Dr. Lisa Regev
*Is grudge-holding ruining your life? Forgiveness as a path back to living the life you want.
Updated: Jan 25, 2020
While most of us like to think of ourselves as forgiving people, in practice forgiving is a very difficult thing to do. We have all been slighted, taken advantage of, neglected, and suffered various other forms of abuse and mistreatment. The memory of these experiences can torment us in the form of recurrent thoughts, memories, and mental images that we can’t seem to let go.
Why is it so hard to forgive? One reason is that we may have a number of negative connotations with forgiveness. Some people think that to forgive means to forget, to condone bad behavior, and to set us up for being victimized again. Making progress with forgiveness requires embracing a definition that does not include any of these factors. It is not condoning, or forgetting, or setting one up for repeated abuse. Forgiveness is actually about letting go of a grudge so that you can get your life back.
Holding a grudge is the process of thinking about a past event over and over again as if it were happening right then. It tends to be a full-body experience, overtaking your mind and body. These thoughts typically come up when the mind is not otherwise active, such as when driving, doing routine household tasks, or daydreaming. Replaying this grudge (also known as your “grievance story”) brings up all the emotions and physical effects from the original experience. Doing this repeatedly can make it a mental habit, leaving some people to feel like they are addicted to their grievance story and have no control over it. This habit can have very negative physical and psychological effects: raising your blood pressure, making it hard to be present in your relationships with others, and causing enough cardiac damage to be as harmful as smoking.
While the benefits of letting go of your grievance story are clear, the process is difficult and can only be initiated by you. Hearing other people tell you to “get over it” is typically not helpful. Deciding you are ready to start on the journey of forgiveness is essential and you should not try the strategies below until after you have decided you are ready.
Once you have reached this decision, there are some helpful strategies suggested by Fred Luskin in his book “Forgive for Good” (see Reference page). One of the most powerful ways to change your habit of thinking about the grudge is to develop and practice meditation around specific themes related to peace, love, kindness (such as a loving-kindness meditation). Like any habit, this has to be repeated regularly to take hold. Once you get used to thinking about peace, love and kindness (which can take several weeks of daily practice), you can start using it on demand. In other words, every time the grievance story makes an appearance in your mind, you can do what Luskin calls “changing the channel” to refocus your mind to something more positive that allows you to have a better experience during that moment.
A second effective strategy involves starting a gratitude log. The assignment is to log 5 new things each day to be grateful for. At first, it is often fairly easy to come up with 5 things. Everyone knows to be grateful for the food on their table, their family, friends, health, etc. However, because the assignment is to come up with new things every day, the assignment becomes more difficult over time. This exercise is powerful because it forces the mind to search for positivity, resetting a common tendency to focus on negative events (which was probably necessary for survival of the species many years ago). Over time, this exercise can lead you to feel more and more lucky and grateful. Feeling generally lucky will give you a lot more willingness to let go of your grievance story.
Ultimately, you will have to decide whether your grievance story helps protect you from future harm or is keeping you from the life you want. Most people eventually reach the latter conclusion. If that is the case for you, it is important to know that there are specific steps that can help you reach your destination.
*This blog is written for educational purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed as therapy or a therapeutic relationship.