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Why Holding Onto Old Relationship Hurts May Make You Sick

There are lots of reasons to forgive someone who has wronged you in some way. Though many of them are rooted in religion and morality, they all share a practical rationale: Forgiveness is good for you.

Holding a grudge rarely hurts the person who caused the offense, but it can do you serious harm. As Irish-American writer and actor Malachy McCourt once said, “Not forgiving someone is like taking a poison and expecting the other person to die.” That’s not terribly effective — or smart.

First, resentment and bitterness can make you physically ill. Psychiatrists Holmes and Rahe conducted a landmark study in the 1960s that found a measureable link between psychological and emotional stress and illness. Anyone who has ever nursed an offense for long will tell you, it IS stressful. You spend a lot of time replaying the incident in your mind, imagining alternative scenarios, and rehearsing what you’ll say if you ever get the chance. It disrupts your sleep and dominates your conversations, none of which is good for your general health and well-being.

Second, holding on to the painful wounds of a past relationship is a great way to spoil your chances at finding a new one. The reasons are simple and predictable. Holding a grudge makes you overly defensive with others; fearful of repeating the painful experience; conflicted and unable to commit; and depleted from carrying around all that unnecessary anxiety.

To clear the air and pave the way for a fresh start with someone new, it is necessary to let go of the thoughts and emotions still tying you to someone else. Here are four concrete steps you can take to get started:

1. Shun the words “should” and “shouldn’t.” “He shouldn’t have treated me that way.” “She should have known how much her actions would hurt me.” These words are an emotional anchor that keep you tied to the past. They fan the flames of judgment and keep the fire of outrage and indignation hot far longer than is healthy. Going over all the shoulds and shouldn’ts of a painful situation doesn’t change history; it just keeps your memories raw. When we choose not to dwell on the shoulds and shouldn’ts, we heal faster and more fully.

2. Accept what is, here and now. When you carry a grudge, you focus your thoughts and attention on the past (on what was) and on the future (what might have been), and often ignore what is in plain sight right now. By clinging to the alternate version of your life, in many ways you stop living the life you actually have. That may be tempting, especially if you don’t particularly like where you are and what you are doing at the moment. But healing and happiness can never be found anywhere but here and now. The present is all you have to work with. Accept that and start building something new.

3. Mine today for possibility. Every closed door is an opportunity to turn your life in a new direction. Every ended relationship clears the deck for new ones. Sometimes that potential is not obvious until you look for it. Believe it is true. Get out of bed tomorrow morning and go looking for it.

4. Seize the day—with feeling! Once you’ve recognized the potential that is present in each moment, it’s time to act on it. At first you may have to overcome the inertia of unhappiness. For unknown reasons, we humans often cling to our misery and avoid actions we know will make us feel better. Perhaps we fear that letting go will legitimize someone else’s offensive behavior. Maybe we’ve grown used to feeling victimized and are unsure what to feel next.

The quickest way to forget—and eventually forgive—the one who hurt you is to fill the space he/she left behind with something else, something that makes you feel alive and hopeful. Don’t wait for the vacuum to fill on its own. Do it yourself, on purpose. Nothing speeds emotional healing faster than having a little fun. Laughter and taking joy in something you do really is good medicine.

Forgiveness isn’t about excusing someone else’s behavior. It is about setting yourself free to move on, unencumbered by damaging emotional baggage. You owe it to yourself—and future romantic partners—to let go.