Grudges aren’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, in the short-run, they can be a positive emotion. When you are indignant in the moment, you’re telling yourself, It’s not OK to be treated this way. However, if the resentment festers, it can transform into unhealthy anger, which can take a physiological and mental toll. Feelings of revenge spike cortisol levels, a stress hormone. In this elevated state, blood pressure and heart rates rise while levels of oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone, are depleted. Studies show holding onto anger erodes one’s health while granting forgiveness enhances it.
If you’ve nursed a long-term grudge, you’ll understand why they’re so seductive; they comfort us (I’m hurting), give a sense of purpose (My suffering matters), and reinforce a victim mentality (I’ve been wronged!). Powerful emotions like jealousy, anger, resentment, and sadness are usually tangled with the hostile feelings, which can make it harder to just get over it. That’s why so many people hold on to grudges for months, years, and even lifetimes.
While it’s not easy to let go of a grudge and forgive, it is worth giving yourself the gift of letting those negative feelings go. We asked psychologists, professors, and even a divorce coach to get their best advice for releasing persistent feelings of ill will. Here’s what they said. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Evict the Person from Your Head
The one who hurt you may be living inside of you in a psychological sense; you may think about the person, and have dreams about the person, and that can make you miserable. If you choose to forgive and are ready to do that, then you set yourself free from the inner preoccupation with the person. Why let them live one more day inside of you, and all the while doing so rent-free? Long-held grudges that bring us down mean that the one who hurt us wins twice: first with the original offense and now with a challenging inner misery. Don't let the person win twice! - Robert Enright, professor and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute
Live in the Present
Create a pro/con list for maintaining the grudge, identifying how the grudge is helping and harming you. When you find yourself engaging in thoughts related to the grudge, acknowledge the thoughts, but recognize that these are just thoughts, not your reality or the position from which you need to operate. Distract yourself with something else. Bring your attention to the present, as grudges exist in the past. Remind yourself that going down the grudge rabbit hole isn't a productive use of your time. Focus on your values regarding how you want to spend your time and mental energy. Understand that letting go could be a process, and don't beat yourself up for coming back to the grudge at times. It's served a purpose, but it can also be detrimental. When you find yourself "grudging," acknowledge your feelings with compassion and bring your attention back to yourself––your experiences, your present, and what you hope to shape for your future. - Stacy Rosenfeld, psychologist and director of Gatewell Therapy Center
A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way
It’s helpful to try to see things from the other person’s perspective in order to get a better understanding of their motivation or actions. Attempt to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and come up with as many alternate possible explanations of what transpired as you can. Your goal is not to excuse their behavior, but rather, to help you rationalize where they could have been coming from. Of all the other alternate possible explanations you came up with, which one empowers you the most? Hint: When you choose the explanation that is most empowering to you, it will help you let go of the grudge and the negative energy drain associated with it. - Cheryl Dillon, divorce coach and co-founder of Equitable Mediation Services
Find the Right Audience
If you are holding a grudge because you feel unheard, misunderstood, or not believed, reach out for help to become heard. Here’s the condition: Seek to be heard by people who care about you and can still remain objective. It is not helpful to seek to be heard by those who merely validate or reinforce the narrative you’re already telling yourself. Family and friends, as much as they care for you, are naturally biased towards you. So if you don’t have friends that can listen well, show care and concern, validate your experience, while also speaking truth, consider reaching out to a therapist or counselor. You deserve freedom and peace. Elevate above this grudge and pursue paths that bring you more liberty and fulfillment. - Melody Li, licensed psychotherapist and relationship specialist
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