Memories can last a lifetime...for better or for worse. Sometimes we reminisce about positive experiences. But it's also easy for negative memories to gain hold of our attention and foster negative feelings, such as anger, pain, and resentment. These heavier memories can lead to grudges that can weigh you down and keep you in a cycle of anger.
For our own sake, it can be helpful to learn how to let of grudges. The emotions of hurt and disdain can run deep, but they aren't impossible to release. With a bit of effort and compassion, you can learn how to move forward and experience the positive wellness benefits of letting go of grudges.
Why Do I Hold a Grudge?
The short answer is because you're human. You have likes and dislikes, opinions about what is fair or not fair, and topics or areas around which you might be sensitive based on your values or your personal history. If someone does something that offends you, especially if you feel as though they intended to cause you harm, you'll remember the incident and the person involved. You might even decide not to forgive them.
But there is a more complex answer to this question as well. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the hostility and anger you hold towards a hurtful person or event can lead to resentment. Research shows that these intense feelings can be present for an extended period of time, and, although they may dissipate, they can easily be recharged.
Mental health researchers define a grudge as hanging on to negative sentiments and judgments toward those who offended you by ruminating or repetitively thinking about the hurtful incident.
The bottom line is that we hold grudges because we're hurt. If someone caused pain in your life, intentionally or not, it can impact your life in a meaningful way for an extended period of time. Your grudge can make it difficult to process emotions, release pain, and move on.
Negative Health Effects of Holding a Grudge
If you've ever held a grudge, you know that they don't make you feel particularly great. When your grudge is triggered, you might notice a tightness in your chest or you may become more irritable. In addition, you might ruminate on the past and experience more negative thoughts.
When you take these emotional and physical changes into consideration, it becomes easy to see how holding a grudge can negatively impact your physical and mental health.
Physical Health Effects
According to a landmark study from the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, holding a grudge can lead to negative physical health consequences. The study included 9,882 participants across the United States and used the National Comorbidity Survey to determine if bearing grudges was associated with an increased risk of developing certain medical conditions.
A total of 14 health conditions were included in the study, and the results found that eight of them had statistically significant positive correlations to holding a grudge. Arthritis, back problems, chronic pain, headaches, heart attack, high blood pressure, illness, and stomach ulcers were all experienced at higher rates for people who held grudges compared to individuals that didn't.
Holding a grudge can also lead to additional physical health consequences, such as the increased risk of:
Mental Health Effects
Holding a grudge also takes a toll on your mental well-being. Not only can be exhausting to harbor resentment for another person, research shows that prolonged anger can lead to a higher risk of developing certain mental health conditions, such as:
How to Let Go of Grudges in 6 Steps
Are you ready to work through your grudges? You might have some major grudges that are a constant source of anger, while others may be associated with less pain. Both can contribute to unwanted feelings and behaviors that keep you from feeling and being your best.
If you want to move forward, you should be in a good place where you can put in the time and effort to work through resentment. Be patient with yourself as you move through the process. Choose one grudge to work though first. Then tackle others as you experience success and see the benefits of letting go.
1. Get to the Root of Your Feelings
The first step in letting go of a grudge is to acknowledge that it exists. It's okay to feel upset over an event from your past. However, in order to move forward, it's helpful to process your emotions.
To get to the root of your feelings, ask yourself these questions:
- What happened in the past that upset you? Describe the person or events in detail.
- How did you feel at the moment when the experience occurred?
- What was it about the past event that upset you? Did you find it unfair, rude, discriminatory, etc.?
- How do you feel talking or thinking about the past event, or being around that specific person now?
- What feelings and sensations occur in your body when you think about the event? What thoughts arise?
- How do you wish things have gone differently in the past? What actions do you wish you or another person had taken?
- Why do you feel like this event still bothers you in the present? What would need to occur in order for you to let it go?
- How can you take steps toward healing?
Reflect on your answers to get a better understanding of why the past event was so impactful. After you recognize how the grudge makes you feel, you can begin to see how it influences your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
2. Give Yourself Time to Reflect
After you identify your feelings, it can be helpful to reflect on them further. One way to do this is to keep a journal. You can write about the thoughts and experiences that occur while you work through your resentment. This can include the challenges you face, new discoveries you make, and the barriers that may get in your way.
You can incorporate journaling into your morning or evening routines to help it become a daily habit. The more you write, the more steps you take toward understanding your emotions.
3. Practice Empathy
Another way to work through a grudge is to try and see things from the other person's perspective, a process called empathy. Empathy allows you to put yourself in the other person's shoes.
There are a variety of ways you can explore empathy, such as:
- Ask yourself questions: What are some reasons why this person may have acted the way they did? What was the root of their intentions? How would they feel if they knew how their actions made me feel?
- Practice loving-kindness meditations: When you practice this form of meditation, you send positive feelings to yourself, people you care about, and people you might have difficult relationships with. It can disrupt behavior patterns and allow you to practice sending peace to others instead of negative anger.
- Read books about empathy: The more you know about empathy, the more your connection to it can evolve. Books such as Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric, The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki, and The Empathy Effect by Helen Riess and Liz Neporent are great places to start.
Empathy is a process and a practice. Your relationship with it is constantly changing and evolving.
4. Consider Forgiveness
Forgiveness is not permission or acceptance. It doesn't mean that it was okay for someone to treat you poorly, nor does it mean that you'll accept them back into your life. Instead, forgiveness means that you voluntarily and intentionally let go of your feelings of resentment, so that they no longer have control over you.
Not every mental health professional supports the idea that we need to forgive in order to heal. However, it is a commonly recommended step in the process of letting go of resentment.
Research shows that forgiveness has been associated with positive health benefits, including:
- Decreased rates of stress
- Elevated mood
- Improved overall well-being
- Lower rates of developing mental health conditions
- Reduced levels of distress
You don't have to grant someone forgiveness if you don't want to. Do what feels right for you. You don't have to forgive someone if you aren't there yet. What's important is that the event or person no longer has control over your emotions.
5. Reach Out for Additional Support
It can be challenging to work through feelings of resentment alone. For this reason, it can be especially helpful to receive additional support from a mental health professional. Your therapist or counselor can help you process your emotions, navigate through your struggles, and create a plan for how to move forward.
6. Remember to Prioritize Yourself
As you try to work through your resentment, you might run into some snags. You might find yourself asking questions like, does this person deserve forgiveness? Why do I have to do the work for something someone else did?
When these negative thoughts arise, remember that there's no such thing as one-way liberation. This process isn't about setting someone else free. It's about freeing yourself and letting go. You are making your mental and physical wellness a priority and moving forward in a life without the heaviness of a grudge.
It can take time to get over a grudge, especially if those difficult feelings have been there for a while. Remember to be gentle with yourself as you work through your emotions. Take the process day by day. Every step you take towards letting go of grudges helps support your overall well-being.