Holding on tightly to grudges----whether petty or profound—

can hurt you health greatly! Here’s how and when to let go.

A llis, a real-estate agent in northern New Jersey, can hardly contain her anger when she remembers how her sister-in-law, Patti, used a competing agent to buy her house. “Mortified, horrified—I can’t find the right words to describe it,” says Allison, a mother of three. “I must have shown her 95 houses over two years. Nothing was right, but I didn’t mind. Patti is family. and I wanted her to find a house she loved. But while I was on a vacation, a colleague who was checking the listings online noticed that Patti had bought a home in an area she had never even told me she was interested in! It was a slap in the face. It wasn’t about the money. You’re supposed to be able to count on family.” When Allison asked Patti why she did it, Patti said she hadn’t realized it was such a terrible thing to do. Although she apologized, it didn’t feel genuine to Allison. Now family gatherings where they both attend arc decidedly frostier.


Whether you’re still steamed about the nasty crack your mother-in-law made about your Thanksgiving turkey 10 years ago, nursing a grievance because one of the women in your 4-year-old’s play group didn’t invite your daughter to her daughter’s birthday party, or reeling from a colleague’s backstabbing grab for a job that should have been yours, at some point every one of us feels hurt or mistreated by friends, family members or co-workers. If the emotions go unresolved and linger past their expiration date, they’re officially a grudge. “A grudge is an anger that won’t quit,” says Robert Enright, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “When someone wounds you, it’s natural to get angry.” But instead of openly communicating to resolve the bad feeling, many people just let those emotions fester, says Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive far Good. “For grudge holders, grievances are like planes on an air-traffic controller’s screen, circling endlessly and taking up precious air space.”

Grudges can be triggered by betrayals large and small, silly or serious. Often, a grudge is in the eye of the beholder. What triggered a grudge for my friend Eliza (that I recommended the same top-notch SAT tutor to her as well as to the mother of one of her daughter’s friends) seemed like no big deal to me. Some of the most intense, hard-to-admit grudges, in fact, involve our children. Gail. a stay-at-home mother of two, remembers being livid when she learned that a woman she considered a good friend didn’t invite her to a mother-daughter party she was hosting for a new family in the neighborhood. 1 talked to this woman at least three or four times a week,” Gail says. “Not once did she mention that she was having this little get-together. Mv daughter heard about it from one of her friends. Apparently, the woman thought my daughter hadn’t been nice to her child, so she kept us off the list. How petty can you get? By the following week, the girls were best friends again. but just talking about it still makes me upset.”

If someone hurts, ignores or insults your child, that really brings out the claws.” says Jeanne Safer, Ph.D.. a psychotherapist in New York City and author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better Not to Forgive.. We all want to spare our kids pain. But, as with all grudges, there’s usually a piece of our history replaying there, some old issues from the past that are resurfacing:’ Who can’t remember being (or at least feeling like) the wallflower at the school dance or the one picked last for the dodge-ball team? “ When our kids are left out, we hurt for them and for ourselves all over again’ Dr. Safer says.


Nursing a grudge can make you feel morally superior, but holding onto it can be hard on your health. “Grudges are linked with greater physical stress, including higher blood pressure, heart rate, sweat and muscle tension levels.” says Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Ph.D.. associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Grudges are also linked to a host of stress-related ailments. “Each time you think about what caused your grudge, you become angry or despairing,” explains Dr. Luskin. “That triggers the body’s fight-or-flight reflex, and it responds by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream that can trigger head- aches, backaches and dizziness. Blood flow is also diverted from the thinking part of the brain to the reactive part. limiting problem-solving and creative thinking.”

Forgiving a grudge, on the other hand, is a profoundly healing act. In a study, Dr. Witvliet asked people to relive betrayals, lies or insults from family members, parents. siblings or romantic partners. then to construct two different endings, one positive. one negative. “Blood pressure and heart rates were two and a half times lower when respondents imagined forgiving than when they didn’t,” she says. “The forgivers also felt happier. more positive and more in control of their lives.” Dr. Luskin also says forgiving makes people less angry, anxious and depressed. That’s the ironic thing about grudges: While letting go of them can make us feel better, often that is too high a hurdle to leap. But think of it this way: A grudge’s gnawing resentment keeps you tethered to the person who wronged you. If you want to break the hold the grudge has on you and move on, you have to face the problem, whether that means confronting the person who wronged you or making the powerful decision that it’s time to forgive.


Deciding to let go means you’re ready to stop being a victim and begin making decisions that are good for you. “Forgiveness isn’t about excusing or forgetting bad behavior,” explains Dr. Enright. “It’s about taking charge of the way you respond to it.”    When you hold a grudge, it means you’ve lost something—a relationship.

trust, a reputation. “It’s essential to acknowledge the pain.” says Dr.Witvliet. “but then to let go of the grudge so you can begin to heal.” Forgiving a grudge can be hard, though, and it takes time. “The process is akin to g:ieving,” she says. Why are some people better at letting go of grudges than others? Physiology and temperament play a role. “Some of us are ‘hot’ reactors,” says Dr. Luskin. “Under stress, we’re quick to respond. Our hearts pound. our palms get sweaty from the smallest insult. Others are ‘cold’ reactors. Scream at them and their blood pressure barely rises.” Hot reactors who are naturally fearful, overly sensitive or lacking self-esteem may take longer to bury the hatchet than cold reactors with sunnier, more easygoing temperaments.

For some people, forgiveness comes from religious conviction. Others find the passage of time reduces the sting. Gail, the woman who was offended because her friend didn’t invite her to a mother-daughter party. let go of her long-standing grudges after September 11. “When the World Trade Center was attacked, my priorities were instantly readjusted.” she says. Still, forgiveness, Dr. Safer believes. doesn’t work for everyone or every situation. “Like love, forgiveness is an emotional state that’s not entirely voluntary. There’s no one-size fits-all solution to crimes of the heart.” In some situations, Dr. Safer believes in what she calls “healthy non-forgiveness.”

“If you truly believe that what was done is unforgivable,” she says. if you make that choice based on clear understanding and can accept that the pain may be a permanent, but not a dominant, part of your life, that can be liberating. too. Whichever way you choose to defuse your grudge, from letting it go to hanging on but making it less important in your life, the key is to redirect that negative energy toward something more positive and pleasurable.


By: Margery D. Rosen



September 2003, (pgs.172-176)

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