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Learning to Forgive: How Resentment Harms You

Are there limits to what you can forgive? Before you answer, think over the tragic events that unfolded on a quiet October day in 2006. Children from the Amish group in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, were in classes at the West Nickel Mines School. Without warning, a heavily armed member of the group, Charles Carl Roberts IV, burst into the building. An hour later, Roberts had murdered five of the children and then turned his gun on himself.

In the end, the Amish grieved and began a process of forgiving right away. The group went to the killer’s funeral and set up a scholarship fund for his children. They also absolved not only his family, but Roberts himself.

“When I started studying Amish culture, I found that they have a daily family practice of forgiveness,” says Robert Enright, author of “Forgiveness is a Choice” and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They are always exercising their forgiveness muscle. It struck me as an amazing example of how to build individuals and families within a forgiving community so you can stand strong against a grave injustice.”

The West Nickel Mines School tragedy is an extreme example, one that few of us will ever face. But its lessons point out choices we face nearly every day.

What is resentment?

Nearly every person feels the frustrations of daily life – a car that cuts you off, an order that’s delivered incorrectly. Real resentment, however, is much different. “Psychologists use this word to mean a long-term, enduring, entrenched, unhealthy anger that can overcome a person,” says Enright.

Resentment is a constant state of frustration, says Buff Donovan, a licensed social worker and HAP’s director of Coordinated Behavioral Health Management. “You’re always reminding yourself that you’ve been wronged and thinking about unmet needs or unmet reactions from another person,” she says. “You’re taking on a victim role, and that’s toxic because it can affect your relationships at work and at home. You are spending more time ruminating about something you probably cannot change rather than spending energy on what you can change.”

Why can’t we forgive?

When we feel emotional pain or injustice, it’s human nature to want to make things right. But we’re often unsure how to accomplish that productively. “When you don’t get rid of the pain or address it, that can lead to a continual sense of anger, and from there, depression and anxiety,” says Enright. We often don’t know how to reverse our impulses. “We are not taught forgiveness in families, and it is not discussed in societies. Instead, we try all kinds of unhealthy ways to heal from resentment,” he says, like lashing out or seeking revenge.

Lacking the tools to let go also means you might not be aware of when resentment shows up. “You have to notice things about yourself – your jaw clenches when you’re with a certain person, for example,” says Donovan. “You have to be able to ask yourself, ‘What is it that I want to get from this person that they can’t give to me?’ And then you have to understand that they may never be able to give that to you.”

How can we start to move past resentment?

You wouldn’t sign up for a marathon without training, and the same logic applies to forgiveness, says Enright. “I always recommend starting with small stuff. If someone comes home and is surly at the world, forgive them for that.” When you’re able to cross that bridge, start to cultivate compassion for other, bigger things so that you become what Enright calls “forgivingly fit.”

The lessons you’re passing on are important for children to learn. You can teach them that the energy spent holding onto resentment is better put toward something healthier. “What are the benefits of holding onto your resentment? You might find that the answer rings pretty hollow,” says Donovan.

That’s not to say that letting go of resentment and anger is easy. Escaping those unhealthy feelings takes time and the right medicine: the strength to forgive, says Enright. “Forgiveness can cure us of resentment and lessen our pain and anger. Ask yourself about the legacy you want to leave – anger or love? I’ve seen anger passed on for hundreds of years, but if we love others, we put that in the hearts of our children. That love can remain alive and well long after you’re gone.” It’s a legacy to leave for future generations. 

Will we hold onto minor resentments and suffer? Or can we let go of our anger and start healing the physical, emotional and mental wounds?

Try This
Sometimes we need to talk it out to get on the path to forgiveness. Watch our video with specific steps you can use for your next difficult conversation: 




Categories: Get Healthy