The other day, a friend of mine was describing the metaphorical file cabinets in his mind, where he stores details of all the ways people have done wrong by him. I realised he was only half-joking when he was able to pull out a dusty folder from 20 years ago, describing how a little girl caused him grief when they were both kids.
While we laughed at his impressive memory recall, it did make me think of all the grudges – big and little – that we all hold on to. Some hurts can be buried so deep we don’t even realise how they’re affecting our mental health. But the experts know: holding on to all this pain can lead to anxiety and depression.
“Dwelling on feelings, such as sadness, anger and disappointment, can lead to bitterness, anxiety and depression by hijacking our thought processes, feelings and behaviour,” says Mary Hoang, head psychologist at The Indigo Project. “Holding onto past hurts can affect the way that we see ourselves, as we may start to identify with being more helpless or hopeless, insecure or feel less worthy.”
“[Forgiveness] brings peace of mind and can release you from anger and deeply held negative feelings. It is empowering you to recognise the pain you’ve suffered without letting that pain define you.”
Amanda Tanner, traditional Chinese medicine acupuncturist at Sydney Integrative Medicine, adds, “It can also affect our mental capacity to see current situations through a reality-based lens, which leads to overreacting or avoiding the people who trigger these hurts.”
This is where the F-word comes in. Not the one you so animatedly expressed at the time, but forgiveness.
“Research has shown that forgiveness is linked to mental-health outcomes, such as reduced anxiety and depression, as well as fewer physical health symptoms and lower mortality rates,” Hoang says.
Forgiving is not the same as condoning a person’s actions. “It’s not glossing over or denying the seriousness of an offence against you, nor is it forgetting or excusing the offence. Forgiveness is for you,” Hoang emphasises. “It brings peace of mind and can release you from anger and deeply held negative feelings. It is empowering you to recognise the pain you’ve suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.”
To start the process, Hoang recommends this writing exercise:
Think of a person you are holding a grudge against or someone you have unresolved conflict with.
a) Describe the event that caused tension between you two.
b) How did you feel about it?
c) In your own words, and in your own way, try to forgive that person.
d) If you found this activity difficult, what is making it hard for you to forgive? Seeing a psychologist can be helpful for guidance through this process.
Another approach to help let go of the past is a type of acupuncture called “Five Element”, which can be combined with therapy. “Everyone perceives hurt through a different emotional lens,” Tanner explains. “To help the person process, heal and move through the perceived hurt, we strengthen their element though the corresponding acupuncture meridians and points.”
Hurt, sadness, rejection and vulnerability are related to the fire element. Treating the heart meridian helps the person have the strength and courage to feel these emotions.
Grief is related to the metal element. Strengthening the lung meridian helps a person move through their grief, while the large intestine meridian helps a person let go of what doesn’t serve them.
Frustration and anger are associated with the wood element. Treating the liver and gall bladder meridians helps process these feelings.
Overthinking and obsessive worry are associated with the earth element. Treating the spleen and stomach meridians helps move through these emotions.
Fear, suspicion and anxiety are associated with the water element. Treating the kidney and bladder meridians helps process fears.
“Practising forgiveness meditation, as well as a love-and-kindness meditation, are helpful during the forgiveness process,” Hoang says. “In these practices we cultivate love and compassion for ourselves and others, and it’s interesting to see how our relationship with ourselves can change over time.”
If you’re experiencing feelings of depression, seek professional help or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Visit Lizza Gebilagin’s personal website.