I’d like you to try a simple experiment.
First, get an empty backpack and fill it full of stones. If you don’t have access to stones, you can use potatoes, canned food, or whatever else is handy, until it weighs about 30 pounds.
Got it? Great. Now put your arms through the straps and put it on your back.
For the second part of the experiment, find some small pebbles, the sharper the better. Put a dozen or so in each of your shoes, then put your shoes back on. Now, wear this backpack and those pebbles in your shoes for the rest of your life.
Outrageous? Stupid? Masochistic? Of course it is. So why would you do exactly the same thing by holding a grudge against someone?
Grudges don’t hurt the person who wronged you. They hurt you. And when you carry them around, they become a torture instrument of the person who injured you in the first place, punishing you again and again every time you take the grudge out and go over it.
When you look at it in terms of real physical harm, like the fatigue and pain caused by the backpack and pebbles, it’s easy to see the danger. But when it’s psychological pain, we tend to underestimate it, even though that can increase your stress level, make you susceptible to high blood pressure, and leave you feeling exhausted at the end of the day.
The ‘poor me’ syndrome
So why do we carry grudges? Why do we refuse to forget a slight somebody inflicted on us in the past, perhaps years ago?
Maybe it has to do with our normal need for attention. When we can pull an old grudge out, parade it in front of our friends or relatives, maybe we’ll get some sympathy. Maybe they’ll tell us how unfair life has been to us and that we’re really a good person who didn’t deserve such injustice.
Others will commiserate with us, pat us on the back and marvel at our bravery in holding up under such a load.
But if we were lugging that backpack full of rocks around, more likely they’d say, “What’s the matter with you? Stop doing that to yourself.” Actually, that’s probably what they’re thinking when you pull out your old grudges for the umpteenth time.
How to let it go
The first step in ridding yourself of these psychological anchors is to recognize that the only person being hurt here is you–certainly not the person who harmed you. There’s no nobility in making yourself miserable. There’s no reward in resurrecting painful memories, except a dose of fresh pain.
Only when you’re willing to admit that this is self-destructive behavior are you ready to start dealing with it. When you understand that periodically renewing your old hurts makes as much sense as walking on sharp pebbles will you be ready to stop punishing yourself.
The next step is to care more about your present and your future than about your past. Why ruin today and tomorrow with regrets from yesterday? Happiness is not just a matter of doing positive things. It also requires that we stop doing negative things.
Finally, acknowledge that like whiskey to an alcoholic, even a little wallowing in your old grudges can be deadly. You have much more control of your mind than you give yourself credit for. When you become alert to the these damaging thoughts, you’re better able to stop them in their tracks.
Forgive, forget, or both?
Forgiving is one of the hardest things we have to do, but that’s because we try to accomplish it with feelings instead of an act of the will.
Forgiving is always in your best interest. It stops the grudge from doing you future harm. That doesn’t mean you’ll forget. Forgiving still leaves a scar. Refusing to forgive leaves an open wound.
Often the only justice you’ll receive is the kind you’ll get when you refuse to let an old grudge continue to hurt you any more. Dropping that backpack and emptying those pebbles from your shoes will lighten you immeasurably for the rest of your journey.
You owe yourself that.