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How to deal when saying sorry isn’t enough

by Nicola Prentis

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Forgiveness is often described as a gift you give yourself. Research shows that bearing a grudge is likely to lead to a shorter, unhappier life because of raised blood pressure, increased stress, lower immunity, and a higher risk of heart disease. If you can let go of anger, the gift of health and wellbeing is yours to enjoy, just like the benefits of giving up smoking or junk food.

But what if you’re not the grudge-holder? Maybe you did something that caused harm to someone else and they’re still angry about it. Maybe you even said sorry or tried to make amends somehow, and they’re still hurting and raging over it. Negative feelings could literally be shortening their life, compounding the original damage and affecting their health. Can you give them that gift of forgiveness?

Fred Luskin, director of Stanford University’s Forgiveness Projects and author of “Forgive for Good”, says you may be able to.

“Research shows that a sincere apology makes a difference,” he says. “A sincere apology is distinguished from most garden-variety apologies because a sincere apology says ‘I did something wrong, my bad harmed you. I’m sorry for what happened to you, and I will try to make it right.’ Most people say ‘I’m sorry you’re upset’ which is not sincere in the apology biz at all.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. The hurt person still needs to work through the issue themselves, and there are factors that might influence how deeply embedded the grudge is. If the hurt occurred in childhood or a time when the person was emotionally vulnerable, Luskin says, a grudge may form some part of a person’s self-concept. So, for example, if there was an injustice where one sibling was shown preferential treatment over the other, the less favored sibling may go on to feel they’re always treated unfairly. Then, each time life turns out to be unfair, it adds to the anger they’re channeling onto the person who committed that first injustice.

Not everyone will process wrongs in the same way. Some people get over things easily while others are what Luskin calls “hot reactors.” These are people whose nervous systems are more easily aroused than others, leading them to experience a stronger adrenaline response when they think of the offense. Personality type also has a part to play; those with a tendency toward narcissism are more likely to hold onto a grudge. Although the sibling in my example is stuck on a time when they were treated as less important, nursing the grudge allows them to put themselves firmly at the center of everything.

Now, suppose you aren’t even involved in the argument. Perhaps you’re a friend or partner, or another member of the family dragged into the locus of resentment. You know the person is damaging their health and you are desperate to end the tension and lower their stress, not to mention the stress on you too. Chances are you’ve tried talking the person out of their grudge or are just plain tired of hearing about it. Can you do anything to help?

Again, Luskin says maybe—by approaching the person who did the harm and asking them to apologize. “Ask if they’re capable of a small apology to say ‘Maybe I wasn’t as skillful as I could’ve been. I recognize that my lack of skill hurt you,’ for example. Even if it’s just a two-second phone call to say ‘I’ve been thinking about things and maybe what I did wasn’t as kind or as good as I thought,’ it might help.” If the hurt comes from a big offense, the apology should reflect that and show sincerity. Then you can approach the person holding the grudge and try to get them to see that the feud is hard on you too.

“The only thing you can do is share your honest experience,” Luskin says. “But share yours, don’t challenge theirs. One of the reasons people hold grudges is they feel very righteous and in that righteousness, they sometimes don’t recognize the harm they’re doing to other people because their righteousness blinds them from empathy.”

Getting the person to see that their behavior is negatively affecting you might open a window to more empathic thinking. This may create a virtuous cycle as being empathic makes it easier to forgive in the first place, but also the process of forgiveness activates parts of the brain that are associated with taking the perspectives of others, empathy, and regulating our emotions. So while truly letting the hurt and anger go is still down to the individual, you can help them take the first steps toward a happier and healthier life.


Illustration by JING WEI

Nicola Prentis

Nicola Prentis writes on motherhood, relationships and, in her day job, is the author of award-winning English Language Teaching materials. Her work has appeared in Salon, Mental Floss, She Knows, The Establishment, and Refinery 29. She's lived and worked in eight different countries and is finally feeling a sense of home in Madrid, Spain.