How to Let Go of a Grudge & Practice Forgiveness

If a person has ever wronged you, you know that it can be challenging to let go of your anger towards them. When someone hurts you, it feels natural to close yourself off to that person and hold on to resentment. Holding a grudge is a self-protective measure that keeps you safe from future hurt and pain.

Unfortunately, holding onto a grudge can have a detrimental effect on your mental and physical well-being. Explore how holding grudges affects your health and what you can do to let go of old resentments to live a happier, more free life.

What Does “Holding a Grudge” Mean?

How Holding Grudges Affects Your Health

The word grudge likely comes from a 12th-century Germanic word “grucchen”, which means to find fault with, murmur, or complain. Holding a grudge essentially means holding on to a negative feeling or resentment in an underhanded and long-standing way.

Some grudges are publicly known, but typically, a grudge is the type of conflict that festers for years without the affected people taking outward action.

Grudges come about in many different types of situations. You may hold a grudge against your co-worker for nabbing the promotion you thought belonged to you. You may hold a grudge against the bank teller who wouldn’t cash your check without an ID. You may hold a grudge against your partner who cheated on you. You may even hold a grudge against that kid in 3rd grade for stealing your favorite pen and never giving it back.

The thing with grudges is that no matter how long ago an incident occurred or how insignificant it may seem to other people, you cannot let go of the negative feelings towards the other person.

You may feel resentment or anger, or even the desire to seek revenge. If you notice that you can’t seem to let even the slightest offenses go, you may have an issue with holding grudges.

Why Do People Hold Grudges?

How Holding Grudges Affects Your Health

Grudges typically develop out of a sense of having been done wrong. When someone offends you, takes something you thought belonged to you, or treats you poorly, it can cause you to resent that person and hold a grudge.

According to Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, people hold grudges as a natural response to emotional pain. Anger, pain, and other negative emotions arise when someone hurts you. These emotions can drive you to want to take revenge on the other person to “get back” at them for the actual or perceived offense they committed.

However, even when upset, you likely understand that taking revenge on another person can have devastating consequences. So, instead of acting out your feelings in retaliatory acts, you opt for passive-aggressive anger.

In some cases, a grudge develops out of a sense of helpfulness. If you are powerless to change the wrong done, holding a grudge may be the only way you feel any say in the situation.

Often, turning your resentment into a grudge, whether justified or not, protects you from further harm and allows you to hold righteous anger towards the person, situation, or organization that caused you pain. It also keeps you from engaging with the offender, keeping you safe from emotional discomfort.

How Does Holding a Grudge Affect Your Health?

How Holding Grudges Affects Your Health

No matter how terrible the offense, holding onto a grudge has damaging consequences for your health. When you hold onto a grudge, you may experience the following emotions:

  • Resentment
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Avoidance
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Aggression
  • Indignance
  • Rumination

These feelings keep your mind stuck in a feedback loop of negativity. They ensnare your mind in distorted thinking patterns, keeping it trapped in thoughts of anger and frustration. Holding a grudge for months or years has tangible effects on your well-being from constant negativity and bodily tension associated with stress and anxiety.

Holding a grudge can bring on the following mental and physical consequences for your mind and body.

Weakened Immune System

Many studies, including a 2014 article in Immunologic Research, have found that chronic stress and tension detrimentally affect your immune system. If you carry chronic tension in your body, your body’s cortisol levels increase. Cortisol is the stress hormone, and elevated levels can cause inflammation, reduced parasympathetic activity (rest and digest functions), increased blood pressure, mood fluctuations, and cognitive impairment.

Physical Health Problems

How Holding Grudges Affects Your Health

An article in Time Magazine reports that holding grudges can cause problems with your physical health. The article cites a 2009 study performed by the Medical College of Georgia that found people who kept long-standing grievances had increased rates of health issues, including:

  • Stomach ulcers
  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Arthritis
  • Chronic pain
  • Back pain

Mental Health Issues

The study mentioned in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience guided participants through “script-driven imagery” of a “personal offense”. They performed brain scans of participants as they revisited a memory from which a grudge had developed.

Researchers found that when participants relived the offense, certain areas of their brains showed more activation than others. These findings, along with the participant self-reports, indicate that rumination, or continually recalling or reliving a grudge-inducing moment, brings on intense anger, frustration, and resentment.

These feelings, the study reports, are associated with clinical mental issues such as depression and distorted thinking. Therefore, if you find yourself ruminating on one or multiple grudges you hold, you increase your risk of negative thinking and mental health issues.

Distorted Thinking

Holding a grudge keeps you trapped in a cycle of distorted thinking. Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that don’t accurately represent the world around you. For example, the cognitive distortion called black and white thinking means that you only see situations as black and white. There is no room for nuance or a gray area.

Another example is personalization. Personalization can cause you to believe that someone wronged you when the person didn’t even know they offended you. Personalization is common in the case of grudges, where one party has no idea that the other is holding a grudge against them.

Holding grudges deepens these distorted thinking patterns. Distorted thinking can keep you stuck in negativity, hopelessness, and victimhood for years and ruin your chances of contentment and happiness.

Why You Should Stop Holding a Grudge

How Holding Grudges Affects Your Health

Letting go of a grudge is necessary to living a life free of resentment, anger, and unresolved emotional pain. Although releasing a grudge can feel scary, the mental and physical benefits of letting go are worth the process of forgiveness.

Several pieces of research have studied the concept of forgiveness concerning health and well-being. Most studies have found evidence that practicing forgiveness can reduce stress and improve mental and physical well-being.

A 2016 study in Annals of Behavior Medicine found that as participants reported higher levels of forgiveness, their mental health symptoms improved.

A 2018 American Public Health Association article reports that forgiveness:

  • Lowers levels of anxiety, depression, and hostility
  • Reduces substance dependence and misuse
  • Increases positive emotions and emotional regulation
  • Increases life satisfaction

How To Practice Forgiveness To Release a Grudge

How Holding Grudges Affects Your Health

If you want to let go of your grudge and improve your quality of life, practice forgiveness. The path to forgiveness is different for every individual, so you must discover a method that works for you.

Generally, forgiveness is the practice of coming to terms with what happened to you, acknowledging your genuine emotions about the situation, and making peace with it to move forward.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to tell the other person, and it doesn’t mean that you approve of what they may have done. Forgiveness means that you are willing to work through your feelings to release yourself from the mental and physical effects of holding a grudge.

There are a few different “official” ways to approach forgiveness, including the REACH Model, the Process Model, and working with a trained therapist who can guide through the process.

To practice forgiveness, you can follow the basic steps below:

  • Go into the process with no timeline and no self-judgment. Forgiveness can take days, weeks, months, or even years, so be patient. Be kind to yourself and remember that you are forgiving the other person for your own sake, not theirs.
  • Take some time to recall the incident that caused you pain and note your associated emotions. Explore those feelings and let yourself feel them fully. Consider writing about this experience or expressing your feelings creatively.
  • When you feel emotionally safe, try to practice empathy with the person who wronged you. Consider their reasons for doing what they did. Don’t invalidate your emotions or condone their actions, but rather, add nuance to the situation.
  • Explore your flaws and past actions that may have played into the situation. Also, explore what may have prevented you from addressing the problem proactively. Exploring this aspect does not mean you blame yourself if you are a victim of an assault or abuse; however, it does mean acknowledging the areas you may have had control and encourages agency.
  • Commit to forgiveness for yourself. Decide that you won’t let this grudge keep you trapped in negativity. If you wish, you can meet with the other person face to face to reconcile or hash out the incident.

If contacting the person is unsafe or undesirable, forgive them privately. You can do this by writing a letter and ripping it up or role-playing with your therapist.

Forgiveness is the Key to Contentment

Holding a grudge is a natural response to feeling hurt, betrayed, or overlooked. It is a self-protective measure that attempts to protect you from further harm. Ironically, holding a grudge ensures that you stay trapped in a cycle of negativity and helplessness, causing more damage than it prevents. By embarking on the journey of forgiveness, you can begin to let a grudge go and move towards a more happy, healthy life.

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