Most people would agree that when we are wronged, it’s best to forgive and to let go of our anger, instead of brooding over a stale old grudge and allowing that stagnant resentment to suck the joy out of our lives. Of course, this familiar advice doesn’t in itself answer the question of how to go about it. Letting go of anger can be much easier said than done. A primitive emotion, anger has a basic survival function—when we’re attacked, it motivates us to fight and focuses our energy on defeating the attacker.

In the modern world, chances are high that we’re not going to have any life-threatening encounters with marauding attackers the next time we walk down the street or drive to the mall. We are far more likely to get angry at someone who is not really trying to do us any harm, such as a careless driver who gets too close. When such things happen, letting go of the anger generally doesn’t take long because a moment of reflection makes clear that there was no harm, either actual or intended.

Forgiveness becomes difficult not in these everyday situations, but when we feel that someone really was trying to harm us. Maybe we are just going about a routine day when we discover that we’ve been targeted by gossip. Even if no actual harm was done because it’s obvious nonsense and the bully who started it has no credibility, it still triggers the anger response in those primitive brain circuits: Danger! Attack! Enemy! Fight!

Though we’re probably sensible enough not to get into an actual brawl, the anger can last much longer than the incident itself. Months or even years later, we still feel that we have an enemy who means us harm and who chose to attack in such a nasty, unfair way—how is it possible to just let go of that and forgive?

One approach I’ve found helpful is to remind myself that I don’t have to own stories that belong to other people. If someone with an overactive imagination invents ridiculous conspiracy theories and puts me on their list of imagined evildoers, I don’t own those stories. They are no more relevant or meaningful to my real life than a tabloid paper at the bottom of the birdcage. I can choose to give them only the attention they deserve—which is to say, none.

And I don’t have to buy into the anger narrative by mindlessly slapping on the labels of “enemy” and “attack,” either. Most likely, even when someone is being nasty, it’s not because of a personal vendetta but just because of random stuff going on in their life. After a while, they may not even remember what they said. From their perspective, it wasn’t a malicious attack—just ordinary conversation, and not at all memorable. They’re not framing the situation in terms of having enemies, unless of course it suits their melodramatic worldview to have large numbers of enemies; and they couldn’t care less about whatever they might have said in the past.

So—if they don’t care, then why should anyone else? Forgiveness can simply be a matter of reframing an old incident as unimportant, rather than making heroic efforts to love one’s enemy. When the other person ceases to be seen as an enemy and becomes just another flawed human being who is trying to get through life, we’ve effectively let go of the narrative that fuels the anger. That gives us more room to increase our creative energy and to develop new, healthy, empowering personal narratives. As for other people’s silly old stories—time to put some fresh newspaper in the birdcage and take out the trash.


Toward the end of January, while shopping online for something to brighten up those dark winter days, I bought a necklace of crystals in cool, sparkling colors. It went nicely with two new sweaters I’d gotten over the holidays, and it also felt like it gave me a much-needed boost of refreshing energy.


Sometimes, without really thinking about it, I would find myself fidgeting with the necklace, just letting the crystal beads run through my fingers. People nowadays tend to feel self-conscious when they realize they’re doing something like that. There’s a risk someone else might judge it to be weird, inappropriate behavior. Nobody wants to be seen as weird or abnormal, so it’s easier just to put the beads away if there’s any chance of being noticed fidgeting with them.

And that’s a pity. As I see it, we’ve collectively done ourselves a great disservice by letting a narrow cultural construction of normality deprive us of such harmless ways of calming ourselves. Before the modern era, our ancestors often carried worry beads and rosaries, believing it perfectly normal to use beads for prayer and self-soothing when in public places. In some parts of the world, such as Greece and the Middle East, it’s still commonplace to carry a string of worry beads and to click through them while walking through a marketplace or having a conversation.

Our complex, rapidly changing society is difficult enough to deal with in itself. If we’re always avoiding simple ways to calm and nurture ourselves because other people might think we are weird, then we end up with another layer of pressure on top of everything else, and there’s no outlet for it. It’s not surprising that so many people in today’s world are hugely stressed out. Reclaiming our ancestors’ comforting old traditions such as worry beads would go a long way toward calming our minds, quieting those old nagging fears, and empowering us to love who we are right now.

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


Earlier in this series, I discussed the addictive, damaging nature of persistent negative thoughts and wrote that when we feel our thoughts are out of control, we shouldn’t be afraid to look beyond ourselves for help. What comes next—the third step in a 12-step recovery program—is the decision to actually do so.

Sometimes the third step is described much more succinctly as “Pray.” Although there are other ways to look beyond oneself for guidance and nurturing, many people find traditional prayers helpful because they provide the structure of a familiar, reassuring ritual. Words remembered from childhood come easily to mind and give us comfort, without need for all the mental effort that would be required to construct an entirely new ritual from scratch.

Ritual is important because when we remove anything from our lives, it needs to be replaced in a structured way by something else to fill the space. Otherwise, whether we’re talking about addictive behaviors or anything else we don’t want, it soon finds its way back into its usual spot because the power of habit is so strong. So, if we’re to succeed in removing negative thought loops from our minds, we need to put regular and comfortable patterns of positive thinking into the space they once occupied.

As mentioned, there are many ways of going about it—prayer, a gratitude journal, reading inspirational material, centering oneself through mindfulness and meditation, spending more time outdoors connecting with nature, and so forth. What’s important is that the new positive activities be done regularly, so that they can train the mind into better habits. Behavior and thought always are interrelated. When we do something regularly, it feels normal and expected; and whatever thoughts occupy our minds most of the day are the ones on which we’re most likely to act.

At first it seems awkward to fit different activities—whatever they may be—into our daily routines. We worry that there won’t be enough time or that it will feel like drudgery. We’re afraid of how other people will react—will they think we’ve joined a cult or gone loopy in woo-woo land if they notice us praying or meditating regularly? It seems so much harder than just keeping on with the same old stuff we’ve done before. And if it’s hard, then maybe it’s not working. Maybe we should just give it up before we totally fail and things get even worse.

After some time passes, though, we find that the new habits build on and reinforce each other. It feels more natural to start the day by counting our blessings, rather than by grumbling about the weather or some little inconvenience. Even in moments when we’re not consciously trying to shape our thoughts, we just happen to discover a few rays of peace and serenity breaking through the gloom anyway. The world starts to feel like a place where we really can expect to find love, care, and guidance when we need them. Of course, the journey is still in its early stages; but far below the surface of our awareness, real, substantial changes are happening.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Four.