In the distant (or not-so-distant) past, someone hurt you. Maybe they made fun of your favorite outfit, (metaphorically) threw you under the bus at work, or bullied you at school. Years may have passed since the event, but remembering it still makes your blood boil.
To put it simply, you’re holding a grudge.
Grudges aren’t uncommon. In fact, according to an informal Trustpilot survey that polled a total of 12,000 people from six countries, the average adult holds seven grudges at once. The survey found some of the most common grudges involve:
- false accusations
- lending an item and not getting it back
- childhood bullying
- someone stealing the credit for something you achieved
- misleading advertising
Harboring anger and resentment toward another person over real or perceived wrongs only hurts you, even when that person caused real or perceived harm.
According to a 2021 analysis of 20 interviews, grudges may foster feelings of moral superiority and prove difficult to let go of. What’s more, they can negatively affect your quality of life. They might, for instance, lead you to seek validation, cut ties with others, or shape your expectations for the future.
Here’s how grudges can hurt your health over time and why releasing them may be in your best interest — plus a few helpful strategies to let them go.
Holding a grudge can harm your emotional and physical health. A grudge can:
- Make you more pessimistic: In a 2014 study, participants who held on to grudges had more difficulty completing a fitness test because they evaluated hills as steeper compared with those who let go of grudges. According to the researchers, holding a grudge may function as a physical burden for some people.
- Isolate you from others: A small 2016 study found that social isolation predicted less forgiving behavior — in other words, more grudge-holding. In short, if you already tend to keep others at arm’s length, holding a grudge may serve a self-protecting function at the cost of closeness with others.
- Increase your risk of cognitive decline: According to 2018 research, people who held on to higher levels of hostility — characterized by cynicism and mistrust of others — experienced more cognitive decline over a 10-year period than people who routinely practiced self-forgiveness.
- Negatively affect your mental health: Holding a grudge may increase your chances of experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions, according to 2019 research.
- Add to your overall stress: Holding on to grudges can increase your stress levels, which can then contribute to high blood pressure, heart problems, lowered immunity, and inflammation. But according to 2016 research, using forgiveness as a coping mechanism may help counteract the negative health effects of long-term stress.
If holding grudges feels like your default, you’re not alone. Many people find it all too easy to hold on to anger in the form of a grudge. Letting go of a grudge may require intentional practice.
Here’s how you can start:
1. Become aware of resentment
It’s possible to hold lingering feelings of resentment without knowing why. According to that Trustpilot survey mentioned above, a third of the people they surveyed about grudges couldn’t remember why they still held on to them.
Acknowledging a grudge can offer a powerful step toward releasing it. In the summarized words of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, “What you resist, persists.”
Facing up to uncomfortable memories, on the other hand, may help undo any control they have over your emotions and well-being.
2. Tune in to your emotions
If you think you might be harboring resentment, it could help to ask yourself, “How do I feel when I think about memories of being wronged?”
If feelings of rage or anger bubble quickly to the surface, this could suggest you’re holding a grudge.
Paying attention to what memories trigger strong feelings can help you identify a grudge you haven’t released. If specific memories come to mind, a good first step involves naming, acknowledging, and validating your feelings about them.
Here’s an example:
Instead of criticizing yourself for those feelings or simply pushing them away, you might try something like this: “I feel enraged when I think about how my friend used to spread rumors about me. It makes sense that I feel this way, because that was a really painful experience at the time.”
3. Redirect rumination on past events
Holding a grudge often involves trouble letting go of anger about the event. You might have intrusive thoughts or rehash what happened again and again.
It can be difficult to stop ruminating on past pain and distress once you’ve developed the habit, but you can break the cycle.
One step to redirecting repetitive, grudge-related thoughts involves engaging in compassion reappraisal. This practice involves paying attention to the human qualities of the person who hurt you and the need for positive change in their life.
In research from 2011, compassion reappraisal helped a small number of people:
- lower their heart rate
- relax their eye muscle tension
- experience less negative emotion when remembering a past wrong
Research from 2014 compared emotional suppression and compassion reappraisal. Researchers found that compassion reappraisal helped promote a greater sense of calm, more empathy, and positivity about coping with thoughts instead of ruminating.
Fostering compassion for the person who wronged you can help you consider things from their perspective and process what occurred. Just keep in mind it doesn’t translate to justifying their actions. Instead, this approach can help free up emotional space for other thoughts and experiences.
4. Transform the experience into growth
In some cases, you may be able to turn the basis of your grudge into an opportunity for growth on your own terms. Some people find using past hardship as an opportunity to grow helps them regain a sense of empowerment in their own lives.
Post-traumatic growth is one example of transformation after a difficult or painful event. Through this process, you can make meaning from what happened and gain strength and resilience as a result of your lived experience.
Some examples of transforming a grudge into growth include:
- starting and leading a local support group for people who experienced a similar wrong or betrayal
- growing up to have a meaningful, successful career after a school counselor scoffed at your dreams
- developing your assertive side and helping amplify the voices of others in the workplace after being dismissed and ignored early in your career
5. Foster self-forgiveness and acceptance
According to research from 2018, people who regularly practiced self-forgiveness had better health outcomes and avoided many of the harmful effects of long-term hostility.
One potential explanation: People who tend to treat themselves with compassion may also be more likely to extend compassion to others, thus reducing the chances they’ll hold a grudge.
Here are some ways to engage in self-compassion and self-forgiveness:
- Practice mindfulness: In a nutshell, mindfulness means focusing your awareness on the present moment and the sensations you experience in that moment. Greater mindfulness can boost self-acceptance and peace of mind. It can also help you align your actions with your self-awareness. You can practice mindfulness through meditation, journaling, and many other practices.
- Address your inner critic: Responding with excessive judgment toward yourself may lead to anxiety and depression. It may potentially cause you to react harshly to others, too. Pushing back against negative self-talk offers one helpful step toward self-acceptance if you tend to be hard on yourself.
- Engage in self-care: Confronting self-judgment in your thoughts can pave the way toward self-acceptance, but remember that actions often speak louder than words (or thoughts). Intentional acts of self-care, like taking time to make yourself a nourishing meal, offer a great way to reinforce self-compassion in daily life.
The steps above can help, but they may not always do the trick.
If your grudges tend to linger and fester, with thoughts and feelings related to them frequently popping up to derail your mood and ruin your day, it may help to connect with a trusted mental health professional.
A therapist can offer guidance with uncovering the roots of uncomfortable feelings surrounding the grudge, like rage, disappointment, or even hatred. From there, they can also help you contextualize, or make meaning, from your feelings and the events that occurred.
Study participants used cognitive reappraisal, a CBT technique, to take on a third-party perspective of the incident that angered them. This change in perspective helped them feel less angry and think more flexibly about the event.
Nursing a grudge can eventually begin to affect your emotional and physical health, but it’s possible to let them go — and even practice forgiveness — without condoning a wrong done to you.
Practicing mindfulness, self-acceptance, and self-care can help you release deep-seated feelings of animosity while finding opportunities for growth can help you heal.
Not sure where to start? A therapist can offer more guidance.