Letting go of grudges isn’t just good for the soul — it’s a boost for your body as well. Over the past few decades, a growing number of studies have examined the therapeutic effects of forgiveness, and it turns out that it’s connected to better sleep and cardiovascular function as well as lower rates of depression and substance abuse, says Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., author of Forgive for Good and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. In fact, people who are more forgiving report better health in general, less pain, and less chronic illness. Their overall mortality rates are lower, and Luskin thinks the reason is simple: “Hurt and anger are meant to be fleeting emotions,” he says, “not permanent fixtures.” Holding on to them can set off a chemical stress response that takes a toll on your body, from jacking up blood pressure to disrupting sleep.
That’s what happened to Beth, 42. (Her name has been changed.) Several years ago, her husband had an affair, and though the couple agreed to work on their marriage, she struggled to move past her resentment. The full-time mom had trouble eating and sleeping and found herself ducking into the bathroom to sob. “I couldn’t even breastfeed my baby — I lost my milk supply,” she adds. Nearly a year after she’d learned of her husband’s infidelity, she resolved to forgive him, not for the sake of their marriage — they’d decided to divorce—but for her own well-being. “I was with my kids at the park, and one of them got on the monkey bars for the first time,” she says. “He wouldn’t let go of the first rung, so I kept telling him, ‘Honey, you have to let go, and then you can move forward!’ A lightbulb went on in my head. I knew that I would have to forgive in order to feel whole again.” Every so often, when resentment threatens to return, she has to remind herself to grab the next rung. “But the bad moments have gotten shorter and shorter,” she says. “And they don’t knock me down anymore.”
“Forgiveness is finding a way to dump the potent brew of anger, resentment, and “Why me?” that slosh
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to “makeup with” other people or even let them know you’ve forgiven them, experts say. At its most basic, forgiveness is finding a way to dump the potent brew of anger, resentment, and “Why me?” that sloshes around inside when you remember being treated unfairly. It is equal parts acceptance and resilience.
What’s more, says Robert Enright, Ph.D., founder of the International Forgiveness Institute in Madison, WI, it can—and ideally should—become habitual. Being a forgiving person, rather than just forgiving a particular offense, seems to carry the most health benefits. The habit pays off because the more you try to let go of anger and resentment, the better you’ll get at it. Manage that, researchers say, and over time you’ll heal faster from old scars, everyday slights, and painful betrayals.
Keep reading for five steps that will help you begin to let go.
1. Acknowledge The Hurt
Give yourself permission to get angry. For forgiveness to be authentic, and therefore helpful, you need to grapple with your fury as well as your sadness and vulnerability. “Some people never let themselves get angry, and there’s some degree of denial in this that isn’t healthy,” Luskin says. Still, don’t stay there: “If anger becomes a habit, it no longer gives you anything of value. It becomes an active process of creating misery for yourself.”
2. Make It Unconditional
Sixty percent of Americans think forgiveness should be extended only after the offender apologizes, according to a poll by the Fetzer Institute, a nonprofit that supports reconciliation projects around the world. But if you make forgiveness conditional, the other person is in control. You can’t let go until he or she makes amends — and that may never happen. And in one study, those who forgave only after extracting promises from the other person didn’t get the health boost that unconditional forgivers did.
3. Do It For Yourself
People who feel they must forgive for external reasons — faith, their relationship to the transgressor, etc. — rather than getting to that point on their own can end up feeling worse. In one workplace study, for instance, people who forgave coworkers because they didn’t see another option felt more stressed and less healthy than those who simply chose to forgive. Instead of viewing the process as something you owe others, think about the stress your anger causes — and how freeing it would be to let that go.
“Think about the stress your anger causes—and how freeing it would be to let that go.”
4. Rework Your Story
It’s OK to share your grievances with a few close friends. But there’s a difference between attracting support and throwing a pity party. “The more you tell a certain story about what happened — if you were dumped, for instance — the more that comes to define you,” says Luskin. “It actually changes your brain: You’re deepening mental grooves, making it more likely you’ll have those thoughts again. After a while, that’s the only way you can think about the situation.” On the other hand, switching the story around can be incredibly empowering. You might, for example, imagine the breakup as an opportunity to pursue your own passions or find a relationship better suited to you.
5. Don’t Try to Zip Through It
Depending on the situation, it can take weeks, months, or even years to get over a wound. “You have to go at your own pace,” says Luskin. What’s important is to work on it consistently and create the conditions that naturally give rise to forgiveness. The mind and body benefits will come when you begin to ditch bitterness and self-pity, one negative feeling at a time.