One effective choice for improving our mental health is to slowly let go of our grudges. Freeing ourselves from deeply held, deeply negative feelings paves the way for better relationships and better wellbeing.
Why it’s hard not to hold grudges
Of course, it’s not that easy to let go of a grudge.
Grudges stick around for a number of reasons. Mostly because they can be a substitute for or distraction from more painful emotions.
We hold grudges because…
- They translate to goal-seeking. When we feel that someone has wronged us, we hold on to these negative feelings in pursuit of revenge or justice. We want the other person to realize what they’ve done, feel remorse, and learn a lesson.
- They validate our feelings and experiences. Anger and resentment signal that the situation was real, painful, and consequential. Holding a grudge means that we were wronged and we know it.
- They can take the place of more painful emotions. Grudges provide a sense of righteousness and moral superiority that ultimately serve to distract from other, less desirable emotions: pain and vulnerability.
Why it’s good to let go
Unfortunately, these reasons for holding a grudge tend to backfire. In the short-term, grudges may serve to motivate us, validate us, or protect us. But in the long term, their internalized focus begins to do some real psychological damage.
- We use grudges as a means to seek retribution, but we won’t usually get it.
- We use grudges to validate our experiences, but we end up with a focus on the negative.
- We use grudges to avoid more painful emotions, but they don’t actually go away.
The benefits of grudges are questionable. What about the costs?
Grudges can increase frustration and anxiety, feelings of physical pain, risk for heart attacks, and sleep issues.
Grudges don’t change the external world, and they worsen our internal world.
How to stop holding grudges
In other words, how to forgive. Not easy, but definitely possible.
Grudges are usually the result of unmet expectations between you and another person. Accordingly, having an open and honest conversation with them about the situation can help bury the hatchet.
To have an effective conversation, you’ll want to set clear expectations, express your honest feelings, and listen to their perspective.
Setting clear expectations can alleviate current grudges and prevent future ones. Interpersonal issues are often the result of misunderstandings; we might assume that the other person knows exactly what we want, or we might assume that we know what they want. The first step to letting go is an honest portrayal of needs – on both sides.
Expressing your personal feelings helps to establish the importance of the situation for you. The other person may not even realize that what they did was hurtful, or they may not understand the gravity of their actions as is relevant to your own personal experience. The next step is a candid discussion of your own feelings and experiences.
To gain a holistic understanding of the situation, you’ll want to listen to the other person’s perspective. Perhaps they meant something different by what they did, or they misunderstood some of your actions or feelings. Understanding their point of view can help you address your grudge. The last step is to ask them about their expectations and feelings.
Putting it all together:
“When I am friends/partners/colleagues with someone, I hope that they will _____. I feel sad/hurt/upset when _____. I feel a lot better when _____. How do you feel about the situation? What can we do going forward to better our relationship?”
Of course, it’s not always possible or desirable to work things out with the other person. In these cases, you’ll want to work through your grudge internally. To do so, we need to flip the grudge on its head and see what else we can make of it.
How to practice empathy
Questions to ask yourself:
- What could have driven this person to act this way?
- Are there external circumstances (personal, financial, health, or interpersonal issues) that may have made it harder for this person to act appropriately?
- Could this person have had a different understanding of their behavior than you do?
- Could this person have meant for their behavior to come across in a different way than you interpreted?
- Everyone is going through something.
- We all make mistakes.
- Pain can make it hard to be a good person.
- People are always growing and changing.
How to practice acceptance
Questions to ask yourself:
- Is there any benefit to holding my grudge?
- Is my grudge helping me or hurting me?
- How would I feel if I no longer held this grudge?
- We don’t have control over the actions of others.
- We don’t have control over every situation in life.
- We do have control over ourselves.
How to practice gratitude
Questions to ask yourself:
- What has this situation taught me about myself?
- What have I learned about my wants and needs?
- Has anything good come out of this situation?
- Life’s challenges can teach us what we want and what’s important to us.
- Conflicts help us learn what we need to do to be a better person.
- Someone else’s mistake can teach us how to avoid making the same mistake toward our loved ones.
Grudges may feel like they empower us, validate us, and protect us, but really, they just hurt. Forgiveness, on the other hand, empowers us to take a broader perspective.
Forgiveness validates our sense of being a kind, resilient person. Forgiveness protects us from holding in emotions that ultimately only hurt ourselves. It improves mental health, physical health, sleep, and relationships. Simply put, it makes us feel better.
Similar to many efforts toward improving the self, forgiveness takes practice. So do empathy, acceptance, and gratitude.
It’s not easy to find the good in the bad. But the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. To work through your grudges alongside others going through the same thing, try a supportive chat for on-demand, anonymous, and personalized peer support.
You’ve got this.