Holding onto a grudge can significantly impact your mental and physical health.
“When we hold onto grudges and resentment, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick,” says Angela Buttimer, MS, NCC, RYT, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “It causes us to carry negative, tense energy in our biology.”
Grudges hurt the immune system
“Living in a chronic state of tension disables your body’s repair mechanisms, increasing inflammation and the stress hormone cortisol in the body,” she explains. “Forgiveness engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your immune system function more efficiently and makes room for feel-good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin.”
If you are tempted to dwell on an offense, remind yourself what you are doing to your body when you run the scenario in your mind again.
“Your brain doesn’t know what is real and what is imagined,” says Buttimer. “When you replay in your mind an experience you had six months ago, your body reacts as if you’re having the same experience over and over again.”
Why is it so hard to forgive?
Buttimer says sometimes we hold onto grudges because it gives us a sense of control — that if we don’t forget an offense, it won’t ever happen again.
“I tell my clients all the time, ‘It’s is not worth the cortisol,’” she says. “Our ego wants to sink its teeth into blaming, negativity and tension, but holding a grudge won’t give you any control over the situation.”
How to let go of resentment and unforgiveness
“Living in a ‘victim mentality’ can lead to a compromised immune system,” says Buttimer.
You have more control than you think and can leave behind the victim mentality when you realize you have the tools to process and let go of your bitterness.
Buttimer recommends the following steps to help you let go of resentment.
Allow yourself to feel the pain. Research in integrative medicine shows that avoiding negative emotions is detrimental to the immune system. “It’s important to acknowledge that you have a grudge and make space for hurt, anger, sadness and fear,” says Buttimer. “If you don’t fully enter it, you can’t get through it cleanly.”
Establish good boundaries. “If you feel like you can trust you own firmness in establishing good boundaries, you will be able to forgive more easily,” she explains. “You will trust that you won’t let the offense happen again.”
Realize unforgiveness increases your pain. In mindfulness practice, Buttimer use an arrow analogy to explain grudges. “The first arrow that hurts us is the offense,” she says. “The second arrow that wounds us is our self-imposed suffering. We can pile these negative emotions on ourselves and make them much worse by holding onto resentment.”
Know that true forgiveness takes times. Forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight. Focus on making progress that adds up over time. With each new day, let go of some hurt and anger.
Think twice before consulting a loved one. “Sometimes when we go to family or friends to work through a grudge, it can backfire,” says Buttimer. “They may feel protective of us and amplify our emotions.”
Forgive yourself. “It’s important to forgive yourself for any ways you’ve allowed harm to come to you. Many people hold themselves responsible when something bad happens to them,” she says. “We also have to forgive ourselves of the harm we have caused others. As humans, we must acknowledge that we have hurt other people, too.”
Visualize letting go of your grudge. Buttimer uses guided meditations when coaching her clients to forgive. Imagine asking those you have hurt for forgiveness. Then, focus on intentionally forgiving your offender. “Bring them to mind and send forgiveness to them,” she explains. “You may get some instant relief, though sometimes it can take 10 times before you feel better.”
Use discernment when facing someone who has hurt you. Sometimes a face-to-face encounter is called for, but it’s not always appropriate. Buttimer recommends asking yourself, “What’s my motivation for having this conversation? What do I want out of this relationship?” If it’s a relationship you want to have long-term, it’s going to require a conversation. But if you just want to prove yourself right or make a point, it isn’t discerning to have a conversation with that person. It is better to process your feelings with a coach or by writing in a journal.
Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself
“Some people misunderstand forgiveness as condoning bad behavior, but really, forgiveness is the path to our mental and emotional freedom,” says Buttimer. “We no longer have to hold ourselves in bondage based on what someone else did to us.”
See more tips for mental health and well-being.