Holding a grudge is bad for your mind, body and soul, but how easy is it to move on?
Stylist.co.uk contributor Aimee Meade speaks to professor of psychology Thomas Plante, forgiveness expert Megan Feldman-Bettencourt, and Ruth d’Andilly-Clune, an inspirational woman who has found the power to forgive her father for his abusive alcoholism.
Growing up, we’re told to 'forgive and forget'. Some things are easy to forgive; a best friend borrowing and subsequently losing your new jacket, your flatmate using (but not replacing) the last bit of milk. Others are unforgettable. So, how do we forgive and forget - and should we?
“Remembering is not a problem - it's how you remember,” says Megan Feldman-Bettencourt, journalist and author of the book Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World. “When you hold a grudge, every time you think about that person or the situation, your brain is flooded with stress chemicals like adrenaline and norepinephrine.
“Over time, those chemicals put you at risk of depression and anxiety, and they inhibit your frontal lobe's ability to solve problems,” she explains. “The stress caused by chronic anger also elevates risk for high blood pressure and heart problems.”
This is something that Ruth d’Andilly-Clune, a 25-year-old web designer from West London, knows all too well.
Three years ago her world was turned upside down when her parents’ 13-year marriage ended, and as a consequence her father, a loving man who only ever drank at Christmas, suddenly became an abusive alcoholic.
“I no longer recognised him as my Dad, the person I grew up with,” she tells me. “He was verbally abusive towards me, he would put me down and… would say things about my Mum I shouldn’t hear… [It got] to a point where I thought it would be better to not have him in my life at all. It was too painful.”
Despite her encouragement, Ruth’s father refused to get help. Her mental health suffered and eventually, she was prescribed anti-depressants. “I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to do anything. I sat in my own little world, I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I was upset all the time. It made my relationships with people who were trying to love and help me difficult - I was so angry.”
Ruth didn’t speak to her father properly again until November last year. He had checked himself into rehab and was doing well, so she sent him a letter that explained exactly how she felt. It wasn’t until she sent that letter and started to forgive her father, that her mental health began to improve.
“It was good for me to put down everything I was feeling. It took a big chunk out of me, but in a good way. It got rid of a lot of anger and a lot of hurt,” she says.
Forgiveness is a 'foil to anger', says Thomas Plante a psychologist and professor of psychology at Santa Clara and Stanford Universities. It is not about forgetting the pain or justifying what the other person did, but instead letting go of that anger.
“I didn’t forgive my Dad for him. It was for me to heal and move on,” Ruth says. “It was about me saying well that happened, and I don’t like what you did, but I have got to move on from that.”
While the process won’t be the same for everyone, Plante, who treats people who have experienced sexual abuse, domestic violence and marital infidelity, says the first step to forgiveness is understanding what you are angry about. After that, it is about figuring out how to respond in a healthy way. One way of doing this is by reliving the experience in your mind, as if watching a film, to get some sense of what the perpetrator was thinking and doing.
“Some degree of empathy for the perpetrator can be helpful,” says Plante. Try to see it through their eyes, get a little distance, and then choose how to let go of your anger, he advises. This could include a wide variety of things, such as stress management techniques, breathing exercises, or doing volunteer work with people who share similar experiences.
Empathy played a huge part in Ruth's forgiveness of her father. “I will never truly be able to understand him,” she says. “I just know it was something he had to go through, regardless of whether or not it was the right thing for him to do.”
Feldman-Bettencourt became fascinated with forgiveness when she interviewed Azim Khamisa, a man who forgave his son’s killer. “The thing I learned in reporting is that forgiveness is possible no matter what,” she explains. “It takes intention and practice, but it's possible.
“The people who are really good at practicing forgiveness, and at forgiving large offenses, are authentic. They allow themselves to feel what they're feeling. They're good at grieving, as weird as that sounds.
“For example, Azim was very angry and depressed. But he used that anger to work towards preventing violence with the family of the man who killed his son - they're friends and work together. He didn't repress his feelings.”
Ruth’s father left rehab four months after receiving her letter and today is nine months sober, with a new job and place to live. Their relationship is also on the the mend, and while Ruth is still hurt, she knows that forgiving him was the right thing to do. “I’ve actually been off anti-depressants for nearly three or four months,” she says.
“I want to go out more and do more things, and I do.
“It is okay to feel angry towards someone who hurt you. Forgiving someone is not for the other person, it is for you.”