We were recently talking over dinner about our daughters’ weddings, when one of the women blurted out how at her own wedding in Phoenix her mother reproachfully said to her, “Did you have to pick the hottest day of the year to get married?” My friend is still smarting at that remark; she is 99. This happened 80 years ago, yet the emotion was still palpable. It made me wonder about how we still hold on to slights, to criticisms, to feelings of betrayal, to having been wronged, or made to feel inadequate—the list is long. It continues with holding on to when we have acted badly, hurt someone, been embarrassed by our own actions, did something we should not have done, or did not do something we should have. I’m talking about regret and remorse.
Bad things happen to all of us. How we deal with these events does not necessary depend on the magnitude of the hurt for people have forgiven the rapist, but cannot forgive that mother on that wedding day in Phoenix long ago. There is a difference between not forgiving and not forgetting. One can remember painful events without emotional attachment, but if the memory elicits hurt, anger, blame, or even a wish for revenge, then it is not only not forgotten, it is not forgiven.
This issue can impact our own health. We know that anger is stressful, and stress releases cortisol which narrows our arteries, which in turn can cause heart problems. Nelson Mandela once said “resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die.”
Yet there are people who live in a permanent state of grievance. They seem to always be waiting for the next thing to be upset about. Their continuous complaining makes them feel alive. They live in a hostile world where everyone is waiting to take advantage of them. Always feeling put upon has what is called a “secondary benefit.” In other words, holding on to a grievance or being continually aggrieved has the purpose of eliciting pity from others. The “poor me” (a victim of circumstances) wallows in this state without ever taking any responsibility for their miserable state.
There have been many examples in medicine where patients’ anger and blame interfered with their ability to heal. One of the problems with memory is that the brain tends to remember negative events more than positive ones. This has an evolutionary benefit, for our survival depended on remembering potential dangers in order to avoid their threats in the future. In addition, anything that has a large emotional charge is better remembered.
Considering how difficult it is to let go and forgive both ourselves and our perpetrators, what can we do to help ourselves? One of the ways that has worked for me comes from my work as a therapist. Behind every destructive behavior is some unresolved pain that is then acted out. The therapy is to identify the pain, its trigger, and find a different solution in coping with it. When attacked, either verbally or physically, in order to forgive one must try to see the flawed humanity and/or the flawed expression of pain resulting in acting out aggressively. Empathy is only possible if we do the following steps:
1. Examine the price we pay for not forgiving.
2. Decide to forgive.
3. Develop some level of understanding and compassion for the offender.
4. Acknowledge that the offender may be suffering (Megan Feldman Bettencourt, “Triumph of the Heart,” Psychology Today, August 2015). Empathy is the ability to understanding another person’s feelings. It’s roots are compassion, which is innate in humans, unless they are deprived of nurture or love as infants and babies. Under these circumstances, the caring part of the brain does not devel0p; first children and later adults may express their unmet needs through bullying and violence. Deprived or abused at an early age, people cannot feel compassion, which is “the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” (Diane E. Levin, professor of early childhood education, Wheelock College, Boston).
It is only when we can feel compassion that we can forgive. Studies have confirmed that forgiving increases optimism, elevates mood whereas lack of it correlates with depression and anxiety. Forgiveness even increases blood flow to the heart.
So, dear readers, if you are still holding on to a grudge, whether from years ago or yesterday, or are you still beating yourself up from some bad decisions in the past? If so, find compassion and forgiveness in your heart (it’s actually in your brain) and you will be healthier and happier.