The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Here are five ways to begin to let go and move on.

Posted Jun 23, 2020

Justin would be the first to admit that his childhood was far from traumatic. His parents were loving with him and each other. They lived in a nice home in a thriving community with excellent schools. His parents encouraged Justin, an indifferent student in his early years, to do his best. And yet, when he talks about his parents now, his voice tightens with anger.

“They were critical of me and pushed me to do better in school,” he says. “And Dad was strict. He had rules about curfew and chores that kept me from hanging out with my friends as much as I wanted. I feel that he stole my happy childhood away from me.”

Justin is 38 now, married and the father of three children. He rules the household with rage, with stringent rules that keep his children silent and walking on eggshells and his wife busy caring for him as if he were another child. He clings to past resentments, creating a painful present.

Hanging on to grudges and resentments from the long ago or recent past can add to relationship and mental health issues, contributing to ongoing depression and anxiety and complicating life in general.

Perhaps resentment over a past conflict or betrayal has clouded your relationship with your spouse. Perhaps dwelling on how a friend, maybe someone you no longer see, once hurt you contributes to your current stress. Perhaps clinging to past pain and the ways others have disappointed you is keeping you from seeing and embracing new possibilities.

Holding onto past pain can also be hazardous to your physical health. A number of studies have linked continuing resentment and grudges to high blood pressure, risks for heart disease, and cognitive decline. In short, bitterness is bad for your health.

The key to recovery is forgiveness and letting go of anger and resentment.

Forgiving doesn’t mean saying the pain doesn’t matter or that what the other person said or did was OK. It doesn’t mean forgetting what happened. It means letting go of your need for an apology or for revenge. It means making peace with past hurt and pain. It means choosing to move on.

All of this is easy to say, hard to do. But forgiveness and freedom from the past can happen in a series of small steps over time.

1. Take time to process your pain. Forgiving doesn’t mean shrugging and saying “Oh, well.” Take your feelings seriously. Cry, grieve, pound pillows, write angry passages in your journal. Use exercise to work off some of the tension. Talk with trusted friends or family. Seek counseling to help resolve your feelings. You have a right to feel hurt and angry. But hanging onto these feelings over time keeps you stuck in that painful place, feeling wronged, victimized, and powerless. 

2. Embrace the power to make a difference in your life. I’ve seen so many miss the opportunity for reconciliation with an adult child, a parent, a sibling, or a friend because they stubbornly wait for the apology that may never come. Others stay mired in anger and resentment, feeling betrayed and victimized long after the other person has ceased to be a part of their lives. Make a decision to make a difference for yourself. That may be forgiving and being the first to reach out to the other. Or it may mean forgiving so that you can move on with your life.

3. Forgive yourself and engage in positive self-talk. This is particularly important when you’re recovering from a romantic breakup, ongoing conflict over unrealistic expectations, or unsolicited advice from parents or the meltdown of a friendship. Although you may blame the other primarily, there may be lingering self-blame as well when you think back over ways you contributed to the breakup, never measured up to your parents’ hopes and dreams, or seem to have a pattern of friendships turning sour. While it’s useful to examine what part you may have played in the conflict by offering yourself up as a victim, by not standing up for yourself or by not communicating your feelings as effectively as you might have to prevent a misunderstanding, it’s important to forgive yourself and urge yourself on with positive self-talk. Reassure yourself that you can learn from this and move on. Tell yourself that you will survive this pain and that life will get better because you can make a choice to let go.

4. Try understanding rather than demonizing the other. This doesn’t minimize your pain but may make what happened more understandable, if not OK. A parent who was critical may have been echoing the voice of his or her own critical parent or, feeling that he didn’t reach his own potential in life, may have expressed his own frustrations and hopes through urging you on. A friend who has seemed devoted to the task of keeping you down, feeling lesser than, may harbor deep self-doubt. An ex who disappointed or betrayed you may be stuck in self-sabotaging behaviors that could doom future relationships. Understanding doesn’t excuse hurtful behavior. Their problems are their own to resolve—or not. But understanding rather than demonizing them can help you to release your anger and to forgive.

A longtime friend of mine who is an actor once had a brief and somewhat tempestuous relationship with a well-known actress whose relationships have been notoriously short-lived and rancorous. “We had a few dates and then broke up 30 years ago,” he told me. "And yet even today when I run into her at industry events, she’s angry and nasty to me. It amazes me that she has lived with so much anger for so long. There seems to be no room for tenderness or forgiveness or growth. That’s very sad, isn't it?"

5. Realize that forgiveness benefits you most of all. The other person may never know about your forgiveness. But forgiving and letting go can lighten the load on your body and on your spirit. Releasing the anger and resentment, stopping the rumination and revenge fantasies can make room for hope and compassion and an abundance of joy in your life.

References

Forgiveness can improve mental and physical health. American Psychological Association. http://wwwapa.org/monitor/2017/01/ce-cornner.aspx

Loren L. Toussaint, Grant Shields, Emily Green, Kelly Kennedy, Stephanie Travers, George M. Sllavich. Hostility, Forgiveness, and Cognitive Impairment Over 10 Years in a National Sample of American Adults. Health Psychology, 2018 Dec: 37(12):1102-1106