Table of Contents
You’re really pissed at someone. Like, beyond angry. And the way you feel is totally justified, given what that person did. Literally, anyone would agree that you have every right to be livid! In fact, the 37 people with whom you shared your betrayal (including the stranger in the stall next to yours in the bathroom) said that of course you’ve been treated unfairly.
Then a dear friend — one who is worried about your blood pressure or maybe is just sick of hearing the story again and again — says, “I really think you should try and let your anger go.”
If you’re holding a grudge, here are just a few of the things that might be whizzing through your brain:
- Easy for her to say — it didn’t happen to her.
- I can’t “let it go” unless the person sincerely apologizes.
- If I drop it, it’s like saying what they did is okay when it’s so not.
- Letting go means forgiving them and they don’t deserve my forgiveness.
- I wish I could move on, but what that person did is so bad I truly don’t think I can.
Well, here’s some hopefully helpful info: Moving on from a grudge doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be angry, and you don’t have to forgive the person or even talk to them. It’s not even really about the person who did you dirt at all — it’s about all the benefits to your mental and physical health you will experience if you manage to dump your grudge.
Easy? No, but doable.
The meaning of holding a grudge
While the dictionary definition of a grudge is simply being mad at someone for something they did, “holding a grudge” refers to “a qualitatively different kind of anger than healthy anger,” says Robert Enright, PH.D., a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has been studying forgiveness for 40 years. “Holding a grudge is the kind of anger that takes up residence in the human heart and doesn’t know how to leave. It’s the kind of anger that can turn on us,” he says, potentially causing us more harm than the initial offense.
An unhealthy grudge, says Enright, who is the author of Forgiveness is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, lists a few qualities that distinguish it from merely being mad or annoyed.
- Your anger is long-term
- It’s deep-seated
- It’s intense
- You may sometimes wish for bad things to happen to the person who treated you so crappily.
- The person who wronged you lives rent-free in your brain.
- The grudge becomes part of your identity. If your boss forgets to thank you for your contributions in front of his boss, for example, that’s upsetting and angering, considering how hard you worked and that he thanked your teammates on the same project. Over the next months, however, while you might still have a pang of anger about it, you don’t think about it much. If you are holding a grudge, however, being “the one who is taken for granted” starts to define you. It colors everything, including how you treat your boss and your coworkers, and what you’re willing to do for him in the future, which might affect your career.
Why we hold grudges
At first it can feel kind of good, says Marjorie Ingall, co-author of Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies. “It can feel like a warm flame of self-righteousness inside of you. You can enjoy it like a little campfire that you blow on and nurture by putting little twigs in it,” she says, maybe replaying the unfairness in your mind and dwelling on how outrageous it continues to feel. It can also make you feel superior, as in “I may not be perfect, but at least I would never cheat!” And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying that for a time, if it lets you heal and helps you define your own values.
But the fire can flare out of control, and it can start to burn you, in all the ways discussed above. “A grudge can be a distraction from things that you could be doing instead of stoking your grudge that actually benefit you, or it could stand in the way of your doing those things,” Ingalls says.
Another big reason we hold onto anger is because whatever took place was so awful that we were traumatized by it. We may not think about lingering feelings of rage over a major traumatic betrayal, such as abuse or cruelty, as “holding a grudge,” but it can be viewed that way.
Expecting to be able to let something like that go, even after decades, is not always possible because of PTSD or other lingering effects. “It is very important that the client has time to process the anger, get to know the effects of the injustice, and to settle down emotionally,” says Enright. “Once a person has had time to process the trauma and the effects of that trauma (has new insights into what has happened to the client as a result of the trauma), and if the client is ready, it only is then that we start with the work of forgiveness.”
It just plain doesn’t feel good to be mad all the time, which is why most of the time we try not to. “Grudges are energizers for the negative,” says Enright. It can also keep you stuck in the past, ruminating on past slights, which can paralyze you or make you overly sensitive to misinterpreting what people say or do, or keep you from problem solving to improve your life, says Enright.
Holding grudges can also have measurable negative effects on your mind and your body. Grudges are about anger that won’t quit, called “chronic anger” in medical research, and chronic anger, is not good for you. One important study found that being anger-prone is an independent risk factor for heart disease, and Harvard researchers found that people who were frequently explosively angry were about five times more likely to have a heart attack in the hours after an outburst (the risk of stroke more than tripled). Periods of anger or anxiety can put you in fight-or-flight mode, leading to a cascade of effects that include higher blood pressure, narrowing of blood vessels, and increased clotting. Fight-or-flight also tightens your muscles leading to things like chronic back pain and tension headaches. “Chronic anger affects the immune system,” says Enright. A bunch of psychological conditions — anxiety and depression and eating disorders — are thought to be tied to unexpressed anger as well. Never mind all the less-than-nutritious stuff we eat, drink, smoke or otherwise engage with to try and calm our anger.
How to let go
Below are a few ways— not all of them work for everyone, so see which ones look doable to you.
- Ask for an apology. “One reason you may not be able to let go of the anger may be because you haven’t gotten a good apology,” says Ingall, whose book is about recognizing and crafting apologies that truly heal. The person may truly not realize how damaging their actions were, or wasn’t able to apologize right away for whatever reason. “Just asking for it is a brave act,” says Ingall “If the person refuses to see their own wrongdoing and can’t deliver it, you can feel good knowing you did everything you could and therefore the anger might not burn so hot.” You may come to realize that the person you had a grudge against is just incapable or simply too broken themselves, which can lessen your anger toward them.
- Ask for a better apology. “Some people’s intentions aren’t bad but they are not able to give you the apology you need on the first try,” she says. “If it’s a relationship of value or one you can’t get rid of, you can say, ‘I know you’ve apologized to me for X, but here’s why I’m still upset and I need you to apologize for Y.’” If it’s an old grudge, it’s still okay to ask for an apology, as in, “I know it’s been a long time, but I am still distressed about X.” Ingall suggests workshopping with a friend how you’ll bring it up.
- Imagine the person apologizing to you. This is a good thing to try when they’ve died or is otherwise not able to apologize. If you can give yourself the apology you deserve or might someday have gotten had they not passed, it can help you mourn the relationship and perhaps let it go.
- Consider the power you’re giving the other person with your grudge. By hanging on to your anger, you’re allowing the person to keep harming you, says Ingall. Remembering this can help you put yourself first. “Just building moral walls around it, you can think, Why am I wasting my energy being angry when I am the superior human here?” says Ingall. “We think of letting go of a grudge as letting go of power, but that’s not really so,” says Ingall. It’s giving the power back to yourself.
- Look behind your anger. Enright’s model for how to forgive has four distinct parts, the first of which is really exploring how you were affected emotionally and practically by what the person did. Talking it through with someone can unearth what’s behind your rage. “Much of traditional psychotherapy focuses on insight, bringing that which has been subconscious or unconscious into consciousness,” he says. Speaking to a therapist or a friend you trust, or even writing about what happened can help you understand your other emotions, and possibly lessen the anger. If you intend to move on to forgiving the person, this is a necessary first step.
- Re-humanize the person. When we hold a grudge against someone (even if we feel 100% justified in our anger) it is easy to make them into a cartoon villain, and we forget that they, too, are human, too. “Widen the story of who that person is,” says Enright. “They are not just the bad thing they did.” Are they, like you, a person who may have been hurt by others? Do you share other elements of being a person, like needing to eat and sleep? This is not to excuse their behavior but to explain it, and perhaps recognizing some of the things you share can soften your heart enough to “chip away at the grudge,” says Enright.
- Forgive if you can and want to. The previous two steps will help you move toward forgiveness. The fact is, says Enright, forgiveness takes time and practice, which he likens to working out at the “forgiveness gym” to build those muscles. “Healing is rigorous,” he says. Learning to stand in the pain of what happened and find mercy for someone who mistreated you can be “very transformative,” he says.
When to get help
If you’re really trying to let go of a grudge, but you still can’t seem to shake the anger inside of you and it feels like it’s taken control of your emotions, it’s time to get professional support. A licensed mental health professional can offer different coping mechanisms tailored to your specific situation to help you find some relief. Here’s how to find the right therapist for you.
What does holding grudges say about a person?
As bad for you as holding grudges is, it’s an entirely normal human thing to do, says Ingall. “The question is, in holding onto a grudge, are you doing something that’s harmful to you?” she posits. “You can feel angry with someone without holding a grudge.”
In fact, being angry when someone does you wrong is a good sign. “We are moral creatures with a sense of justice, and when we have been treated unfairly by others, we feel angry because we know we are persons of worth who should be treated with respect,” says Enright. “It’s important to us to live in harmony with each other, and when that breaks down, we get angry.” Anger is the emotion that lets you know that something isn’t working for you, so you can make a change, and the fight-or-flight physical response is designed to fight injustice or allow you to solve the problem, he says.
But when the anger hunkers down for a long stay and you’re preoccupied with the person who caused it for too long, that constant fight-or-flight anger response can drain you, physically and emotionally. “When you live with it long term, that’s when the damage can be done,” says Enright. The effects of the grudge are fatigue, anxiety and depression and those things can inhibit you from solving the problem.
Do I have to forgive the person to be free of a grudge?
Absolutely not. Forgiveness is a great thing (Enright’s research has shown that finding a path toward forgiveness has helped all kinds of people, including survivors of abuse, substance abusers and prison inmates) but it is not something anyone is obligated to do, and it is not possible for everyone.
In short, it’s your choice to forgive or decide if you’re able to move in that direction — you can’t simply forgive because someone else tells you it’s time, that the person who harmed you feels like they deserve it, or for the sake of family harmony. “The choice to forgive is that person’s and that person’s alone,” says Enright. “Don’t give in to the pressure of others who say you’re a bad person if you don’t. I am a firm believer in letting people walk their own path.”
While Enright’s research has found that forgiveness yields remarkable results, “There are a million reasons you ‘should’ forgive, but that doesn’t mean you can or want to,” agrees Ingall.
Stephanie (she/her) is the deputy director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she writes, edits and otherwise creates health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and other Hearst titles. She has covered women’s physical and emotional health, nutrition, sexuality and the multitudes of topics they contain for national publications for decades, and she is also a bestselling author, a mom of twins, a dog mom and an intuitive eater in progress.