When J A Sapphire (her pen name) found out at age 37 that the man she’d loved for 12 years had babies with two other women, she says the crushing discovery left her feeling insecure, worthless—and angry. So angry that she waited outside the business where he worked nights with a crowbar to bash in his skull.
Though most of us don’t act on revenge fantasies, who hasn’t felt an electric surge of anger after being dealt a crushing wrong? Our mental circuitry overloads from contemplating, How could (s)he do this? Heated emotions force us to re-experience the pain of getting burned—and to choke on the acrid smoke of incinerated expectations. It’s natural to transform that pain into an energy that makes us feel less powerless: Martyrdom. Righteous indignation. Manipulation. Placement of blame or shame, and yes, revenge.

But experts in healing and personal growth say the real power is in choosing to forgive. So do people who have moved forward, both from everyday slights and horrible injustices. When we forgive, we release anger, bitterness and regret, says Melisa Alaba, a licensed professional counselor in Atlanta. “You are making a decision to let go. When we choose to hold on to the past, we imprison ourselves.” The process of forgiving becomes the “off switch” for pain. It allows us to rewire our hearts and minds for happiness and healthier relationships. Why, then, does it feel so much like cutting off our power?