Having trouble forgiving a loved one? Ask yourself these questions

This week on the Modern Ruhles podcast: forgiveness. Holding a grudge can take a toll on your emotional and physical health.
Image: The health impact of grudge holding, and steps we can take to move toward forgiveness when it comes to our closest relationships.
The health impact of grudge holding, and steps we can take to move toward forgiveness when it comes to our closest relationships.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images
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By Julie Brown

This is Modern Ruhles, a podcast from Stephanie Ruhle that features compelling conversations for culturally complicated times. Listen to podcast, read the stories and share your own thoughts here.

From an early age, we are taught the value of saying “please,” “thank you,” “good night,” and “I’m sorry.” The “I’m sorry” piece, though, is one that seems to get more complicated with age, maybe because there’s no teacher to facilitate an apology about stolen crayons, or no parent to ensure you expressed regret for teasing a sibling. There’s no easy way to tell. But MSNBC anchor, Stephanie Ruhle, who devoted the latest episode (and finale) of her podcast Modern Ruhles, names another culprit: ego. She told me about a time when a co-worker had been selected for a promotion she thought she deserved. “I couldn’t believe this colleague had received the role instead of me. I saw myself as the more qualified, better pick. I felt enraged and hated this person for something they really had no control over.”

Reflecting on this experience years later, Ruhle knows her grudge came from a place of insecurity, not hatred. “My issues with this person were rooted in my own self-doubt. It was easier for me to blame this person for taking the opportunity away from me than it was for me to consider why I didn’t receive the promotion in the first place.” She believes the lesson here can apply more broadly: “So many of the fights we get in and the people we oppose have much more to do with our own understating of our position and emotional security — or lack thereof — than it does the other person’s,” says the MSNBC anchor. “That makes forgiveness a personal act — one we do to better understand our own issues, so that we can move on and live a life free of those grudges, so we can be a better version of ourselves.”

One of the interviews featured within the episode is with Alice Marie Johnson, whose life imprisonment sentence was commuted by President Trump last year. Johnson was convicted for her involvement in a cocaine trafficking ring. She never denies her participation in the criminal activity, but claims allegations that she was the leader of the operation are inaccurate. Johnson says she was instead an intermediary for the ring, and never made any drug deals herself. Ultimately, she was sentenced to life in prison, and served 21 years before her repeated requests for clemency were granted. Johnson described a similar understanding of forgiveness to Ruhle’s: “In order for me to move forward, I could not allow bitterness and unforgiveness to poison me,” she told Ruhle. “If I did, that meant that I was giving someone else control over my life.”

Johnson was referring to a symbolic poisoning — but she is not far off in her wording. Grudge holding, as it turns out, is unhealthy for both our minds and our bodies. “When you are holding a grudge, you’re going to be in a state when you are essentially angry and stressed. You’re increasing cortisol — and that gets associated with all kinds of things,” says Dr. Karen Swartz, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Specifically, being in an angry and grudge-holding state puts you in fight or flight mode, which originally served the human body as a survival mechanism, activated by physical danger and life-threatening situations. In modern times, the response is also triggered by stressful scenarios even when they aren’t life threatening — like work pressure, or relationship difficulties. That means that not forgiving a friend or loved one — and holding a grudge — can actually take a toll physically. Some physical symptoms of chronic stress include high blood pressure and brain changes resulting in anxiety and depression, just to name a few, according to Harvard Medical School.

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But it doesn’t have to escalate to this level. If you’re working toward forgiveness — whether it’s with a loved one, a friend, or even a co-worker — ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is your natural response when it comes to confrontation?

“You have to learn about yourself,” says Dr. Swartz. “Each one of us is more or less likely to hold grudges based on our personality style.” Are you someone who is a grudge holder, or are you someone who can more easily forgive? Knowing your natural position when conflict arises is critical to acting more thoughtfully and less reactively. This way, you’re cognizant of your initial reaction as it’s happening, and hopefully, more reflective about your actions as you respond to the situation.

2. Would your loved one(s) respond similarly or differently?

Once you’ve established your own patterns around confrontation, consider how those closest to you might deal with the same situation. Are the most important people in your life going to hold grudges or are they going to forgive? “Many people end up in long-term relationships — friendships, marriages — with people who are different from they are. The non-grudge-holding person might say ‘why are you still angry about that?’ and the grudge-holding person might say ‘I can’t believe you’ve forgotten about that.’” Understanding your own default response to these types of situations and how they compare to those closest to you can provide invaluable context when you’re working toward forgiveness.

3. What would an impartial person say about the situation at hand?

A second opinion never hurts. Take yourself out of the situation for a second: if you asked someone not involved in the matter about their opinion, how would they respond? “Sometimes we have a sense that there’s been a terrible wrong done, and it’s just not that bad,” Dr. Swartz explains. Laying out the details to someone uninvested in the resolution — especially once you’ve determined your own go-to response to conflict — can provide perspective, and help clarify just how serious the conflict is.

Julie Brown is an anchor producer for MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle

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