I've been holding a grudge from a messy breakup and ensuing lawsuit. Realizing that the resentment, anger, and sadness are no longer needed, I went to the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas to learn from author of Forgive for Good and Forgive for Love, Dr. Fred Luskin about the road to forgiveness. Here are five steps to practice if you are struggling to release negative emotions:
1. Give yourself time and space to mourn.
Dr. Luskin acknowledged in his research that periods of mourning, recounting, and complaining are necessary steps in the healing process. When you are seriously wronged, consider professional talk therapy to work through the issues before asking yourself to forgive the offense and offender.
My personal experience with talk therapy was that it was much-needed and incredibly healing. To quote my therapist, I was "walking around with open wounds that needed some attention before the scarring could begin." I think people should be applauded for seeking help in times of struggle, not shamed. What a relief to hear Dr. Luskin acknowledge that fact! Permission to grieve: granted.
2. Revise your story over time.
After time passes and you've grieved, do you continue to tell yourself and others the same story of pain repeatedly? Are you stuck in a loop of negativity? If so, you are keeping your sympathetic nervous system locked on high alert. Every time you recount the story, your body is flushed with stress hormones intended to help us in the fight-or-flight response.
Dr. Luskin likens these looping negative thoughts to the experience of watching television. When you replay that "channel," you are making the groove deeper and physically hurting your body. But you own the remote control and can change the channel once the influx of stress hormones subsides. Anger and other negative emotions temporarily limit our ability to make logical choices.
3. Take ownership of your emotions, flaws, and baggage.
This is the opposite of blaming someone or thinking of oneself as the victim. We are flawed beings and we participate in relationships, which means all of us experience conflict at times. But in those situations, we can choose our responses and emotions. "What causes most of our stress is the accumulation of little problems and irritations that we do not handle well," Luskin explains in Forgive for Love.
Once I accepted that I, too, acted out of self-interest, misinterpreted red flags, and brought my jaded past into my failed relationship, I could begin to reframe the narrative. I did the best I could with the information and emotional tool kit I had at the time, and I repeat this phrase to myself when blame and shame creep into my thoughts. I'm learning to redirect my thoughts or use the "remote control" to change the emotional "channel" I'm tuned to. We need to forgive ourselves before we can do the same for others.
4. Count your blessings.
Dr. Luskin calls this "exercising your gratitude muscles." The goal is to make the grooves of positive thought patterns deeper through repetition. He suggests you call to mind some environmental, physical, or relational blessing and follow his Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique (PERT) method. I like to create mental images of all the loved ones who have provided emotional support through my breakup and lawsuit.
In one iteration, they are interlacing hands and legs to create the human web that caught me when I was falling! In another, they are an army of goodness soldiers (big hearts and open ears are their "weapons") standing by me while I move forward in life. These positive images flush my body with a deep feeling of gratitude to lift me out of the "poor me" moments. Instead of being imprisoned by anger, I've adopted this self-soothing practice.
5. Notice the extra space in your heart, mind, and body as you let go of resentment.
Anger and pain took up so much mental, emotional, and physical energy! Once I cleared some of it, I had more capacity for love and gratitude. By stepping toward forgiveness, I am not condoning my ex's actions nor am I giving up my hope for legal justice. I am simply letting go of my hope for a better past.
Now, this is the business coach and yoga teacher in me talking: Once you've made progress clearing out the dirty basement of your heart, think about new endeavors and make a plan to attack your personal goals. Go write that article you've always wanted to submit to mindbodygreen.