✍🏻 Happy Habit #5: Write a Letter to Forgive

• 5 min read

Write a journal or letter to let go of anger and resentment towards someone that hurt you.

Research Overview

When we harbor resentment and anger, it negatively affects our physical and mental health [1]. Working through a process to forgive someone who has hurt us can have a lasting positive affect on our sense of well-being [2]. This can be especially powerful alongside a counselor or in a group setting.

Studies show that social pain occurs in the same parts of the brain as physical pain, yet most people aren't taught how to heal the emotional pains inflicted by difficult relationships [4]. Many people find it hard to forgive and hold onto the transgressions of others. Unfortunately, holding a grudge may have lasting impact on our health in the form of cardiovascular problems and reduced immune system performance [5].

Core Concept

Anyone who has been in relationship with another human has both hurt and been hurt. It's a natural part of the human experience. Our needs often differ from one another and the way we behave sometimes inflicts emotional pain on ourselves and others.

Yet most of us are unaware of how important forgiveness is for our own mental health and well-being.

Forgiveness is one of the key skills to build lasting happiness in light of emotional pain and rejection. If you feel pain by remembering someone who has hurt you, chances are you can get a lasting happiness boost by going through the process of forgiveness. If you find yourself in frequent relational conflicts that go unresolved, learning how to forgive may be a key behavior in helping you unlock personal growth and healing.

forgiveness may free the wounded person from a prison of hurt and vengeful emotion, yielding both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, less negative emotion, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance. . . β€” Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet

This is hard, murky stuff but the work is immensely worthwhile. Facing the negative emotions associated with emotional pain can be incredibly liberating. It can also build resilience and improve your ability to relate to others. You might just find yourself much more satisfied in your other relationships as well...

The research shows there are two key components to the process of forgiveness [3]:

  1. Internal Emotions
  2. External Behaviors

Internal Emotions

Think of someone who has hurt you. Can you feel physical sensations in your body? Like tightness in your chest or pressure in your face...

If so, then this is a sign you are in need of forgiveness.

Forgiveness occurs when we are able to experience and release these internal emotions such that the memory of the painful event no longer triggers these negative physical sensations. When we refuse to let ourselves fully experience these negative emotions it can easily become harbored in our body and become harder and harder to release.

There is no clear cut way for everyone to experience forgiveness internally, but there are a few routes you can try.

Imagine yourself as a small child

Imagine yourself as a small child experiencing the pain inflicted by this person. You can ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Can you feel empathy for this little person who has been hurt?
  2. How does the child behave in response to the pain?
  3. What are the unmet needs in this child that are underneath the pain?
  4. How could you help meet these needs?
  5. What does this child need to hear?

Imagine your perpetrator as a small child

Imagine the person who has hurt you as a small child. Most likely, the pain they have inflicted on you is coming from their own pain and suffering.

See if you can identify the source of their pain. If you can and feel able to, try asking yourself similar questions to the above.

See what happens, but don't force this one. It's got to be genuine.

If you haven't been able to empathize with your own pain and suffering, you're probably not ready to extend that compassion to someone else, let alone the person who has hurt you.

Sometimes an easier route into the internal emotional experience of forgiveness is actually to do an external behavior or ritual. For many people, this can be much easier to do than cultivating compassion internally.

External Behavior

In Happiness Lessons of The Ancients, Miroslav Volf shares the personal story of how his parents came to forgive a soldier who killed their son in a tragic accident. After months of grief and suffering, his parents travelled to find the soldier and told him that they forgave him for what he did and that he was released from the guilt of his crime.

This enabled Miroslav's parents to heal from the inner turmoil of anger and resentment, and ultimately to move on and continue to live their lives unshackled by the daily pain of their loss.

The pain of losing their son was still present but it wasn't so intensely mixed with the negative emotions directed at the soldier.

Telling someone we forgive them like Miroslav's parents did is just one of many specific things we can do to help us heal and move on from emotional pain and suffering.

Behavior Tips

If approaching the person who has hurt you in-person feels overwhelming, you can also try writing them a letter. You don't even have to send it. The research shows the process of writing to release the emotions can be powerful in itself.

As always, only do what you actually want to do. Here are a few tips if you feel like this behavior is a good fit for you.

  1. Choose a person who has hurt you whom you'd like to forgive
  2. Block out 15-30 mins in your calendar and commit to write them a letter
  3. At the scheduled time, set a timer for and grab a pen
  4. Write whatever comes to mind
  5. Share the pain that you felt when they spoke or behaved in a certain way
  6. See if you can identify the source of their pain
  7. See how you can release the negative emotions you feel towards them

More than likely, whatever you've written is probably not something you want to send. But it may have allowed you to transform the feelings of anger and resentment into compassion and forgiveness. It may be a first draft of something you can work towards sending over time with the help of a family member or friend.

Either way, you've tried something, invested in your self and hopefully have learned something from the experience.

If you give this a go and want to share anything you've learned, I'd be happy to hear from you.

Citations

  1. Shields, Grant S, Loren Toussaint, Gabriel Dorn, and George M Slavich. β€œEffects of Lifetime Stress Exposure on Mental and Physical Health in Young Adulthood: How Stress Degrades and Forgiveness Protects Health" SAGE Journals, August 19, 2014.
  2. Thomas W. Baskin, Robert D. Enright, Intervention Studies on Forgiveness: A Meta-Analysis
  3. Cohen, Adam. β€œResearch on the Science of Forgiveness: An Annotated Bibliography.” Greater Good Magazine. Greater Good Science Center, October 1, 2004.
  4. Eisenberger et. al., An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection 2003 Science Direct
  5. Witvliet, C.V.O., Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness of harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12, 117-123.
← β˜•οΈ Happy Habit #6: Buy a Coffee for a Stranger
🎭 Happy Habit #4: Invest in experiencesβ€”not things... →

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