Letting Go of Yesterday's Hurts

Picking at our painful past keeps us from healing psychically and emotionally and threatens our physical health, whereas letting go increases physical and emotional well-being.
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If you can tell a story about how you were wronged last month, last year, five, even 10 years ago with the same vehemence, anger and ire, then you have not let go of it! What happened has happened. What was done is done. Over, finis.

Like a dog with a bone, we can gnaw on old wounds or injustices, reliving every detail over and over, thereby keeping them raw in our minds. Picking at our painful past keeps us from healing psychically and emotionally and threatens our physical health. Letting go increases physical and emotional well-being.

Holding on to hurtful memories appears to affect the cardiovascular and nervous systems. In a study conducted by the Psychology Department at Hope College, people who nursed a grudge had elevated blood pressure and heart rates, as well as increased muscle tension and feelings of being less in control. When asked to imagine forgiving the person who had hurt them, the participants said they felt more positive and relaxed, and thus the changes dissipated.

How can we quell this inner turmoil? The process of letting go has several steps, beginning with forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about simply "turning the other cheek"; it's also about us, about understanding the anger, resentments and grudges that affect our relationships and hold us hostage emotionally.

Notable Irish poet and writer Oscar Wilde said, "Always forgive your enemies -- nothing annoys them so much." While the witticism of his remark may make us smile, there is truth to this statement. Sadly, there are folks who need disruption and chaos in their lives in order to survive. Anger is the one defense mechanism with which they are most comfortable.

But when we let go and forgive, we strip them of that anger response. Remember Sir Isaac Newton's third law of physics: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Our goal in life should not be to merely survive, but to thrive, to flourish.

In a study presented at the Society of Behavioral Medicine's 32nd Annual Meeting and Scientific Sessions (which took place April 30, 2011), Amy Owen, Ph.D, of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., found that people living with HIV who truly forgave someone who had hurt them in the past showed positive changes in their immune status. When we are in a state of unforgiveness, we hold on to the negative emotions that adversely affect the healing process.

Dr. Katherine Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., wrote, "Forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, positive parts of your life."

Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of positive psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on the empirical study of positive emotions and strengths-based character, said in an Internet interview, "Letting go of grudges is a way to break grudge collecting." Holding on to past trespasses and transgressions produces "continued unhappiness" and can lead to depression.

So how can you turn past transgressions into yesterday's news?

"Happiness depends upon ourselves," wrote Aristotle. We must actively choose to understand why it is that we cannot let go. One reason may be that an apology was due us, and it was either never received or was poorly given. (I'll address the Proper Apology in a later blog post.) Another reason may be that we have not addressed painful old hurts that fester and weep whenever we feel vulnerable. Lastly, sometimes we cannot completely let go because we have not owned up to our own role, no matter how small, in the wrongdoing.

The exercise below will guide you toward burying the bone for good. Get a notebook or journal in which to respond to the following questions. Treat the notebook like a diary -- for your eyes only. Find some quiet time away from distractions. Make time just for you and your thoughts. Take your time, ponder each question and write your response as detailed as possible.

After a few days, revisit the questions and review your answers. As you review each question, write down any additional insights that come to you.

Letting go, like any change you wish to make in life, requires a commitment to the process. And, as in most things in life that we accomplish, the steps we take to get there and the lessons we learn along the journey are as important as the goal.

Commit to the process of letting go. Refuse to be defined by the "Oh, ain't it awfuls" of life. Flourish.

The "Let Go of Yesterday" Exercise

  1. What is a hurt, injustice, irritation or inconsideration that you are holding on to?

  • What happened, as you recall it?
  • When did this happen?
  • Who was involved?
  • What was your initial reaction?
  • What did you say or do at that time?
  • What was the outcome at that time?
  • In retrospect, would you have done or said anything differently?
  • How is your relationship with the person(s) at the present time?
  • What changes/actions are you willing to take and/or make now to truly let go of this old hurt?
  • Rita Schiano is an adjunct professor at Bay Path College, where she teaches philosophy and stress management courses. She is the founder of Live A Flourishing Life™, which melds her three professions: philosophy instructor, stress management instructor and resilience coach, and freelance writer. Her book, "Live a Flourishing Life," is used for the college program and in private training programs. Rita also conducts stress management and resilience-building workshops funded by the Massachusetts Dept. of Industrial Accidents, and she is actively involved with Maine Resilience, a program coordinated with the effort, materials and information offered by the American Psychological Association and the Maine Psychological Association through their Public Education Programs. Rita is an Associate Member of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). Visit her online at www.ritaschiano.com and Red Room, where you can read her blog.

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