We’ve all felt wronged at one point or another in our lives. Perhaps an ex-partner treated you badly, a friend once said something hurtful or a family member did something you asked them not to. And while some things may be easy to forgive and forget, other things stick in our mind. Remembering past hurt isn’t necessarily a bad thing – our life experiences help shape who we are, after all, and encourage us to grow as a person – but when our inability to let go is all-consuming, problems can arise. In fact, research shows that holding on to a grudge or feelings of hostility can have a severe and long-lasting effect on your physical and emotional health.
“A Buddhist saying on this topic is that holding on to resentment is like holding on to a hot coal waiting to throw it at someone – you will still be getting burned,” says Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered psychologist, mental health and wellness expert, and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience (draudreyt.com). “We only have a finite amount of time and energy, and resentment and unease can take up the energy and time we may have to work on things to benefit ourselves,” she adds.
Executive coach Jodie Salt, who’s also the founder of Ladies Life Lounge (ladieslifelounge.com) and author of Woman Up, agrees.
“Resentment is a really powerful emotion that can have a significant impact on you,” she explains. “It can take up a lot of your energy and leave you feeling drained, and it can be quite toxic to you personally. These feelings can ooze out and leak into other aspects of your life without you realising, and can often leave you appearing in a negative light to others.”
There’s also the fact that holding on to a grudge can trigger the stress response, with any reminders of the person or event in question resulting in an increase in stress chemicals such as adrenaline and norepinephrine in your body. This can have immediate effects like an increased heart rate and breathing rate, and more long-term effects like exhaustion, digestive issues, muscle tension and more.
A healthier outlook
It’s not surprising then, that forgiveness has a whole myriad of benefits, most of which relate to our own wellbeing. Studies have shown, for example, that practising forgiveness can help improve your heart health, strengthen your immune system, lower your blood pressure and allow you to enjoy healthier relationships. So, the question is: why do we continue to hold resentment?
“We tend to have an unhelpful paradigm when it comes to forgiveness,” says Jodie. “We get caught up in the notion of ‘not letting the other person off the hook’ when it’s actually about letting yourself off the hook and freeing yourself from the heavy burden that blame carries. Yes, you can hold people accountable for their actions, but that’s different to forgiving someone.”
Of course, it’s important to remember that forgiveness isn’t just about other people. We need to learn to forgive ourselves too – whether that’s for a mistake we’ve made in the past, or for the very fact we’re finding it hard to let go of feelings of resentment.
“Sometimes we can be far harder on ourselves than other people,” says Jodie. “We tend to berate ourselves far more than we would another person for falling short of our extremely high and unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Self-compassion is key here. If we truly want to be kind to others, it’s important we also learn to be kind to ourselves. When we do, it allows us to show up as our best selves in the world.”
Time to let go
With this in mind, could now be the time for you to let go of a grudge you’ve been holding onto?
The only time you can really forgive someone for their actions is when you’re truly ready to, but often the events happening at this time of year can help us feel resolute in starting afresh. “Christmas time gives us perspective and a different context,” Jodie says. “It’s also a time of reflection and renewal and when we tend to open our hearts more. It’s the time of year for bringing people together which makes it conducive for forgiveness.”
The process involved in forgiving someone won’t be the same for everyone, as every situation is different and unique. However, there are a few steps you can take to help release feelings of resentment and move on from a place of negativity, according to our experts. Turn over for their top tips.
This one’s directed at you. If you’re struggling to forgive yourself for something you’ve done, or are berating yourself for feeling negative towards someone, take a moment to show yourself some love. Self-compassion is hugely important in boosting our happiness levels and feelings of self-worth and is an important skill to nurture. “Self-compassion focuses on our worth as humans,” says Dr Tang. “It is a way we relate to ourselves, rather than based on comparison with others or what we achieve.” Be kind, gentle and patient with yourself and empathetic with your situation. “Learn to self soothe by imagining you’re talking to the child version of yourself sat on your lap,” suggests Jodie. “What would you say to them?”
Make forgiveness your choice
You can’t forgive someone for anyone other than yourself. You may think, for example, that you should forgive a cheating husband for the benefit of your kids, or that by forgiving your work colleague you’ll help boost the team’s morale – but to properly forgive and move on, it has to be your choice.
Remember also, that forgiving someone isn’t necessarily a quick process. Sometimes it takes weeks, months or even years. Allow yourself to accept that and to process it at your pace.
“The time to forgive is when you are ready,” says Dr Tang. “The only thing I would add is that knowing the impact resentment can have, and knowing that it might affect our own ability to thrive, can better motivate us to let go for us.”
Remember that everyone is human
While this doesn’t always excuse actions, it is worth remembering that everyone has their own complex lives to navigate, and there may be a reason for the actions of the person who wronged you that you haven’t yet understood. Dr Tang suggests asking yourself: ‘Who would do something like that?’ when faced with a hurtful situation – and then answer it. “For example, if you’ve been let down by a friend again, ask yourself: ‘Who would do something like that?’ Perhaps it’s an overly busy, stressed person, a people pleaser who can’t bear to say ‘no’ and takes too much on, or someone who is overwhelmed with life and can’t seem to get organised,” she suggests. “When you break it down like that, especially if the relationship is one you want to save, then you might find a way of addressing the issue that avoids a recurrence.”
Understand your feelings
Our feelings are always valid and it’s important to give yourself permission to feel the emotions you do. This is especially true as it’s only through recognising and accepting your feelings that you can start the process of working through them. “Learn to notice what resentment, bitterness or anger feel like for you,” advises Jodie. “Where do you experience them in your body? Have the self-awareness to be able to acknowledge when they show up for you and get curious with it. Ask yourself: ‘What’s all that about then?’”
Work out what you need to move on
In some situations, you might want to rekindle a relationship with the person who has wronged you, but remember also that it’s okay not to want them in your life anymore. Forgiveness is still important regardless though.
If it’s a relationship you wish to keep, Jodie suggests talking face-to-face with the other person. “Talk to them openly about what has happened and how each of you feel and how you have been impacted,” she advises. “And, really listen to what they have to say. Remember, we judge ourselves on our intent, but others on their behaviour. There’s always going to be a mismatch on that unless we’re prepared to listen to what someone’s intent really was and see how our behaviour appeared to someone else, even if we didn’t mean it that way.” If talking to someone is not an option, you could try writing them a letter, or having an imaginary conversation with them.
There might not be a ground-breaking moment when everything is forgiven in an instant, but using these techniques can help you slowly move away from a feeling of resentment and towards a more positive, healthy outlook.
Work through it
Dr Tang shares a CBT-inspired exercise to help you reach towards a feeling of forgiveness
Step 1: Identify who is the source of your resentment and hostility and think about their actions.
Step 2: Observe the emotions, thoughts and sensations that thinking about them generates.
Step 3: List the reasons for those emotions, thoughts and sensations. This is an important stage because it allows you to think about these emotions in a safe space, and realise that your feelings are valid.
Step 4: Reflect on the tangible benefits of holding onto those emotions, thoughts and sensations.
Step 5: And now, reflect on the tangible benefits of letting them go.
This exercise is beneficial because letting go of your feelings of resentment then becomes your choice. Plus, by being able to hold your emotions for a while as you do the cognitive work, you can reduce their impact, and this can help us emotionally and mentally.