Two Male Coworkers Talking

From the CONCERN: EAP Resilience Library

Holding Grudges, Holding Tension

Forgiveness has been a staple of positive psychology for a long time. The popular proverb, “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” has roots in a poem written by Alexander Pope way back in 1711. More recently, behavioral science has explored the physiological and psychological effects of holding a grudge. Though it has yet to be proven that forgiveness is divine, it is becoming clear that letting go of grudges is good medicine.

For example, one study out of Hope College in Michigan found that even the act of imagining holding a grudge can stress us out. During the study, when people were asked to recall past hurts and offenders in an unforgiving way, they all experienced heightened levels of detrimental stress-indicators, such as:

  • Sweating, increased heart rate, higher blood pressure
  • Increased emotional turmoil
  • Diminished sense of self-control

Conversely, participants who were asked to imagine forgiving their past offenders not only experienced lower levels of stress, but they also reported a greater sense of wellbeing, control, and positive emotion.

Other studies indicate that holding on to feelings of anger or bitterness over time can extend this stress response and lead to serious health problems, like depression and cardiovascular troubles, while letting go of a grudge has the opposite effect.

Practicing forgiveness can help

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Decrease levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in our bloodstream
  • Reduce the impact of chronic pain
  • Boost our immune system
  • Increase resilience

Forgiveness Is—First and Foremost—for You

It’s not always easy to forgive, but it’s important to remember that when you hold a grudge, you’re only harming yourself. Here are some approaches that can help you forgive and move on.

  • Express yourself: Before you can let feelings go, you have to experience them. Naming and expressing feelings of hurt and anger, whether by journaling or discussing with confidants or, in more serious cases, a therapist, can help you acknowledge what happened, why it wasn’t OK, and empower you to work past it.
  • Commit to forgive for yourself: As we mentioned earlier, grudges = bad for you/forgiveness = good for you. So, decide that you are going to work on forgiveness for yourself and no one else.
  • Stop the instant replay: Memories of hurtful experiences can easily switch into automatic playback in our minds, prolonging the initial pain and stress. Break the cycle with this simple mindfulness meditation technique.
  • Remember: Forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation: The act of forgiveness comes with no obligation to excuse another’s actions or repair a damaged relationship. It’s enough to forgive for yourself and the benefit to your emotional and physical wellbeing.
  • Try to empathize: Treating others with empathy and kindness—even if they’ve been hurtful—can help us to minimize resentment and not take the situation so personally. By imagining the other person’s circumstances, background, and intentions, we can remind ourselves that we’re all human, all fallible at times, and all in need of forgiveness sometimes.
  • Find the lesson: We can learn something important from every experience in life, and sometimes the most painful ones offer up the best lessons. When someone hurts you, try thinking about how you could act differently if circumstances were reversed. Not only can this help ensure you don’t treat others the same way in the future, but it might also help you to better understand and empathize with your offender.
  • Practice gratitude: Cultivating a grateful attitude can also help you work through feelings of hurt and move toward forgiveness.