Letting go of Anger and Choosing Forgiveness

One key to having a more joyful and healthy life is to let go of resentments, and forgive. Studies have shown that forgiveness is associated with many physical and mental health benefits. People often reject the idea of forgiveness believing that it means condoning bad behaviour, which it doesn`t. Forgiveness is letting go of anger towards people even when you believe their actions were wrong.

According to Desmond Tutu the nature of humans is essentially good. We are surrounded by love, kindness and the goodness of people, but that is not always what we focus on. Tutu argues that atrocities make the news because they are the exception to the rule, and go against our sense of truth, and value of our fellow humans. We are horrified by the sensationalist news because we do not want others to suffer. It is natural and good to be horrified by despicable acts. We however, often get stuck in the feelings of anger towards perpetrators, but this keeps us stuck in negativity and blocks us from our positive life force.

It is essential to our health and happiness that we shift out of this resentful mindset and back into our loving heart. This has traditionally been referred to as forgiveness, but the concept of forgiveness is often misunderstood as supporting wrongful behaviour. In fact, forgiveness means naming the hurtful behaviour, and not covering it up or hiding it.  It means calling out the hurtful, intolerable behaviour, and saying the behaviour was not okay.  The intent of forgiveness is healing from something that was hurtful and unacceptable, and letting go of anger.  

Sometimes forgiveness seems impossible given the horrendous nature of the behaviour, but even smaller transgressions can bring very strong reactions and be very difficult to move past.

The great thing about forgiveness is that it brings peace and creates internal freedom. In contrast, revenge perpetuates hatred and unhappiness. When we are stuck in anger we tend to isolate ourselves, and have ruminating thoughts about how we were wronged, and how bad the offender is. Toussaint Worthington and Williams in their book Forgiveness and Health: Scientific Evidence and Theories Relating Forgiveness and Mental Health (2015), report that forgiveness is positively related to mental and physical health. Forgiveness is associated with lower blood pressure and better cardiovascular health.  A lack of forgiveness is associated with a variety of adverse health conditions and emotional states of anxiety and depression.

Anger and resentment are more highly associated with disease than smoking (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). “Whether hatred is projected out or stuffed in, it is always corrosive to the human spirit”. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutup (pg.23 The Book of Forgiving, 2014).

When we get stuck in the revenge cycle we focus on blame, anger and don`t allow ourselves to feel the sadness that is accompanied with hurtful and violent behaviours. Not acknowledging or processing our hurt is like covering our heart with an armour. Although it may make us feel protected, it may block loving feelings as well.

In order to forgive we must process our pain, if the hurt is great this may be intense. A few steps are required;

  1. Willingness to forgive.
  2. Acknowledging and honouring how hurt we feel.
  3. Letting go of anger.
  4. Empathizing with the hurt/injured part of the perpetrator that led to the behaviour.
  5. Seeing the humanity or divinity in the person.
  6. Wishing the perpetrator wellness or growth.
  7. Thanking them for the learning experience.

The first step is to have a willingness to let go of pain and anger. The upsetting incident is in the past, but the suffering continues if you dwell on the anger. What price are you paying for holding onto this? Sometimes it may start with wanting to feel better.

The second step involves telling our stories and processing the feelings. The experiences we’ve had are remembered in our mind, body and our nervous system. We need to not just tell the story, but process the feelings, and beliefs that are connected to the experience. The story does not actually have to have words but can be processed through the memories of the body.  It is important to know and process our stories so they can be integrated to help get a sense of what happened, and become more resilient.

It is vital to be discerning as to who we tell our stories to. We want to talk to someone who will listen empathically and non-judgmentally; it may be a friend or a therapist. Writing a letter can be very helpful. Acknowledging the hurt often means crying as the pain is released. It may involve a loss which invokes grieving with the accompanying stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When we deny our pain we often become self-destructive which can lead to substance abuse and other harmful habits.

You may want to ask yourself why you are having such an intense reaction to this situation? Although intense emotions may be a normal and understandable reactions to a trauma, if you are ruminating, it is likely that the event is triggering a negative experience from your past that has not been processed and is stuck in your nervous system.  Ask yourself “What am I believing about myself based on this situation?” You may start with blaming the other person, but it is important to look for the internal negative belief below the anger. Your interpretation of the situation may be making it worse for you. Now consider forgiving yourself for those beliefs.

Processing these feelings will be hard, but they allow you to let go of anger and change what can be changed. You can change your own belief system and see this as a learning opportunity. What can you learn from this?

When the situation is something, you can learn and grow from you can usually begin to understand the offenders pain that led to the behaviour. What kind of unhappiness would lead someone to engage in that behaviour? In general, those who engage in hurtful, destructive behaviour are hurting themselves and must live with the knowledge that they have harmed another. Although it often looks like people don`t care how they have hurt others, they likely carry guilt.  If they really don’t carry guilt, it may be that they have experienced so much trauma in their life they have had to disconnect from their heart, and this is terrible for them. We can widen our perspective and try to see the villain’s internal history of violations – what happened to them, where is their pain? Who are they? What has their journey looked like?

Can you understand their humanness and see their other qualities? Can you see they are divine even if it is deep inside, and hard to detect? Can you send a kind wish to them like “may you be healed?” “May you learn from your errors?”

When you can learn something from your experience you can start to be grateful for learning and growing. If you can write a thank-you letter to them for the experience you will feel a great sense of peace as you move on and appreciate what you have learned. It can also be healing to take actions to help others who have been similarly hurt.  For example, MADD was formed by mother’s of children who were killed by drunk drivers.

To hold onto anger is a painful choice and can be hard on your health. You can begin with a wish to let go of the anger, tell your story, process your feeling and learn from the experience.

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