The deepest wounds feel like they'll last a lifetime: The absent mother who robbed you of the mother-daughter bond you craved and deserved. The eighth-grade bully who turned the classroom into a living nightmare. The boyfriend who broke his promises and chose her instead.
You feel bitter. You still hold a grudge. But clinging to those betrayals and disappointments, that hurt, is bad for the body and mind. "It's inevitable that we'll all be hurt by others, and that it will happen often," says clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, who's based in Pasadena, Calif. "People have accidents, make mistakes, behave selfishly, and even intentionally try to hurt one another. We can't escape it. Forgiveness is a vulnerable act that can feel like it opens us up to more pain. But we need to have a way to process and let go of the effects of injury, or we risk serious physical and emotional consequences."
Indeed, experts say that forgiving those who have wronged us helps lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate. One study found that forgiveness is associated with improved sleep quality, which has a strong effect on health. And Duke University researchers report a strong correlation between forgiveness and strengthened immunity among HIV-positive patients. The benefits aren't just limited to the physical, either: Letting go of old grudges reduces levels of depression, anxiety, and anger. People who forgive tend to have better relationships, feel happier and more optimistic, and overall, enjoy better psychological well-being.
Anecdotes support the research. Psychologist Robert Enright, author of The Forgiving Life, has taught forgiveness in a variety of settings, and next year he'll do so in Liberia in the wake of a 14-year civil war. "Every human being on the planet has been injured by another's injustice, and how we respond to that can make all the difference," he says. Dwelling on negative emotions makes it more likely to displace pent-up anger, lashing out on a friend or family member. "Forgiveness helps quiet anger so it doesn't spill over onto innocent others," Enright says.
If you're bent on holding grudges, you may become so wrapped up in past wrongs that you can't enjoy the present. You may feel helpless, or like life is meaningless. You could jeopardize future relationships. "If you don't get past some of the wounds of the past, you tend to bring them into everything else you pursue," says psychotherapist Frank Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good. He's spent more than 20 years studying forgiveness. "If you've been dumped or treated badly, and you don't really heal, you're going to be less trusting, more defensive, and more quarrelsome with the next guy—or even the next five—because you still carry visceral pain. When we can't move past that, we stay a prisoner of our worst experiences." And feeling that way, constantly on edge, resentful, and maybe even frightened, certainly isn't healthy.
Still, no one ever said forgiveness was easy. It's a difficult process, Enright says, one that "takes serious hard work over months" or even a year. The first step is understanding what forgiveness is: a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge, and perhaps even reaching a place of understanding, empathy, and compassion. It's not reconciling. And it's not forgetting—in fact, "it's important to remember what hurt you so you can avoid it in the future," Howes says. Forgiveness also doesn't justify or excuse what the other person did. Rather, it helps achieve a sense of peace.
There's no single manual for forgiveness, though several experts tout their own methods. Howes suggests focusing on four elements:
• Express the emotion. Let yourself feel hurt and angry. Verbalize the way you feel. Ideally, express it to the person who made you feel that way. Otherwise, talk to a stand-in friend or even an empty chair. Write a letter; you don't need to send it. Shout your emotions at the top of your lungs while you're in the car, alone, with the windows down.