During the holidays, many of us will gather to celebrate the spirit of the season with close friends and family from near and far. As lovely as that sounds, the truth is, sometimes spending time with loved ones isn’t as feel-good a moment as your favorite holiday movie on TV might suggest. Coming together can often mean coming to terms with the fact that you may not have a positive relationship with everyone you love. It happens—life happens.
But holding onto grudges isn’t good for you. Not only can unresolved negative emotions lead to chronic stress and destabilizing mood swings, but studies show that harboring resentment and anger can affect your blood pressure and heart rate as well. Fortunately, embracing forgiveness can improve both your mental and physical health. It’s why releasing those grudges is a critical component of our healing journey. But how do we get there? Let’s explore.
Why We Must Heal
Recovering from a heartbreak or betrayal by someone you care about can be difficult and painful, but it’s necessary to try. If you’re still mad at your aunt for her overly harsh critiques of you last Christmas, it’s time to let that go—for you. Holding on to negative feelings toward someone else can have a ripple effect on how you interact with others, and you may not even be aware of it. “Unhealed wounds show up in every area of our lives,” says Thema Bryant, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, professor of psychology and ordained elder who directs the mental health ministry of First AME Church in South Los Angeles. “Even if we try not to think about it or talk about it, they affect us emotionally, and they also affect the way we think about ourselves and approach other relationships.” In other words, our painful pasts can unconsciously haunt us and distort both our present and future circumstances. Unhealed hurt can also provoke us to lose control. “It can contaminate or pollute our interactions going forward, because we tend to live our lives based on scripts that were developed in the wake of past painful experiences,” explains Bryant.
When you allow these negative emotions to fester, they can alter your overall sense of safety and make you feel constantly attacked. “We feel misunderstood and unsupported, and when we walk through life with that being our understanding of ourselves, it can create either insecurity or a vigilance, where we’re constantly looking for slights or expecting them,” notes Bryant. “We are not really at home or comfortable within ourselves.”
Releasing pain from your past is the best gift you can give yourself, insists Charnell Neptune-Darby, M.A., a mental health counselor at Humantold, a New York City–based psychotherapy clinic. “Forgiveness allows you to let go and refocus on self,” she adds. “Your soul deserves peace!”
Identify the Problem
You cannot begin to resolve or address an emotional wound if you cannot first identify what’s eating at you, and why. Ask yourself, are both of you still angry or hurting, or has the other person already moved on? “A lot of times, people who have harmed us have gone on with their lives and aren’t even thinking about us,” says Bryant. “And we can get stuck in our heads, where we’re replaying the hurt over and over, and they become the center of our conversation. Years later, that’s who you’re always talking about. That means you’re stuck. It is still central to your life, and so you are constantly being triggered.”
For some, the painful memories don’t just live in the past—and it is important for us to distinguish if we’re enduring ongoing trauma. “The reality is, some people have been hurt by family members who continue to do and say hurtful things,” says Bryant. “Then it’s not enough for us just to say, ‘Oh, that was a long time ago.’ It’s like, well, that’s how it showed up when I was a child, but even now, as an adult, they continue to do those things, just on a different scale.” But Bryant points out that while trauma deeply affects us, it doesn’t have to define us. If your entire identity is tied up in lingering negativity toward a person, it’s time to break free.
A Process of Restoration
Forgiveness and healing often go hand-in-hand, but it’s important to remember that they are not the same thing. “Healing is the process of restoration, and bringing light to certain parts of our lives that we’ve closed off for so long,” explains Neptune-Darby, “while forgiveness is a conscious and emotional aspect, a decision you make to move forward.” And it can be a solo act, too.
“Forgiveness does not require the other person to be sorry,” emphasizes Bryant. She also makes the distinction that you don’t have to forgive someone to be healed from a trauma they may have caused you. “You can decide: ‘I am choosing to release this pain so that I’m not held hostage to my anger or resentment anymore—but I cannot reconcile what happened, and I cannot heal this relationship with a person who is not changed, transformed, repentant or sorry.”
Doing the Work
“Understand, healing takes time. This process does not happen overnight,” says Neptune-Darby. “You cannot pick up a magic wand and poof—it’s gone. Healing requires patience, love and hard work. And you’ll have to be brave enough to face the raw, hurtful parts of the process.”
Bryant shares three elements she believes are critical to the restorative process: Recognizing who or what caused you pain; believing that you’re capable of forgiving or being forgiven; and then being honest with yourself about what it is you’re hoping to accomplish with that person before you reach out to them.
If you’re the one who must apologize to someone you’ve hurt or disappointed, Bryant says, “an apology is best when it’s followed by changed behavior.” On the flip side, be open to the fact that you and the other person may not see the situation the same way. “The other person has their own mind, heart, interpretation and experience, so they’re not going to be your puppet, and you’ll need to have the emotional maturity to be at peace with how they respond,” Bryant continues. When you’re truly ready to make amends or move on with clarity, patience and open communication, positive changes will follow. Most importantly, you will finally be free.