Mental Suicide: The Danger of Grudges and How to Let Go | Mindfulness Rewrites

Monday, March 21, 2016

Mental Suicide: The Danger of Grudges and How to Let Go

     by Dr. Linda Miles

Mental Suicide: The Danger of Grudges and How to Let Go

Do you struggle to forgive yourself or others?

Are you overwhelmed by anger, bitterness, or toxic emotions?

Do you feel unable to think positively about a person or a situation which you consider unforgivable?

Are there many things you consider unforgivable?

In Harper Lee’s internationally acclaimed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the author transports us to the heart of the American South during the 1930s. Lee introduces us to her female protagonist, an adventurous girl named Scout. There’s a scene where Scout is fighting other children because they are ridiculing her father, Atticus Finch. Atticus is a soft-spoken, whip-smart attorney who has shouldered a difficult case, defending a black man in court. Atticus isn’t proud of his daughter’s brawl, and advises her accordingly: “You just hold your head up high and keep those fists down... No matter what anybody says to you, don’t let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”

Atticus is teaching two things: (1) forgiveness, a medicine that is even more potent for the forgiver than the forgiven, and (2) clear-headed logic, which enables Scout to step back and see the big picture, to assess the intensity and importance of a situation, to pick her battles, and to let go of that what weighs her down.

In his way, Atticus encourages mindfulness. Without practicing conscious thought, we don’t realize how our unconscious brain actually stores maladaptive experiences—purely with good intentions, since our brain seeks to protect us—and lashes out with defensive thoughts against others or even ourselves. In essence, though, these backstories backfire; “the hysterical is historical” you could say, because a reaction that is much stronger than the infraction is a reaction that emerges from past conditioning.

For instance, if you’re sitting in a staff meeting and can’t stop mentally attacking a coworker whom you hardly know, examine why your reaction is so strong. Often it is because you are reminded of a maladaptive pattern or person from your past (and this may have absolutely nothing to do with the present situation). When you bring those thoughts into the light of consciousness, you have a choice of what to think. You can decide to decrease the attacking thoughts which are generating an overdose of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, making you tense and unhappy. Carl Jung referred to these unconscious patterns as our “shadow”—fragmented parts of ourselves that live outside of awareness—and recommended that we shine a light on our shadow instead of projecting it on other around us. Mindfulness aids in this process.

You know how awful it feels after you get riled up, after the heat of your unchecked anger simmers down to become a cold lump of resentment. This can happen even after merely directing toxic thoughts against someone else; you don't even need to speak your grudge to feel these effects! If you just stop to think about it, staying bitter doesn’t hurt anyone else more than it hurts you. The negativity and anger brims and boils within you, destroying you. Holding onto these emotions is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.

“Forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me. It’s saying, You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.”
                                                                           –Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller

Like Scout, there are many people who are plagued by anger, a sense of injustice, and other negative emotions. Of course you must stand up for what is right, of course you should act upon your honor and integrity, and of course you are not supposed to swallow all the wrongs of the world. But, like Atticus, you must know that there is a better way. This way is more peaceful yet more effective in the long-term. The way of calm reassessment, of logic and love powerful enough to be reckoned with. The way that keeps your blood level and heart rate and stress chemicals in check, and keeps you happy and alive for longer.

Mindfulness helps children like Scout hold their head up high, their fists down, and to keep others away from “getting their goat.” They learn to use their head to handle disputes. The Journal for Family (2013) reported that in a study of 400 children, mindfulness training resulted in significant increases in the students’ attention, self-control, classroom participation, and respect for others. Consequently, there’s been further interest in using mindfulness as an educational tactic. The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center found improvements in the self-regulatory abilities of preschoolers and elementary school students after they participated in just eight weeks of mindfulness training—and children who initially were most challenged by self-regulation showed the strongest improvements!

Although it is ideal to begin this practice at a young age, it is never too late to begin to strengthen your inborn capability to self-regulate. Your brain retains its plasticity for a lifetime; you need never stop growing and learning. It is never too late to heed the advice of Atticus Finch by refusing to allow others to “get your goat.”

The mindful practice of noticing our thoughts is what increases our awareness of how we react based on past hurts and resentments. It decreases our stress levels, enables us to think more clearly, to consider the consequences, and to fathom and accept someone else’s point of view. Forgiveness is the next step—the release of those hurts and resentments, and the catharsis that ensues from this.

Try This

Next time you find yourself in a situation that causes you toxic feelings:
  1. Visualize your muscles as knots.
  2. Drop your attention into your body and assess how you are holding your muscles.
  3. Imagine that you find these knots and you are loosening them. You are letting go of stress.
  4. Shift your awareness to the attacking thoughts and focus on a compassionate mantra, a kindness meditation:

                 May I be healed. May I be at peace. May I be filled with loving kindness.

You'll probably be feeling extremely tense when you begin this exercise. Your body might, in fact, even be physically hurting or uncomfortable from the amount of pressure you’re putting on it. These bodily sensations can be a signal that you may act reactively instead of proactively.

Make it your practice to allow a few minutes during each day, even when you're feeling fine, to check in with your bodily sensation.

It is also helpful to keep a mood chart on your calendar. Simply draw upward arrows for times you feel good, sideward arrows when you feel numb, and downward arrows when you are experiencing negative emotions. Over time, you can go back and shine a light on your patterns during the week and ask yourself:

  • What sets me off?
  • What grudges or grievances am I holding on to?
  • What behaviors do I need to forgive and let go in myself and others?

Remember to use our NOW acronym as a guide:

  • NOTICE what you are thinking and feeling.
  • View interpersonal challenges as an OPPORTUNITY to be better and not bitter.
  • Go WITHIN yourself to shine a light on your shadow side.

While it may take time to face your shadow and let go of toxic thoughts, these steps will prime your brain to think in new and better ways, help you respond rather than react, and enhance your well-being.

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