Does Holding A Grudge Hurt You?
By Sarah Fader
Updated May 09, 2019
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
For so many of us, holding a grudge often starts from a genuine hurt or wrong. The trust in a relationship is damaged, and the result is anger that we carry with us. According to Dictonary.com, a grudge is "a feeling of ill will or resentment." The question is, does holding onto that grudge hurt you?
Effects of Holding a Grudge
When you are hurt, it can be easy to keep dwelling on the hurt and the circumstances behind it, letting resentment and hostility build up inside. Eventually, if left unchecked, those negative feelings can leave you in a state of bitterness, anger, and lash out at others.
That bitterness and anger can then bleed into every relationship you have, both old and new. People rarely want to be around someone who is negative and bitter on a consistent basis. That robs you of the ability to enjoy your present surroundings and experiences. Holding a grudge robs you of the joy of your life, leaching out the positivity and replacing it with negative emotions, conversation, and actions.
According to the Mayo Clinic, other impacts can include feeling depressed and anxious, losing valuable connectedness with others, and a feeling of being at odds with your spiritual beliefs.
Plus, you cannot change what happened in the past. Why keep holding onto something that you cannot alter? You can, however, determine how much of an impact those past hurts are going to have on your future. The negative thoughts you are carrying around are shaping your perspective and reality right now. It is a conscious choice you make to hold onto your hurt and anger or to let it go and move forward.
"To carry a grudge is like being stung to death by one bee."
- William H. Walton
Negative Impact on Your Health
While it might seem that holding a grudge only impacts your mental and emotional health, there are signs that it has a negative impact on your physical health as well. Several studies have suggested correlations between forgiveness and health. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Ph.D., was the lead researcher in a study that measured the physical impact of holding a grudge. She noted, "When people think of their offenders in unforgiving ways, they tend to experience stronger negative emotions and greater [physiological] stress responses." Witvliet indicated that she believes those who don't forgive could be setting themselves up for future health problems, including cardiovascular ones.
When we are bitter and angry, it can impact our ability to heal and heighten our stress response. Eventually, our bodies begin to suffer physically. The stress response from anger raises blood pressure, reduces the healthy tone of your vagus nerve, and activates a feedback loop of distress. The more you dwell on the circumstances and details of your grudge, replaying them continually in your mind, the greater the physical impact. In many ways, holding a grudge hurts you more than anyone, sabotaging your body and its ability to remain healthy.
Essentially, the negativity from holding a grudge poisons your body, leading to headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, skin problems, stroke, and heart attacks.
Fight or Flight Response
At the most basic level, holding onto resentment and anger activates our fight or flight response. Our sympathetic nervous system then spikes levels of cortisol, which is a stress-related hormone.
When you resolve a conflict or let go of a grudge, this tends to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, increasing the levels of oxytocin in your system. Essentially, these two systems work together, providing a way to balance your body. However, when you continue to hold a grudge, the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, continuing to put out cortisol and increasing the negative physical impact.
These two hormones, when in balance, help you to manage stress and its physical impacts on your body effectively. When holding a grudge, that balance is disrupted.
Naturally, when you are feeling stressed or hurt, there is one individual that you tend to seek out for comfort. Holding a grudge can negatively impact that relationship, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Research has found that the way in which people attach to one another can impact cortisol levels, and be a way to predict depression or anxiety levels over time.
Forgiveness - The Key to Health
Throughout the years, research has consistently shown that forgiveness and letting go of a grudge can have a positive impact on your mental, emotional, and physical health. One, it allows you to stop dwelling on the negative aspects of your hurt, but to find peace in putting the events into the past.
Forgiveness is defined differently by everyone, but generally, it involves a decision to let go of your resentment and any thoughts of getting even. The act that hurt you might always be with you, but by choosing to forgive the individual, you are not allowing the negativity to define your life and to continue to poison you physically going forward. Over time, it can even allow you to develop greater feelings of empathy, understanding, and compassion for others, even those who have hurt you.
Forgiveness doesn't mean that you are excusing the harm done or even making up with the individual. Instead, it is about regaining a sense of peace that can allow you to move forward.
Here are just a few of the benefits of forgiveness:
- Improved mental health
- Lower blood pressure
- Decrease risk of symptoms of depression
- Stronger immune system
- Improved self-esteem
- Decreased levels of anxiety and stress
Learning How to Forgive
The act of forgiveness is not always easy. Like any skill, it needs to be put into practice to make it effective. Often, you can find yourself stuck in the loop of negativity, and it may be difficult to break that loop to initiate forgiveness. If you find yourself struggling to forgive, consider practicing empathy. If you can see the situation from the other person's viewpoint, it might help you to understand their actions better and take the sting out of them.
Perhaps you might have reacted the same if the situation had been reversed. Ask yourself about the circumstances and what you might have done. It might help you to have a greater willingness to let go of the grudge and move forward.
Reflect on times when you might have hurt others. Did they extend forgiveness to you? How did that impact your relationship with them? Also, think about times when you saw others forgive. How did it positively impact them?
Writing in a journal can also be a great way to get your feelings out of your head, breaking the loop of constantly dwelling on them. Moving past a hurtful situation or circumstances often starts by articulating why you have hurt and the impact of the other person's impact on you.
Recognize that forgiveness is a process, one that might mean you need to forgive small hurts repeatedly as you work to get past them. In many ways, it involves making a conscious choice not to continue to dwell on the situation, but to focus on the positive aspects of your life right now.
Forgiveness Doesn't Mean Change or Reconciliation
To be clear, you forgiving an individual does not mean that they will acknowledge what they did was hurtful or make any changes to their actions going forward. It also might not be appropriate for you to have further contact with that person, especially in cases of abuse.
Forgiveness is not for the one who hurt you, so it isn't based on whether they are willing to change or take steps to repair their relationship with you. Instead, it is about giving you peace of mind and allowing you to release the negativity surround that situation. It takes away that person's power over your life and your mental and emotional well-being.
Professional Assistance to Forgive
In some instances, the circumstances underlying your grudge might be so great that forgiving them on your own is almost impossible. In those instances, you can benefit by seeking out a counselor or support group to help you on the road to forgiveness. They can provide you the tools needed to help you step away from being a victim and step into the joys and blessings of your present life.
Your spiritual counselor or a close friend can also help you to work through your feelings about the hurtful circumstances, allowing you to forgive and close that chapter of your life.
It is important to recognize that forgiveness is not about the other person, but is about allowing you to focus on your life now, instead of dwelling on the past. Forgiveness can have a positive impact on your mental, emotional, and physical health, as well as the health of your relationships with others.
Finally, recognizing that forgiveness is important to your well-being means acknowledging when you need to seek out professional help to address those past hurts and to help you to move forward. If you are struggling with a past hurt and looking for a professional counselor or licensed therapist, then BetterHelp.com can help.