowed to make non-negotiable terms. Hold onto people who are dedicated to producing mutually beneficial, healthy relationship. Choose people who would not intentionally harm or hurt, and who will be present if someone else did cause harm.

Principle 7: The Best Revenge is a Life Well-Lived

Mentally reliving the harm experienced. Mentally contemplating when and how to punish wrongdoers. These are self-induced punishments. We are squandering attention, energy, and time to whoever hurt us. Spend that energy wisely by uncovering new ways of satisfying basic psychological and social needs. Move from a narrowed perspective on past wounds to a broadening of the senses – notice people and objects that offer inspiration, intrigue, appreciation, awe, love, and satisfaction. Our power lies in redirecting attention wherever you see fit.

A Call to Arms

With the high prevalence of interpersonal conflicts and emotional pain in the social world, each of us will be tested. We will experience indignation, disgust, and contempt toward others. We will not be friends with everyone. That being said, there are personal and societal benefits for leaning toward charity, compassion, and forgiveness in difficult encounters. By all means, discard characters that repeatedly show indifference to your well-being. But think hard about whether to end relationships, especially old friendships that are hard to replace. Think hard about the costs of lingering anger, where we remain tethered to transgressors. Add the seven principles of forgiveness into the toolbox for managing psychological wounds. Forgiveness offers a path to greater self-care and healthier relationships.

Provocation

Think of a prior friendship that failed. Maybe they harmed you. Maybe you harmed them. Maybe one or both of you forgot to provide sufficient, regular nourishment. In the name of self-care, who is worthy of forgiveness? Consider telling them by phone, email, or text, and release the anchor that tethers you to the past.

Choose someone who upset you. Someone who pushed you to behave in undesirable ways. Maybe you acted more aggressively than desired. Maybe you tried to match their intense indignation and forgot to pause, ask questions, and try to understand them. You probably know very little about their backstory. Start with the assumption that their lives are like yours: Full of difficulties, disappointments, failures, and areas of discontent. Old wounds are often invisible. Just like you have old wounds that may not have healed. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they did not experience an easy, straightforward life. How can your next move be motivated by compassion instead of indifference or hate?

Know someone who has been wronged and struggling with forgiveness?
Share these Provoked principles with them!

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.