Episode 79: How to Give Up a Grudge

Scott Barry Kaufman When I was in fifth grade, I just started walking to the train station after school with my friend. And, uh, I found out a couple of weeks later, after we started walking, that someone had spotted my mom hiding between the bushes as we were walking to the train station. She would go from like one bush to another, just to watch us and make sure that I was okay, cause she was really nervous and scared of me walking alone for, like, one of the first times. My friend who walked with me, was like, what the heck? You know, why is your mom doing that?

And yeah, it made me feel like a sense of loss of control. And I think eventually my whole school found out. I think that this is one of these things, like rumors spread. People find out that, uh, Scott’s mom and, you know, needs to monitor him was quite embarrassing.

Dacher Keltner We know from research that carrying a grudge can be toxic for our mental and physical health and that forgiving others can have the opposite effect, but it’s not easy to let go of old resentments and anger toward people who’ve harmed you even for small offenses. I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to the Science of Happiness.

Today, we’re talking about forgiveness, what it is and what it is not. Forgiving doesn’t mean glossing over or denying the seriousness of an offense. It doesn’t mean forgetting, condoning, or excusing people who’ve hurt you. And it doesn’t even have to mean reconciling with them, but it can help you get over some painful memories

and in some cases is repair damaged relationships, which was the goal for our guest today, scott Barry Kaufman. Scott’s a psychologist at Columbia University and the author of transcend the new science of self-actualization. He tried a practice to help him work on letting go of past hurt and he’s with us today to discuss how it went. Later in the show, we’ll explore the research on how forgiveness helps us in the long and short run. Scott, thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.

Scott Barry Kaufman Aw, well thanks for having me so excited to talk to you today.

Dacher Keltner So Scott, we asked you to try a practice from our Greater Good in Action website and you chose one called letting go of anger through compassion.

Can you walk us through it?

Scott Barry Kaufman Sure I’d be happy to. So first, I found a quiet place to sit. I relaxed for two minutes breathing in and out naturally and during each exhale, the instructions told me to focus on the word one. So I did that and I kept my arms, legs and body still. So, that was the first step. And yeah, just having that feeling of like, you know, having that consciousness of, of saying one, I do find that helpful.

Dacher Keltner It’s funny how powerful words are. I mean, there are these great studies where if you just prime people with cooperative words, they become more cooperative. What did just getting into a sort of a calm, physiological state in thinking one do for your mind?

Scott Barry Kaufman It helped me like hone in on the breath and kind of not dissociate my language from the sensation.

You know, it’s an interesting way of like integrating language and sensation when the language you’re having in your head and your consciousness is matched up with the sensation itself. It kind of minimizes the chance that I’m going to be sort of scattered and like, you know, being like, ugh, I’m going to try focusing on this breath, but I have all these other thoughts in my head.

It kind of, I don’t know, there’s something about that one. It just really, it really zoomed me in.

Dacher Keltner So then what happens?

Scott Barry Kaufman So then I, uh, identified a time in the past when another person hurt or offended me. So I knew that it was going to be my mom. And, I started to conjure up many, many instances of my over-protective, neurotic mom, just things that just brought me so much embarrassment and anger as a child. As I’m doing this exercise and I’m thinking through that experience in my head, it started to bring up some of those feelings of embarrassment again, and shame. In a sense, old feelings. I mean, we have old feelings that maybe necessarily don’t serve us in the moment or in our current lives anymore. And I think it’s okay for us to let go of old feelings.

Dacher Keltner So then what happens?

Scott Barry Kaufman So for the next two minutes, I thought of the quarter fender, I felt almost guilty referring to my mom as an offender, but “think of this person as a human being who behaved badly.” And I liked that phrasing a lot. “Even if the relationship cannot be restored, try to genuinely wish that this person experiences something positive or healing, even though it may be hard.”

I focused on the thoughts and feelings on giving a gift of mercy or compassion. And, you know, surprisingly, I was able to do this much easily, more easily, than I thought. And I realized that this is easy because I’m not in a position anymore where I feel a loss of control. I mean, I’m an adult, now. If my mom calls me, you know, and I don’t

have the time to talk to her, I don’t have to answer the phone. I have a full life and seeing things from a less clouded perspective, where I’m not being controlled, I can kind of see it with more of a perspective and not like a threatening perspective. Again, like a deprivation versus growth perspective on the situation.

I felt a lot of these tensions melt away.

Dacher Keltner You know, it’s so interesting. We know, you know, from variety of studies on compassion, that it just changes how you look at other human beings. You sense a common humanity. You know, you see them as having more pro-social intentions or kind intentions. They just want other people to be happy. Even that mom who’s following her fifth-grader in the bush, you know, at school. Did it change in the moment, this compassion, exercise, how you looked at your mom?

Scott Barry Kaufman Yes, it really did. And it kind of, I had an insight. I realized that, and here’s the key insight here is that, wow. She never intentionally meant me harm ever, ever.

Like I went through all of these examples in my head and I wrote a long list of them. Okay. Can I just give you another one because they give you a flavor of these? I mean, I remember she used to my, even my senior year in high school. Well, she would still drive me to the bus stop at the bottom of our street.

Cause she was scared that if I walked to the bend of, literally,

Dacher Keltner She loved her Scott!

Scott Barry Kaufman Yes, all my friends would see me get out of the car at the bus stop. So, I realized though, that all of this was her own suffering in a way. It was her own anxieties and need for control that she had. And it had nothing to do with me.

I went through all these examples example, I, for example, and I couldn’t logically rationally, see how any of these were intentional harm against me. And I think that insight was really valuable for me because as a kid, I only perceived it as intentional. You know. Or threatening in some way.

Dacher Keltner You use the word mercy, and I’m really curious, how did mercy figure in this exercise for you and why, what do you think about it?

Scott Barry Kaufman I think mercy is very much connected to another term that I don’t think we study enough in psychology or emotion and that’s pity. Pity is one of the most important human emotions one could have.

Dacher Keltner It’s interesting because we often think that pity is problematic or demeaning to people. So, what’s the take?

Scott Barry KaufmanPity is an interesting emotion and I’m tying it to mercy because. When you have mercy in a way, what you’re saying is I acknowledge you’re human, like I am, it’s almost like an acknowledgement of that simple fact.

Dacher KeltnerYeah. Powerful. You know, the practice has been supported by really nice work, you know, not only on the benefits of compassion, but you know, with how it plays out in forgiveness work and they find, if you just kind of reappraise things with compassion like you did, or mercy or pity, you feel better about the person you have more empathy, you forgive more, even kind of the thoughts in your mind are more positive compared to a rumination condition. How do you think about this dynamic of past harms and, you know, do we try to embrace them with compassion? When do we suppress them? How do you think about that interesting tension in the mind?

Scott Barry Kaufman With past wrongs against us, I think that it doesn’t mean that you like by forgiving. I don’t think that means that you are saying it’s okay, what they did to you or that like, they didn’t do something wrong or they didn’t cause you hurt. Kindness is about recognizing that the more you can reduce someone’s suffering, even if they’re causing a lot of people harm and hurt, recognizing a lot of that harm and hurt is coming from their suffering, so that it’s motivated by their suffering. So if you can actually reduce their suffering, there’s actually a greater good there. You know, there’s actually a greater purpose. It’s not just for that person. You’re thinking more about the whole world and everyone that person’s affecting in their life.

Dacher KeltnerGod that’s striking. I mean, one of the interesting things about practicing compassion vis-a-vis or harm perpetrated by someone like your mom, who you have this completely intertwined, enduring relationship with, is in a way that momentary practice may change how you look at the relationship. Did you sense that in doing this practice?

Scott Barry Kaufman Yes, I did sense that, and I even had a call with her and I said, I’m gonna be talking about you on a podcast next week. And she’s like, don’t say anything embarrassing about me, which I thought was funny because the whole, ironically, the whole thing was about forgiving her for embarrassing me in childhood.

So I said to my mom, you know, I’m doing this because, you know, I bet there are a lot of people out there who have a lot of resentments towards their parents or the things that their parents did when they were younger. That at the time, in that context, from their perspective, felt like a complete encroachment on personal space or personal freedom, you know, as, as a 13 year old or 14 year old.

But, if you could go from point a to that point, you know, point a of being like this was such a, uh, encroachment on my freedom to, wow, that was such an act of love. I have gratitude for this person for caring that much about me. I mean, the sky’s the limit in terms of the kind of relationship you can have with that person.

So I told my mom that, and she was very receptive to what I was saying, and I think it will ultimately improve our relationship.

Dacher Keltner You know, I think one of the real challenges of forgiveness is if you have well, that you’ve kind of intersected with in your past and they offended you and you forgive them in that moment in time, that seems to go well.

But when you have these enduring relationships, right, that are with your family and long-term friends, it’s, it can often be more complicated. I’m just curious how this reappraisal of compassion toward your mom changed your relationship with her.

Scott Barry Kaufman You know, I got a really nice text from her after the conversation I had with her.

She said, thank you for the chat. You know, you have a really nice way of, presenting something that maybe someone doesn’t want to hear, but do it in a way where they listen and can kind of see where you’re coming from. And that made me feel really good. Like, you know, she really listened to me, and I think a lot of times I realized that maybe my immediate gut reaction of anger, impeded the potentiality there for a positive relationship, which I can more clearly see now in kind of changing the way I talked to her about it as not coming from a place of deficiency, but coming from a place of growth.

Dacher Keltner Yeah. Wow. Wonderful. Hey Scott, thank you so much for being on our show today.

Scott Barry KaufmanThank you.

Dacher Keltner Although we can’t avoid feeling hurt by others, we can learn to let go of our anger toward them and feel more in control of our lives as a result. More on the science of forgiveness up next.

But first, we have a question for you. What helps you find strength during times of uncertainty, email us at greate@tberkeley.edu or share on social media with the hashtag #happinesspod.

When someone hurts us, we often have a tendency to think about it continuously, almost obsessively. We ruminate.

Elise Kalokerinos Rumination is thought to be this sort of characteristic feature of depression in particular, but also a lot of psychopathology. It across things like anxiety and bipolar disorder, as well.

So it’s sort of seen as this emotional marker of some mental challenges.

Dacher Keltner That’s Elise Kalokerinos. Elise is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and an expert in emotion regulation.

Elise Kalokerinos It’s associated with decreased wellbeing and also with increased physical illness and there has been some work done on particularly cardiovascular illness being associated with rumination, and the link there is probably that the more negative we feel, the more health challenges we tend to encounter.

Dacher Keltner But there’s a different approach.

Reappraising the situation, changing the story we tell ourselves about negative events.

Elise Kalokerinos Reappraisal is associated with feeling more positive and less negative. And that in turn is associated with things like being more satisfied with our lives and having strongest social connections. Reappraisal is going to be one of those strategies that’s really essential to forgiveness because it’s all about stepping outside of yourself and your own struggles and bringing in the other, whether that’s thinking of the event from this sort of outside of perspective, or even thinking of it from the perspective of the other people involved.

Dacher Keltner Or, we can think of it through a more compassionate lens, like Scott did today when thinking about his mother.

Elise KalokerinosI think the kind of forgiveness you’re going to get when you have compassion for others is going to be deeper and more long-lasting than forgiving without compassion. I think there’s sort of a way you could forgive without feeling compassionate towards others, but it’s, it’s going to be a much more rote way of forgiving, because you’re not going to fully understand the other person’s perspective when you do that.

Dacher Keltner In one study, Elise and her team wanted to better understand how people shift between rumination and reappraisal. They recruited about 500 college students and asked them to recall a recent event that made them really angry and that they hadn’t fully dealt with yet.

Each group was instructed to either ruminate, reappraise or do a combination of both.

Elise Kalokerinos So we gave them some instructions on how to do that. For rumination, they will ask to concentrate on the things that made them really angry during the event. And for reappraisal, they were asked to think of the event from the perspective of an objective outsider.

So, we quite strongly focused on that sort of detached reappraisal rather than finding the positive in the event.

Dacher Keltner Consistent with other studies, people only ruminated over something that angered them felt worse off than people who only reappraise the situation.

But if participants did one and then the other, they found the strategy, people used first strongly predicted how their emotions unfolded from that point on.

However, there’s still hope for those of us who don’t get it right the first time, at least the study also found that if we ruminate over something, but then make a deliberate shift to reappraise the situation, we can actually undo some of the harm.

Elise Kalokerinos So I think this sort of take-home that we had from the study was that the first strategy people use has the strongest effect.

But if you do reappraise after you ruminate, you can start counteracting that strong effect of initial rumination. So starting off on the right foot really matters, but if you don’t start off on the right foot, there is still some hope for trying to manage in this case, your anger.

Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness. You can try the letting go of anger through compassion practice by visiting ggia. berkeley.edu. And you can find a transcript of today’s episode at greatergood.berkeley.edu/podcasts. Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science center and PRX. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio.

Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor in Chief is Jason Marsh. We’ve got a new book out on the science of gratitude, featuring many of our past guests like comedian, W. Kamau Bell and psychologist, Sarah Algoe. Learn more at greatergood.berkeley.edu/gratitude.