Part of getting along with others is being willing to let go of grudges we hold against them for past behavior. Maybe someone acted badly years ago and we’re still carrying that around.

It’s easy to create a grudge: someone says or does something that hurts us in some way. We start a repetitive cycle of thinking things should have been different, that what happened was wrong.

A client of mine (let’s call her Aimee) had a grudge story she was willing to share. Her brother, Jesse, and their aging father lived in a town several states away from her. Jesse talked their father into loaning him a large sum of money to help buy a house. Their father didn’t really want to do it, but felt pressured into it. By the time their father complained to Aimee about it

over the phone, the house had been bought, and there was nothing she could do.

When Jesse never made payments on the “loan,” their father expressed concern and resentment for a few months, but his cognition was declining and he soon forgot about it. Aimee tried repeatedly to find out the particulars of the loan, but it turned out no papers had been signed, though she finally got Jesse to admit to the loan. Jesse lost his job, fell behind on his house payments (he’d also taken out a bank loan), and didn’t tell anyone. Jesse lost the house, and with it their father’s money.

Aimee was furious. How could her brother have done this?

She spent hours and hours during this process, trying to correct the situation and worrying about it. It continued consuming her thoughts, affecting her work and marriage, and causing her to lose sleep, even though the reality of the situation could not be undone. It was time to let it go, but how could she?

We discussed whether she was willing to continue feeling hurt and angry. It was not helping her because she couldn’t change Jesse or the past. Letting go was a decision she could make; she could gain some control over her thoughts and feelings, but it was a difficult step. My job was to remind her that all we can control is our response to what someone else did, and give her tools for doing so.

In one session, I taught her a process to release the grudge, starting with her taking three slow, deep breaths, focusing her attention on the air filling her belly. As she did so, her body, which tightened whenever she thought of this grudge, began to relax, allowing more oxygen to her brain, especially the reasoning parts. It also distracted her repetitive thoughts for a few seconds. She affirmed her willingness to let go and accept that she couldn’t control the past. Now she visualized how she’d like her day to flow — being well-rested and focused on her own life. From this more centered place, I had her create and then repeat a phrase that summed up her current feelings and decision to make peace with the situation. Aimee chose “I’ve done all I can about Jesse and I’m moving forward with my life.” She could then use this phrase as a reminder throughout the day.

She repeated this process on her own until thoughts of Jesse no longer triggered intense pain; it took a lot of repetitions at first, but now she seldom has to use it.

Does she still wish it had turned out differently? Absolutely. Did she think it was fair? Not at all. But letting go was not about letting Jesse off the hook, it was about giving herself the gift of putting the situation into perspective and moving on with her life.