You may be at work, at home, or in a waiting room when the mental video clip starts rolling – the one highlighting the slights behind that grudge you hold tight. Painful memories cycle before your mind's eye, reminding you of just how justified your grudge is – from the time the relationship-assailant started flinging barbs your way to the final affront that became the proverbial last straw in your association with him or her.
The more your thoughts stir up old wounds, the more you grow from annoyed to seething. The clip ends with you declaring that you are "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," or some other line-in-the-sand-drawing proclamation. Pulse racing and teeth clenched, you steel yourself to strike back hard if someone dares to utter the overly simplistic suggestion to "just let it go."
Why should you "let it go" when you've been wronged and, potentially, wronged for a long time by a relative, friend, or co-worker?
Well, you may just want to let go of your grudges, not for the sake of letting the offenders off the hook, but to stop the damage that grudges can cause to your emotional and physical well-being. Moreover, reclaiming your sense of wellness helps to ensure that of your children's, who are watching the way you handle adversity and taking cues from you on how to manage their own conflicts.
Holding onto grudges hurts you, emotionally and physically
On the surface, nursing a grudge can feel like the right thing to do. After all, grudges signal that someone has crossed a line with us, that our dignity matters, and that we had the strength to stick up for ourselves, either by distancing ourselves from the offender or being guarded and combative whenever the offender is near.
However, once we shed the armor of our indignation, we find that holding a grudge doesn't heal the underlying injury. In fact, stewing over past slights causes us to remain stuck in feelings of anger, resentment, and vengefulness. These feelings of unforgiveness then compound the emotional harm by leading to anxiety, depression, or stress which, in turn, can cause us to approach new relationships with defensiveness and distrust.
Moreover, the negative feelings sustained by our long-held grudges can take an enormous toll on our physical health. Research has found that people who maintain long-term grudges experienced higher rates of a host of ailments, namely: heart disease, cardiac arrest, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, arthritis, back problems, headaches, and chronic pain.
Given this profound mind-body connection, holding onto a grudge (no matter how seemingly justified) is not worth the damage to our relationship with others, our emotional well-being, or our physical health. If that isn't reason enough to let go of our rancor toward a transgressor, consider that the harmful effects of long-standing grudges also hurt those we most want to protect: our children.
Our grudges negatively affect our children, too
Choosing to nurse a grudge can induce such stress and depression that it can negatively affect the way we parent our children. "Make no mistake, parental stress has an impact on kids," advises Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist who notes how often her young patients tell her how stressed-out their parents are.
In particular, stressed parents exhibit less patience with their children and are quicker to yell at them. Stressed parents are also quicker to yell at each other, at times within earshot of the children. As a result of this heightened tension in the home, children experience their own stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions.
If your grudge is also causing you to be depressed, consider that studies have shown that depression negatively affects our parenting, as well. Depressed parents are less emotionally engaged with their children and less likely to adequately socialize children. This, in turn, puts the children at a disadvantage in achieving normal emotional development.
Even if a parent isn't stressed or depressed by a grudge, the time that a parent spends dwelling on a grudge means less time spent on fostering an emotionally positive home for a child. According to Dr. Gail Gross, a family and child development expert, emotionally engaged parents who create a home that is "deliberately filled with warmth" enhance a child's emotional well-being, temperament, and ability to cope with stress.
Aside from being impacted by a parent's disposition, children are also significantly influenced by the way their parents interact with others. Children watch how their parents react to difficult people, and often imitate parental behavior when they find themselves in similar situations. This is a sobering thought for any parent bent on maintaining grudges.
Considering the influence we have as parents in shaping our children's emotional well-being and behavior, it is incumbent upon us to serve as better examples by adopting an attitude of forgiveness.
What forgiveness is and what it isn't
Whether you decide to forgive your transgressors for your children's sake, your own sake, or because of your spiritual beliefs, forgiveness does not mean excusing the harm done to you. Forgiveness also does not require associating with the person who harmed you.
Instead, forgiveness means consciously choosing to let go of hostility towards an offender, whether or not the person apologized, for the sake of moving on from the offense. Importantly, as you shift your thinking away from anger and toward forgiveness, you will stop viewing your past through the lens of how you've been victimized.
Adopting a forgiving attitude brings with it significant benefits. Among them:
No matter your age, you can choose to reap the benefits of a forgiving attitude at any time. The following tips can help you start incorporating forgiveness into your thoughts and actions:
1 | Reflect on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the grudge
Have a final "sit down" with everything the offender did that upset you, reflect on why it hurt you so much, and examine how you've reacted to the wrongdoing since. The goal here is not to re-traumatize yourself, but to understand your reaction to the offense and give yourself the compassion your offender did not.
2 | Consider that the offender might actually deserve your empathy
Is the offender herself a victim of abuse or mistreatment? If so, the offender's behavior toward you may have been less about hurting you and more about the offender's misunderstanding of what constitutes acceptable behavior.
3 | Accept that the offender may never own up to the pain he caused you
If the offender is aware of how deeply he upset you and still has not sought amends, let go of the expectation that he will – or can – take responsibility for his behavior. Letting go of this expectation frees you from being disappointed each day that your much-owed apology doesn't materialize.
4 | Choose to genuinely forgive
When you forgive someone to please your spouse or to keep others from feeling uncomfortable, true forgiveness cannot take root. Instead, forgive because you are determined to move on from past hurts – whether or not you choose to reconcile with the offender – and because you want to stop any emotional or physical damage the grudge may be causing.
5 | Commemorate the forgiveness
Forgiving someone who caused you pain is a big step forward that deserves commemorating. If contacting the person who wronged you is unwise or impossible, commemorate your decision to forgive by confiding in someone else whose guidance you trust, or by writing down your reasons for choosing to forgive.
6 | Forgive yourself for holding a grudge
Whether you've recoiled from a hurtful situation for several weeks or several years, forgive yourself for taking as long as you took to consider forgiveness as a way of dealing with the offense at issue.
7 | Seek help if the grudge you want to let go of won't let go of you
If you are unable to release a grudge after sincere effort, consider seeking guidance from a spiritual leader, a confidante, or a mental health provider.
Releasing your hostility toward someone who hurt you can help you see that transgressor as human and flawed, potentially leading you to regain affection for that person, says Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The John Hopkins Hospital. In some instances, this may pave the way for a reconciliation.
In other cases, reconciliation may be impossible because the offender has passed away, or undesirable because the offender is still abusive or refuses to admit the wrongdoing occurred. Even if reconciliation is not the goal, however, adopting an attitude of forgiveness is a worthy pursuit for its bounty of benefits.
Manage your triggers: Grudge-avoidance through slight-avoidance
An ounce of (grudge) prevention is worth a pound of (forgiveness) cure. To prevent foreseeable slights from accumulating into the basis for a new grudge, take proactive steps to avoid situations you know will end up making your blood boil.
For example, if you have a friend who is consistently and unapologetically late, avoid planning time-sensitive activities with her. If a relative habitually makes comments at your expense, avoid being alone with him, call him less, or put him on speaker when he calls if you think doing so will discourage him from making insulting remarks. If a co-worker has a reputation for stealing credit from others in the office, document all of your hard work and loop your boss into your progress as often as possible to claim all credit due to you.
People will do things we find offensive or downright infuriating all of the time, whether those people mean to upset us or not. It's easy to make these slights larger than life by replaying them in our thoughts, over and over, until our sense of indignation practically screams that a grudge is justified.
However, you can choose to stop the reel, take steps toward forgiveness, and consider how to better manage your triggers going forward. Think of the health benefits that forgiveness brings to you. If that doesn't stop the tape, think of the health benefits that forgiveness brings to your children.