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Alcohol and Mental Health

How To Forgive Others: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitter Feelings

September 14, 2023
17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 14, 2023
17 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 14, 2023
17 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 14, 2023
17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 14, 2023
17 min read

You just can’t seem to move past it. You play it over and over in your mind: the words they said, the things they did, the pain they inflicted. And the more you think about it, the more enraged you become. You think to yourself, “There’s just no way I can forgive them. They’ve gone too far!” 

Many of us struggle with forgiveness. We’ve all been hurt in one way or the other by the actions or words of another. But by holding onto that hurt, we actually end up hurting ourselves more. 

In this post, we’ll explore the importance of forgiveness, and how forgiving others is beneficial for our physical, mental, and emotional health. We’ll also look at practical steps we can take to practice forgiveness. Let’s get started! 

What Is Forgiveness? 

​​Contrary to what most people think, forgiveness is more about healing ourselves than another person. It’s a way to let go of grudges, hurt and bitterness so that we can live healthy, happy lives. After all, holding onto resentment doesn’t harm the other person, it only harms us. 

Part of the trouble with forgiveness is that people think that they have to feel a certain way to forgive someone. But forgiveness is a choice — it’s a decision we can make regardless of our feelings and emotions. It’s very much an active process in which we consciously decide to let go of negative feelings, whether or not the person who hurt us “deserves” it. 

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we forget or excuse the harm that was done to us. It also doesn’t always mean that we make up with the person who caused us pain. Instead, it means that we choose to free ourselves from the pain the other person caused us. Doing so brings a certain kind of peace that allows us to focus on ourselves and move forward with our life.

As the author Lewis B. Smedes once wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” 

Why is Forgiveness Important? 

Holding a grudge against someone who did us wrong can feel good. There’s often a feeling of strength and righteousness in remaining angry and not forgiving the person, especially if they’ve never apologized or acknowledged their wrongdoing in any way.

But when we hold a grudge and struggle to forgive, we actually do ourselves a disservice. There’s a reason for the saying, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." It’s true. 

In fact, people who struggle with forgiveness tend to bring anger and bitterness into new relationships and experiences. They also tend to become depressed, irritable and anxious, becoming so wrapped up in the wrong that they can’t enjoy the present.

Chronic anger puts us into a fight-or-flight mode, which creates numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes can lead to worsening physical health, such as heart disease and diabetes. 

On the other hand, research shows that forgiveness lowers stress levels, improving physical health and increasing peace of mind. Among the documented benefits of forgiveness are healthier relationships, less anxiety and stress, fewer symptoms of depression, lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, improved heart health, and improved self-esteem.

One study explored the relationship among stress, forgiveness, and well-being. Researchers expected that people with greater lifetime stress would have greater mental health difficulties. However, one subset of people with greater lifetime stress had no correlating mental health issues: people who exhibited greater levels of forgiveness. Surprisingly, their higher level of forgiveness seemed to completely negate their lifetime of high stress. Forgiveness made all the difference.

Here’s a closer look at some of the benefits of forgiveness:

Peace: Forgiveness can bring us peace by helping to heal deep wounds and release us from negative emotions and stress. When we forgive someone, it might feel like we’re doing it for their benefit, but we’re really doing it to help ourselves. Forgiveness allows us to invite peace into our heart, and shed unhelpful feelings of distress.

Power: Forgiveness allows us to reclaim our power. Sometimes hurtful events or trauma can cause patterns of self-destruction. When someone has wronged us, we might feel that there’s nothing we can do about it. This creates a “victim mentality” that leaves us powerless. When we choose forgiveness, we retake control of our life and give ourselves permission to move on. 

Connection: Forgiveness can help improve connections with other people. Resentment and anger toward someone affect our relationship with that person, of course, but those feelings seep into our other relationships too. We might have a short temper or have difficulty trusting people. Forgiveness frees us to become more loving and compassionate in all our relationships. 

Positivity: Forgiveness can help us ruminate less, which improves our psychological health. The act of not forgiving is typically characterized by rumination, in which we mentally replay events over and over. These repetitive thoughts can eventually lead to anxiety and depression, or psychosomatic disorders in which stress and anxiety cause physical ailments like stomach pain or migraines. When we forgive, we free up space in our mind to think positive, healthier thoughts. 

What Are the Phases of Forgiveness? 

Ok, forgiveness is important — so how does it work? First and foremost, we have to choose to forgive, recognizing that it’s something that we can do to help ourselves move forward and heal. 

Forgiveness expert Dr. Robert D. Enright outlined 4 phases of the journey to forgiving a specific person: 

  • The uncovering phase: During the uncovering phase, we become aware of our emotional pain. We may feel anger or hatred; we may want revenge. This can be a painful stage because the awareness of negative emotions can be difficult. However, healing begins when we examine those painful emotions. It’s important to allow yourself to feel them, rather than shoving them away.
  • The decision phase: This phase comes when we realize we have a choice to make: focus on the injury and the person who caused it, or move forward in the healing process. This is when we see forgiveness as an effective tool for healing and make the conscious decision to commit to forgiving the person who caused us pain, giving up any ideas of revenge.
  • The work phase: The work phase actively working toward forgiving the person who injured us. This phase might include new ways of thinking about the person who did us wrong. Maybe we can put their behavior in context — did their childhood teach them to treat people poorly? Are they under stress at work? The purpose behind this contextualization isn’t to excuse the person who hurt us, it’s to understand the person as only human.
  • At this stage, we might develop compassion or empathy for the person who hurt us. This is the crux of forgiveness: being willing to bear the pain, no matter how unfair, without passing it along to an innocent party or trying to injure the person who hurt us. Goodwill and even reconciliation might be part of this phase. It’s also worth noting that even if we can’t understand why someone did something, forgiveness requires us to look at our anger and pain and intentionally choose to release it.
  • The outcome/deepening phase: This is the phase in which we realize we’re gaining emotional relief from the act of forgiving. We might begin to feel more compassion for ourselves and for others. We might even discover meaning in suffering or find a new purpose in life. By extending forgiveness to others, we recognize that we’re starting to heal ourselves.

Practical Tips for Forgiving Others

So what about practical tips for forgiving others — what does that look like? If we’re not used to forgiving others, it can be challenging. But, as with most anything else, it gets easier with practice. 

We can start by learning to become what Dr. Robert Enright calls “forgivingly fit.” Just as we would start slowly with a new physical exercise routine, it helps if we build up our forgiving heart “muscles” slowly, incorporating regular “workouts” into our everyday life. Here are 7 tips: 

  1. Avoid negative talk: Try to make a conscious effort not to talk disparagingly about the people who have hurt you. You don’t necessarily have to say good things, but refraining from talking negatively, it will feed the more forgiving side of our brain. 

  2. Adjust your perspective: Try to make it a practice of recognizing that every person is unique, special and irreplaceable. In other words, we are not better or worse than someone else. It’s important to cultivate this mindset so that it becomes difficult to discount someone as unworthy because they have harmed us. 

  3. Practice empathy and compassion: We can try putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes by imagining ways they might be hurting and how that pain might impact their behaviors. Ask yourself about the circumstances that may have led the other person to behave in the way they did. For example, if our boss is short-tempered, we can consider ways they might be stressed or under pressure. This helps us realize that maybe we would have reacted similarly, and allows us to not take their remarks personally.

  4. Focus on the good: Giving more importance to the positive aspects of our life can allow us to forgive more freely and compassionately. If we can give a negative event a positive meaning, we are creating our own good. People who hold grudges or ruminate over negative events have a harder time forgiving.

  5. Work toward our own happiness: Some people can’t see outside themselves to understand the pain they cause others. We might never get an apology or explanation from them. But if we don’t give them the power over our happiness — if we can forgive them and move on — we can find joy.

  6. Show grace: Another way to exercise our forgiving muscle is through everyday encounters, such as smiling at a harried grocery cashier or refraining from honking the horn when someone cuts us off in traffic.

  7. Forgive yourself: Sometimes, we need to forgive ourselves, too. Even if we primarily blame someone else, there might be some lingering self-blame on a conscious or subconscious level. We might be angry with ourselves for allowing ourselves to be victimized. Practicing self-compassion and self-forgiveness can help us forgive others. Just as we can’t truly love someone else without loving ourselves first, we also can’t forgive others unless we forgive ourselves. 

Keep in mind that forgiveness is a process. It may not be easy at first, but as we strengthen our forgiveness muscles, it will start to come more naturally. 

The Bottom Line

Forgiveness is a choice we make to free us from the burden of having to carry something that only causes us more pain. Holding onto grudges doesn’t hurt the other person — it only hurts us. Even if we don’t feel like forgiving another person, we can make the choice to do so, knowing that it is beneficial for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Practicing compassion and empathy are crucial to the forgiveness process once we process our emotions and make the decision to forgive.

If you’re using alcohol as a coping mechanism for painful emotions, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and experience emotional healing. 

Summary FAQs

1. What is forgiveness? 

Forgiveness is a choice we make to free us from the burden of having to carry something that is only causing us more pain.

2. Why is forgiveness important?

Research shows that forgiveness is beneficial for our physical, mental, and emotional health. Among the documented benefits of forgiveness are healthier relationships, less anxiety and stress, fewer symptoms of depression, lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, improved heart health, and improved self-esteem.

3. What are the phases of forgiveness? 

Forgiveness expert Dr. Robert D. Enright identified four phases of forgiveness that we pass through on our journey: the uncovering phase, in which we become aware of our emotional pain; the decisions phase, in which we make the choice to forgive; the work phase, in which we actively work to forgive; and the outcome/deepening phase, in which we experience healing from forgiveness.

4. What are some practical tips for forgiving others? 

We can work toward forgiving others by becoming “forgivingly fit,” exercising our forgiving muscles in small ways. This includes avoiding negative talk about the person who harmed us, adjusting our perspective to recognize the value of all humans, practicing empathy, focusing on the good, working toward our own happiness, showing grace, and forgiving ourselves.  

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