It’s no secret that a grudge can steal your joy. The enigma is how to let go of that grievance. For many people, living with resentment has become such an engrained, daily habit that any notion that they could break free of it seems like an unreachable goal—as difficult as breaking some Da Vinci Code.
That is thankfully incorrect. I have seen many people, including myself, break free from deep-seated, even life-long, resentments, by applying the principles in 12-step recovery programs. Learning to let go of resentments is actually a major theme in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). One of their most commonly repeated aphorisms regarding resentment is that it’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. They admonish members who want to be successfully sober to stop drinking the poison of resentment.
The same principles that have helped many people in recovery overcome their resentments can help anyone struggling with a grudge.
On that note, here are four steps you can take to rid yourself of the bad blood you may be harboring against someone in your life, which has turned to poison in your own:
1. Write down who you’re harboring a grudge against, the cause, how that grudge is affecting your life, and your part in harboring that grudge. This is a critical, first step to finding release from a grudge. It will only work if you’re willing to be fearlessly honest.
When I work with people in early recovery who are just learning how to stay sober, we use a helpful outline for writing down our resentments. A key goal of this exercise is to be able to see clearly (written down on paper) who we’re resentful towards and how the poison we’re drinking is harming us. Only when we’re able to see clearly how a grudge is robbing us of our joy can we position ourselves to own our part in harboring the grudge. Only then can we take responsibility and effect inner change
When writing these things down, it can be very helpful to make four columns on a sheet of paper and organize your notes accordingly. (In the Sober Skills program that I help lead, this is how we approach the writing exercise.) In the first column, titled “Resentments,” name the individual or institution you are angry at. In the second column, titled “Cause,” write down the harm or injustice that legitimately caused your resentment.
The third column is called “Affected Areas of My Life.” In this column, you’ll list seven categories. They include the following: Pride; Personal Relations; Self-Esteem; Security; Ambition; Pocketbook; and Sexual Relations. Under each category, honestly answer the following questions:
- Regarding Pride … How does this resentment affect how others see me?
- Regarding Personal Relations … How does this resentment affect how I
- Regarding Self-Esteem … How does this resentment affect how I see
- Regarding Security … How does this resentment affect my physical
wellbeing? My emotional wellbeing?
- Regarding Ambition … How does this resentment affect what I want?
- Regarding Pocketbook … How does this resentment affect my financial
- Regarding Sexual Relations … How does this resentment affect my sense of
2. Focus only on what you can do to move forward, not on what you can’t do. You cannot make the other person apologize or ask for your forgiveness. You can, however, accept what has happened—and even learn to forgive the person who has wronged you.
My colleague Michael Peerbolte, who facilitates 12-step groups, gave the following example: “Say you’re holding a grudge against someone who fired you. When you take an inventory, you discover that your grudge affects your pride, your pocketbook, your personal relationships (because others may now think you’re not employable or are incompetent), and so on. Then you look at your part in this resentment and what you contributed to this situation. Maybe you weren’t consistently showing up to work on time or not giving your all. You look at the ways that you may have contributed to the animosity and conflict. Soon you begin to understand that you do have a part in this, and that’s the part you can accept and own.”
When you’ve found acceptance, you’re one more step closer to letting go of that resentment.
3. Wishing the best for the person who has wronged you. For the religious, this can be translated into ‘praying’ for the other person. This step can be hard: the idea of wishing the best for someone whom you despise or even hate may seem weird or impossible. But the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is very clear that, “If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person or the thing that you resent, you will be free.”
What does it mean to “pray” for your enemy? It means that you ask God or your “Higher Power”, which is your inner best self, to give this person everything that you want for yourself or those whom you love. AA recommends that you “Ask for their health, their prosperity, their happiness,” and to make this request every day for two weeks.
While it may sound hokey, this spiritual formula for releasing a grudge really does work. I can say this from personal experience, both in my own life and in the lives of others in recovery.
4. Make amends to the person you have held a grudge against (when appropriate). The embodiment of letting go of a grudge is forgiveness, and making amends is how you enact this forgiveness. By making amends, you apologize for your part in the conflict (when the apology will not cause the other person or yourself further pain and harm).
As illustration, consider again the example of the hypothetical former boss whom you’re harboring a grudge against. To make amends, you might meet with them and tell them the ways in which you were in the wrong in your relationship.
Maybe there were things you did on the job that merited being fired. Mention those things and ask for forgiveness. In this way, you can begin a conversation of healing.
On the other hand, if your former boss refuses to meet with you, that is okay, too. You still have done your part to try to make amends. That in itself is a form of making amends.
Resentment is toxic. Carrying around resentments and letting them fester can take a toll on our mental and physical health. The good news is that these four principles, when applied, can help us let go of the grudges that are ruining our health and happiness.
Art Jacob is Director of Sober Skills at FHE Health. FHE Health is a nationally recognized behavioral healthcare provider offering addiction treatment and mental health rehab programs to adults over the age of 18.
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