“… what does holding on to grudges really get us? And what could we gain from giving them up?”
Though there’s plenty of evidence that holding onto grudges harms our health and well-being, many of us have a hard time with letting them go.
Tim Herrera suggests there’s often a kind of pleasure in holding onto a grudge, even if that ultimately contributes to physical or mental health problems.
My writing workshop participants, and I, have realized that the difficulty with releasing grudges isn’t necessarily about the pleasures of righteous anger. It’s about beliefs: that forgiving means denying the harm done to us; that forgiving means letting someone off the hook when they don’t deserve it; that forgiving someone has to mean we like them. I’ve slowly learned that forgiveness is not about letting anyone off the hook. It’s about taking care of ourselves. It’s about releasing what perhaps once served to protect, but now burdens us.
Here are four key things about forgiveness:
- Forgiveness is for you, not for the person who wronged you.
- Holding onto grudges can harm our mental and physical health.
- Forgiveness is about about letting go of something that is harming you. It can reverse that harm.
- You don’t have to like the person involved, spend time with them, or become their friend.
Transactional Writing – Letters of Forgiveness.
Transactional Writing, a part of Transform Your Health: Write to Heal, helps us take care of the emotional business of our lives. It’s often done in the form of letters that we write as if they were for someone else. Generally, we don’t send them, as doing so may have a negative impact.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky offers two approaches to writing forgiveness letters.
One is to write a letter to someone else, seeking their forgiveness. This can help us come to a new understanding of how or why we might forgive others. The other is to write a letter forgiving someone else for a transgression against us.
Asking for forgiveness
Remember that whichever letter your write, it’s for your eyes only. It is generally not one that you should send to the other person.**
The act of writing is in itself beneficial. Sharing the letter may be risky, or just may not be possible. While you will keep the letter private, do your best to write it in letter format, using grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary and sentence structure that would help the imagined reader understand your message.
Describe what you’ve done, or not done, and how you think your action or lack of action harmed the other person. Apologize for the action, and accept responsibility for it. If it reflects your true feelings, describe your wish to repair the relationship or “make things right” for the person who was wronged. While you may have some strong negative feelings to express while writing this letter, remember to also use positive emotion words that convey understanding and compassion where that can be done genuinely.
This is really a letter of self-forgiveness. The more we are able to forgive ourselves, the more able we are to find forgiveness for others.
As you write this second letter you will be fully expressing and then letting go of feelings such as bitterness, blame or anger. You’ll do this by writing (but usually not sending) a letter of forgiveness to someone who has hurt or wronged you.**
As above, format the letter for clarity, using language that helps you communicate to the person you have in mind. Describe in detail what was done that harmed or offended you. Be clear about how you were affected then and how it still affects you. End with a statement of forgiveness and understanding. Used language conveying compassion and empathy where you can genuinely do so.
If you feel blocked, don’t force the writing. It may feel like what happened is too terrible to entirely forgive. See if you can let go of even some of the negative feelings you’ve been carrying. You may be able to finish the letter a few days or weeks from now. But if not, choose an experience that is easier to forgive and try writing about that one.
**I suggest thinking very carefully about potential benefits and risks of sending a letter seeking or granting forgiveness. If possible work closely with a trusted, objective advisor, healer, therapist, coach, or other person qualified to help you with this decision.
- DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a way of healing. How telling our stories transforms our lives. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Lyubimirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness. A new approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Books.
- Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive writing: words that heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor
My e-book, Writing for Well-Being:Guide and Workbook offers additional expressive writing prompts.
First posted 3-16-16 as Four Great Reasons to Write. Updated 9-26-19.