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The Hardest Thing

A colleague takes credit for your idea. Your husband forgets your birthday. A trusted friend divulges your secret, and now everyone knows. 

Whether it's a slight transgression or an all-out blow, coping with an offense on any level can put even the most generous spirit to the test. When you've been hurt, the last thing you want to do is forgive.

But experts say forgiveness isn't about making life easier for people who hurt you, or letting offenders off the hook. "It's about releasing the forgiver, replacing pain with peace," says Stephen Post, Ph.D., coauthor of "Why Good Things Happen to Good People." "People just don't realize how much a grudge can sap their energy and joy."

The consequences, it turns out, can affect both your physical and mental health in countless ways.

In fact, a study authored by Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Ph.D., found that when people focused on hurtful memories or grudges, their blood pressure surged and brow muscles tensed as negative feelings escalated. Thoughts of forgiveness, however, prompted a greater sense of control and comparatively lower stress responses. While the jury's still out on the long-term effects of forgiveness, she says, there's no question that harboring grudges can threaten your overall well-being, or that letting them go can boost your state of mind.

"The challenge is not only to learn how to forgive in the short term, but to make forgiving a way of life," Witviliet notes. "When we consistently practice the virtue of forgiving, we see the greatest mental and physical benefits." To that end, we've collected strategies for letting go of old hurts, a life-affirming practice that can bring about a sense of calm -- and, at the same time, exhilarating freedom. Read on to learn how to shake off those burdens and, finally, set yourself free.

Admit It Hurts
No one stands to gain from pretending a hurtful incident didn't happen. Witvliet compares the process of forgiveness to that of grieving. "You've lost something -- a relationship, trust, or a reputation," she says. "The hurt and anger that follow are normal." Rather than repress those emotions, Insight Meditation Society cofounder and "Lovingkindness" author Sharon Salzberg recommends giving them the room to just be for a while, however grim or uncomfortable it feels. It's OK, even necessary, to acknowledge your anger before letting things go.

And when you do finally forgive, that won't mean you can throw caution to the wind. "You can forgive but not trust a person completely until you have evidence that they have changed," says forgiveness researcher Robert Enright, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Try this: Write it out. Consider a recent incident that left you feeling wronged. Write down what happened, what was lost (trust, friendship), and how you feel as a result. Rather than dwell on negative emotions or get caught up in a downward spiral of anger and blame, how can you grow from this harm you've suffered? 

"Writing it down as a narrative places the offense in the context of your life and helps you make peace," says psychologist and researcher Michal McCullough, Ph.D., of the University of Miami. This way, you get it out on paper -- and make it part of your past, not your present.

Forgive Sans Strings
Contrary to what we might think, true forgiveness isn't "earned"; it's given freely. A heartfelt apology is always welcome, of course, but it's not necessary for healing to take place. Research shows that forgiving unconditionally may carry even greater benefit for the forgiver. A study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion suggests that those who expect an apology or other demonstration of contrition experience more psychological distress than those who forgive unconditionally. 

"We can't always count on our offenders to apologize," says Witvliet. "If we refuse to forgive until we get an apology, we give the key that can unlock the prison of our pain to the very person who betrayed us in the first place.

Try this: Start small. Forgiving unconditionally comes with practice, so rather than start with an abusive parent or a partner who cheated you out of your life savings, begin with something doable. Someone cuts you off at the intersection or ties up the line at the grocery store with her coupons. Chances are, you won't be getting apologies in these situations -- which makes them great opportunities to practice forgiving freely. Instead of allowing yourself to fume, let it go and wish that person well.

See the Best
Forgiveness arises from a generally optimistic approach to the world and the people around you, regardless of their actions. It's a choice you can make each and every day to see things differently and react to others in a way that assumes the best of intentions instead of the worst. 

"Forgiveness has nothing to do with agreeing with what the other person did or changing who they are," says Gerald Jampolsky, M.D., author, psychiatrist, and founder of the International Center for Attitudinal Healing. "It has to do with changing your own mind." McCullough refers to forgiveness as "the other side of gratitude" -- an overall positive response to the bad things that inevitably happen to us.

Think of how much easier it is to forgive children, suggests Jampolsky. Their inherent innocence helps us dismiss their actions as benign. In order to put forgiveness into practice, start searching for that innocence in even your worst offenders. "Those small moments of forgiveness build into a strength of forgiveness," says Salzberg. "We can see the hurt the person caused us as proof that they need compassion, just as we do. And we begin to see ourselves as agents who can show them that compassion."

Try this: See the light, not the lampshade. The next time you're hurt by a careless remark or gesture, shift your attention to the person behind it, rather than focusing on the act itself. Maybe the "transgressor" is an incredibly hard-working, loving mother. Maybe she's coping with a separate issue you know nothing about. You can't always know what's going on beneath the surface of others' behavior. But by widening your perspective, you can see your transgressor as more than the perpetrator of a thoughtless act -- and yourself as more than a victim.

Forgive Yourself
All of these strategies are a wash if you leave out the one person in your life who rarely gets a break: you. After all, if you can't see past your mistakes enough to love and accept who you are, you're less able to do so with others. And if holding a grudge is bad for your health, then being both blamer and blamee is a double whammy. Instead, turn that attention of forgiveness inward; rather than lambaste yourself for losing your cell phone again or missing a friend's birthday, ease off and start putting your own actions in perspective as well.

Try this: Start with your mind. One way to become more self-forgiving is to get into the habit of doing it every day, says Salzberg. Meditation offers a perfect, low-stakes opportunity to try it.

Find a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair, and sit quietly for 10 to 15 minutes. "Focus on your breath moving in and out of the body," says Salzberg. And when, inevitably, your mind starts to wander, make it a point to recognize the moment of distraction, let it go, and bring yourself back to the breath. It is this gentle ushering back of attention that creates small but powerful moments of forgiveness, and ultimately builds inner strength.

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