Anger is an often misunderstood emotion – especially when it comes to how to let go of anger. It’s all anyone has ever wanted to do, but many struggle with it their whole lives. Why is this?
At its core, anger is an important emotion. It lets us know where our boundaries are, and what we want to protect. If we couldn’t feel any anger, we would be like doormats who let anybody push us around. But when anger settles down in the crevices of our minds and simmers there for years – that’s when it becomes toxic. This kind of anger, you want to dump faster than a smelly bag of garbage. But how?
Now, I’m no expert on anger and forgiveness. In fact, researching for this article has been one of the most transformative experiences I dare say I’ve ever had. But it turns out, there is lots of powerful research out there that can move us forward on our path of forgiveness.
Read on to find out how you can let go of anger and achieve greater happiness with science-backed tips.
- What does it mean to let go of anger?
- Studies on letting go of anger
- How to let go of anger in 7 concrete steps
- Wrapping up
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
What does it mean to let go of anger?
If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already well aware of what it feels like to hold onto anger. So it might feel pointless to talk about this. But bear with me for a second.
There are three important reasons to clarify what letting go of anger means:
- We’ll have a concrete idea of what we’re aiming to do (instead of having abstract goals like “forgiveness” or “let it go”).
- We’ll know how to determine when we’ve succeeded in forgiving.
- We’ll be able to recognize any other bottled-up anger we’re not aware of yet.
What letting go of anger doesn’t mean
Many people have misconceptions about forgiveness. So first, let’s clarify a few points:
- Forgiving doesn’t mean that what the person did to you was okay.
- Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting what happened.
- Forgiving doesn’t mean reconciling with the person who hurt you.
- Forgiving doesn’t mean denying the person ever hurt you.
- Forgiving doesn’t mean stuffing it deep down and never thinking about it again.
- Forgiving doesn’t mean you’re weak – on the contrary!
Most researchers agree that none of these things have anything to do with letting go of anger.
So, what is it then?
The two things that define holding onto anger
Scientists have actually developed scales of forgiveness using studies. One such scale is called the Transgression Related Interpersonal Motivations Inventory (TRIM). This scale found that holding onto anger is made up of two things:
- Avoidance: You avoid contact with the person who hurt you.
- Revenge: You want to get back at the person who hurt you, or see them hurt.
The authors of the TRIM scale also defined “revenge” and “avoidance” subscales. According to these, you would have the following thoughts if you are holding onto anger:
Revenge thoughts related to holding onto anger:
- “I’ll make him/her pay.”
- “I wish that something bad would happen to him/her.”
- “I’m going to get even.”
- “I want to see him/her hurt and miserable.”
Avoidance thoughts related to holding onto anger:
- “I keep as much distance between us as possible.”
- “I live as if he/she doesn’t exist, isn’t around.”
- “I don’t trust him/her.”
- “I find it difficult to act warmly toward him/her.”
Do you recognize yourself in any of these statements? If yes, this means you haven’t let go of some anger.
What do we need to do to let go of anger?
Letting go of anger means letting go of the thoughts outlined above. But, it’s more than that. Dr. Bob Enright, who was one of the first to start researching forgiveness, says:
True forgiveness goes a step further, offering something positive – empathy, compassion, understanding – toward the person who hurt you.Dr. Bob Enright
Another psychologist calls this canceling the debt. Here is how he explains it:
When someone does us wrong, we feel as though they have taken something that belongs to us – our peace, our joy, our happiness – and that they now ‘owe us.’ When we forgive them, we simply release the debt. It’s no longer ‘you’ve hurt me and you’ve got to pay’. We don’t pretend the debt never existed, we just forgive it. ‘You no longer owe me anything.’
So this is what we have to aim for.
Studies on letting go of anger
There is an enormous body of research on the amazing benefits of forgiveness. So much, in fact, that even if I filled this entire article with examples, I’d still only be scratching the surface.
So let me share just a few key things.
Studies show anybody can learn to forgive
Despite our best intentions, figuring out how to let go of anger can feel like an impossible task. Have you ever felt like maybe you’re just not the forgiving type?
Indeed, researchers found that many things affect your ability to forgive, including:
- Your personality traits.
- The type of relationship with the offender.
- The type of offense and its consequences.
- Whether you believe it was intentional.
- Whether the offender has apologized.
However, none of the above factors were significant when a person worked on their empathy.
Dr. Loren Toussaint, psychology professor and co-author of a book on forgiveness, found the same in his research. He further encourages everyone to keep trying, even if you have a lapse.
A natural resurgence of unforgiving feelings is normal. It’s like having a piece of cake during a diet. Just because you have a setback doesn’t mean you’re an unforgiving person.Dr. Loren Toussaint
Studies show that forgiveness has great mental and physical benefits
Many studies show that forgiveness has great mental and physical benefits:
- Happier relationships
- Less stress and better overall health
- Greater self-esteem
- Greater emotional strength, confidence, and optimism
- And many (many) more.
We’re not just talking about forgiving someone for spilling milk, or calling you a twat. Letting go of anger is extremely powerful even for severely negative events. For example, studies show that forgiveness:
- Reduced anxiety, anger, and grief in post-abortion men
- Reduced anxiety and depression in incest survivors
- Decreased anger, anxiety, and depression in substance dependent patients
- Decreased depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress in emotionally abused women
Why it’s so important to learn how to let go of anger
I hope the sections above have convinced you how important it is to learn how to let go of anger.
Actually, Buddha summarizes it best:
Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.Buddha
Forgiveness has only to do with you. The other person doesn’t even need to be aware that you’ve forgiven them. And you’ll be so much happier for it.
How to let go of anger in 7 concrete steps
Without any further delay, let’s look at what you can do to let go of anger.
1. Explore your anger
To let go of our anger, we need to first become familiar with it. Here are two tips for exploring your anger.
Dig deep to identify other feelings
Many researchers consider anger a “secondary emotion”. This means that anger is really covering up other emotions that are too difficult for us to feel. These may include:
You’ll never be able to deal with these emotions if you don’t recognize them. Just like you’d never water a plant if you’re pretending it doesn’t exist!
When you feel angry, try to ask yourself “why” – dig deep until you’ve uncovered the root of the problem.
Sometimes these emotions just need to be acknowledged. After all, emotions are there to be felt and to teach us things about ourselves. Other times, you may need time to process these emotions.
Focus on self forgiveness too
Anger is a social emotion – it’s always directed at a target. This often ends up being anybody but us; there’s a kind of satisfaction to blaming our unhappiness on someone else.
But there is usually a part we played in the conflict – however small – that we must forgive ourselves for too. Realizing this can be one of the hardest parts of the process.
Even when you believe something is 100% someone else’s fault, you might be angry at yourself for not being able to prevent it or react in a better way.
It’s important to dig into this to let ourselves heal and grow.
2. Use your anger in constructive ways
Of course, we want to let go of anger. But that doesn’t mean we can’t grow from it first. Here are some ways to use your anger constructively.
Note any lessons learned and grow as a person
Our anger can teach us very valuable things about what kind of people we want to be. You might be angry because you know you could have done something better. Or, because you couldn’t stop something from happening. Or maybe because of the way you let someone treat you without doing anything about it.
We aren’t able to change these things about the past. But we can use this knowledge to make better decisions and become better people down the line. So rather than spending energy dwelling on it, we can use our anger to facilitate growth.
When these thoughts pop up, think about what you would do if you could redo the situation today. Make a mental note of a lesson learned, and try not to dwell on your anger anymore. When we give our negative feelings a constructive purpose, we may also get some relief from them.
Set better boundaries
As we’ve discussed, forgiveness is an amazing tool for mental and emotional health. Yet, it can be taken too far. For example, a study found that women in domestic violence shelters are more likely to return to their partners when they are more forgiving.
But more research has found that forgiveness only leads to relationship unhappiness when the person hurts you often.
So make sure you consider what is happening and set boundaries to protect yourself. In some cases, it may be better to forgive only as an internal process, but not let the relationship continue. Or, let it continue but don’t tolerate the behavior anymore. This doesn’t make your forgiveness any less valid.
3. Think and talk about what happened in productive ways
The age-old saying goes, “time heals all” – but does it? Research has found that time alone doesn’t do much to help people move past traumatic events. We need to actively process our thoughts and emotions. Here are some productive ways to do this.
Replay the situation in your mind from a distance
When something upsetting happens, it’s natural for us to replay it in our heads.
Science says this can even help you let go of your anger. But only if you do it from a third-person perspective (as if you were a fly on the wall). When we recall a negative event this way:
- We feel less upset while we replay the event.
- Our blood pressure rises less and returns to its normal rate much faster.
- We are less emotionally reactive in the near future.
- We’re less prone to starting or encouraging more conflicts with that person in the future.
- We focus more on problem solving than dwelling.
More research confirms that viewing a situation from a different perspective can stop angry feelings. So don’t try to block the memory out, just try finding a different seat to watch from.
Choose wisely who you vent to
It’s natural to vent about upsetting things. But if you want to let go of anger, you have to be very picky about who you vent to. A 2015 study has shown that talking to someone about a negative event makes us feel worse – unless they are an active listener. Choose someone who does these things in the conversation:
- Paraphrases what you’ve said to check they’ve understood.
- Asks you follow-up questions.
- Expresses empathy with your feelings.
Venting in this way still doesn’t help problem-solving. But at least it reduces the negative emotional impact it otherwise has.
Journal and focus on constructive thoughts
Countless articles on how to let go of anger will recommend journaling. But does it actually help achieve forgiveness?
To answer this, a study compared the effects of three types of journaling:
- Writing down feelings related to a negative event.
- Writing down both feelings and thoughts related to a negative event, to try to “make sense” of what happened.
- Writing factually about events not related to you.
Surprisingly (or maybe not), those who just vented about their feelings (type 1) actually had worse physical symptoms.
The third kind of writing had no significant effect.
The second group was the only one that benefited from the journaling. These were the instructions that they had received:
We would like you to keep a journal of your deepest thoughts and feelings about this topic over the next month. We are particularly interested in understanding how you have tried to make sense of this situation and what you tell yourself about it to help you deal with it. If the situation you’re describing does not yet make sense to you, or it is difficult to deal with, describe how you are trying to understand it, make sense of it, and deal with it and how your feelings may change about it.
Focusing on journaling in this way helped people:
- Realize any benefits of the negative event.
- Better understand what happened.
- Make meaningful shifts in values, priorities, or perspectives in response.
Ultimately, this group was able to grow from the trauma and heal.
4. Build empathy towards the person
Want to know possibly the best way to let go of anger? Many researchers have said it’s empathy.
If you’re filled with anger and disgust towards someone, it could feel unnatural or unpleasant to try to empathize with them. But remember, it doesn’t make your anger less valid. It doesn’t diminish what they’ve done to you, and doesn’t justify it either.
It’s an exercise solely for your own mental and emotional benefit.
Here are some ways to help you empathize so that you can let go of your anger.
Try to remove the blame from the other person
Science shows that a great way to build empathy towards someone is to remove responsibility from them. Asking yourself these two questions can help you do this:
Were they the only ones responsible for what happened?
There are very few situations in life where one person is entirely responsible for something. Of course, someone might shoulder the better part of the blame. But can we really say it was all them?
If you’re still skeptical about this, consider it from the other perspective. Has anyone ever blamed you for something that you found horribly unfair because you could clearly see they too had a role to play? Maybe they couldn’t see your side of the story or didn’t care to listen to it. This could also be the perspective of the other person here.
How much control did the person have over the situation?
When have we ever had full control over something in life? Even when we are actively making a decision, there are still tons of outside factors involved. So if someone isn’t able to control everything, can we really put all the blame on them for a problem?
Put yourself in their shoes
The simplest way to achieve empathy is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
What do you think they could have felt? How could they have interpreted the situation? What factors could have led to the decision they made? What problems could they have been facing at the moment? What were they trying to achieve?
You might not come up with answers to all these questions. But try to tap into compassion and understand the other person as best as you can.
5. Reframe your emotions and thoughts
In essence, anger happens in our minds and feelings. So to let go of anger, we will need to start by reframing what we think and feel. Here are some concrete steps to help you with that.
Focus on your emotions instead of making a decision
Research has found a clear distinction between emotional forgiveness and decisional forgiveness.
- Emotional forgiveness is when your emotions towards the person who hurt you change. Specifically, they become more positive.
- Decisional forgiveness is when you tell yourself you’re forgiving the person, but no change happens on an emotional level.
- Not surprisingly, only emotional forgiveness fosters empathy and truly helps you let go of anger.
Think about when you’ve been forgiven yourself
Alas, none of us are perfect. If you’re old enough to read this text, then you’ve been alive long enough for someone to have been upset with you. Think about your relationships with the closest people in your life. Have you made any mistakes? Have they forgiven you for those mistakes?
Realizing that we have been on the hurter’s side of the coin too, can help humanize the other person for you. Mistakes don’t define who we are, and they don’t have to permanently change a relationship.
6. Put in the work and time
Forgiveness will take some time – perhaps even lots of it. Dr. Everett Worthington, psychology professor and forgiveness researcher, has even joked:
I had a professor in grad school that gave me a B, and it took me 10 years to forgive that guy.Dr. Everett Worthington
However, with practice, we can become very good at forgiving. The same researcher had his ability to forgive put to the test in the most horrific way possible: his mother was murdered in a home invasion. Police were sure they had identified the perpetrator, but he was never prosecuted. Can a person forgive even this kind of injustice?
As Worthington shows, yes we can.
I had applied the forgiveness model many times, but never to such a big event. As it turned out, I was able to forgive the young man quite quickly.Dr. Everett Worthington
Of course, this is an extreme case, and I hope nobody reading this has to go through something remotely so tragic. But let it serve as inspiration for the human capacity to forgive and heal.
How much time do we need to let go of anger?
The amount of time you need to forgive will vary from person to person.
What’s for sure is that the more time we commit to improving this part of our wellbeing, the more results we’ll see. Worthington has said:
There’s a strong dose-response relationship between the amount of time people try to forgive and the amount of forgiveness they’re successful at experiencing. It’s all about the time spent.Dr. Everett Worthington
So in a nutshell, more time invested into letting go of anger = more forgiveness = greater wellbeing and happiness.
Figuring out how to let go of anger can be a long process – and also a difficult one. Nobody can lift this burden off you, unfortunately. But I hope that I’ve been able to bring to light some useful insights in this article. If you keep at it, I’m sure that you’ll find yourself much further along your journey one year from now.
What do you think? Do you find it hard to let go of anger? Or do you find it hard to forgive someone who has hurt you? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below!