Holding Grudges Is Stressful: 3 Ways To Foster Forgiveness


We’ve all done things that hurt others, and we’ve all been wronged before. But while some painful experiences are over and done with, others stick with us for the long haul and cause a lot more stress than they need to.

Perhaps it was a workplace disagreement where a colleague took credit for your work. 

Or maybe it goes back to your school days when a bully made your life a living hell. 

Whether someone forgot your birthday, bashed into you without apologizing, or made a snarky comment about your clothes, perceived unfairness can stay with us for a long time if we don’t choose to release the toxicity surrounding it.

When we hold on to the negative elements of past wrongs–when we hold a grudge–the only person we’re harming is ourselves.

Today I’ll explain how holding onto grudges can cause us stress many years down the line and the impacts that it has on our minds and body.

The Stressful Impacts of Holding a Grudge

Holding onto the bitterness, anger, or resentment of a past transgression can do a lot more damage than you might think, even though nothing new seems to be happening around you. 

To illustrate, try to think back to a painful breakup or argument like the ones we’ve just discussed. How does it make you feel?

Perhaps you feel a flood of rage as you recall that unfair accusation, or a sting of resentment at the memory of being treated unjustly. You might also notice your muscles tightening as you recall the incident, as your pulse rises and your heart beats faster. 

While you’re not physically in a threatening or high-pressure situation, and while it might not seem like it, past unpleasantness is sometimes all it takes to trigger these stress reactions in the present. 

I created the Holding a Grudge Stress Coaching Card to help you recognize the physical and emotional reactions that can be related to holding onto unpleasantness from the past. But before I show you 3 ways to reduce this unnecessary source of stress, let’s take a closer look at how it works.

So what’s going inside when we replay a stressful story repeatedly in our heads?

The Physical and Emotional Impacts of “Non-Forgiveness”

As you already know, recalling a painful past event, such as an argument, wrongdoing, or hurt is enough to recall all the negative emotions related to it. When we obsess over and over about these experiences, we keep all those unpleasant feelings around us unnecessarily for the long term.

But unlike trauma, where we don’t often have a choice about whether we relive an event, grudge-holding is something we can take steps to manage–and it starts with forgiveness.

We can look at scientific studies for a few examples. According to research in which participants were induced to feel forgiveness, humans experience some clear advantages from letting go of the past:

  • Participants who ‘forgave’ judged hills as less steep than those who didn’t forgive, suggesting they appraised challenges as slightly easier, and
  • ‘Forgiveness’ condition participants jumped higher in an ostensible fitness test, suggesting that letting go might lighten the physical burden of grudge-holding.

Other sources, which look at the detrimental impacts of grudge-holding, highlight the downsides of doing so:

  • It can cause us to perceive the world in a more negative way
  • It makes us more likely to find sources of irritation, anger, and other negative feelings
  • It keeps us ‘stuck in the past’
  • It reduces our ability to problem-solve or manage our challenges, and
  • It keeps us focused on the wrongdoing, so that we can’t fully enjoy the present.

So data suggests that forgiving the past is key to managing stress in the present, but is it the only way? 

In the next section, I’ll share three tips to help you release the pain of a past transgression, including things you can do when forgiveness is a little way off in the future.

3 Tips To Foster Forgiveness

These practical strategies can help you let go of the past and move forward to fully enjoy the present. 

1. Burn It

My first tip comes from a personal friend who was coaching candidates (including myself) as part of her psychotherapy degree.

During this process, she asked me about a situation that I would like to learn to deal with better. I told her about a past relationship where I felt that I had been wronged, and which I couldn’t let go of–the resentment and negativity had been hounding me for years.

As part of her intervention, my psychologist friend advised me to write the name of my ‘wrongdoer’ down on a piece of paper, and think about what I wanted to let go of before setting it on fire. While it sounds almost unbelievably simple, this was incredibly effective at helping me let go of my resentment. I hope it works for you too.

2. Forgiveness

Forgiving someone seems like the obvious solution to all the negative side effects of grudge-holding, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds in practice.

First of all, we can’t ‘force’ forgiveness, and secondly, doing so can be damaging if we end up suppressing or invalidating our own emotions. This only causes a greater battle as we deny the very real hurt we are experiencing.

Here’s the important thing to know: letting go of a grudge isn’t exactly about ‘pardoning’ the other person–it’s about practicing self-love:

  • Being honest with yourself about the pain that the past hurt has caused you, as well as your current struggle with the inability to let go.
  • Take a break, let yourself experience your very real emotions, and engage in healthy self-soothing activities like a walk in nature or a relaxing bath.
  • Once you’ve let yourself tap into your emotions, there’s no reason to hang onto them anymore. It’s much easier to let go of anger, resentment, and other unhelpful emotions to find a path forward when you acknowledge that what happened (the past transgression) was not okay.

3. Try Different Perspectives

One way to forgive others is by thinking of times when you have been the transgressor instead. 

Try to recall times you’ve wronged others and they’ve forgiven you–this can make it much easier to practice compassion for those you’re holding a grudge against. Did you snap at someone who later let it go? Perhaps your little brother forgave you for calling him names?

Another helpful perspective is to consider the benefits of committing to forgiveness. If you need a little motivation to let go of past hurt, think about the following (additional!) benefits of doing so:

  • It can give you peace of mind and a sense of freedom
  • It saves you the energy of repeatedly revisiting past grievances
  • It can help you rebuild trust

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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