When someone has wronged you in some way, anger is a natural reaction. If what happened is especially painful — or if the person who hurt you is unwilling to take responsibility — you may start to form a grudge against that person.
Many of us hold grudges for a limited time, and are able to let them go after some healthy processing. Others hold onto them for years, and may even have grudges stemming from their childhood. Most of us will only hold grudges against a few select people; others seem to collect grudges readily and with vigor.
However they play out for you — and even if you don’t think of yourself as a “grudge-holding person” — almost all of us have held a grudge at some point or another. Holding grudges is a very common human behavior, but it can be unhealthy in the long-term. Here’s why.
The Problem With Holding Grudges
Having a grudge here or there isn’t necessarily abnormal or even problematic. The problem is that, sometimes, grudges can take on a life of their own.
Grudge holding can be a cyclical pattern — and once we get sucked in, it can be hard to find out way out.
“People often get stuck in the cycle of holding grudges because they expect something from someone and that expectation hasn’t been fulfilled,” says Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., a licensed professional clinical counselor in Ohio and a Talkspace provider.
For example, you might feel that someone has wronged you in some way. Let’s say the person has attempted an apology or taken responsibility in some way, but you don’t find this acceptable or sufficient. When something like this happens, says O’Neill, “grudges can deepen and individuals can feel more entrenched in feelings of resentment or bitterness toward the person.”
Of course, the more angry and bitter you are toward someone, the harder it becomes to work through any issues you have with them. Grudges can easily spiral into a never-ending cycle of blame and rage, which is why it’s important to work toward resolution internally, or with the other party..
Are There Any Benefits To Holding Grudges?
Clearly, holding grudges isn’t beneficial for anyone in the long run. But are there situations where holding a grudge is justified?
There’s no denying there are people in our lives who act in toxic ways. Often there is no good way to remedy these situations without conflict; and some of the people who have hurt us seem incapable of authentic apologies.
So perhaps there are ways that grudges can act as a healthy coping mechanism. Maybe holding a grudge against someone who has behaved in a harmful way could serve as a wake-up call to them that their behavior will not be tolerated.
There may be some truth to that, but it can only go so far, says O’Neill. “I think grudges can be healthy in the sense that they can represent an invitation to examine your feelings toward someone,” she says.
However, even if holding a grudge against someone can be enlightening and even empowering at times, dwelling in a place of anger and resentment doesn’t help you grow or live a happier life.
How Do Grudges Affect Our Mental Health?
Holding grudges can be just as damaging to the grudge-holder as the person who the grudge is being held against.
Holding a grudge means that you are living with a feeling of anger almost constantly, even if it’s below the surface. Sure, you may not be thinking about the grudge 24 hours a day, but this sort of resentment can find its way into all aspects of your life. It can be easy to start seeing everyone you meet as someone who has the potential to wrong you.
There are psychological conditions that can result from excessive grudge-holding, according to O’Neill. When you can end up “stuck” in a grudge, anxiety, heightened stress, or depression are common conditions that can manifest, she explains.
What Are Some Ways To Let Grudges Go?
Letting go of grudges doesn’t necessarily mean resolving a particular problem you have with a person. Obviously, having constructive conversations with someone who has upset you — and hopefully coming up with a resolution that feels good for both parties involved — is a goal. But sometimes things will remain unresolved, and that hurt can linger.
In this case, rather than getting stuck with anger about what happened, we need to learn to take responsibility for our own feelings about the situation. Grudges can be seen as an opportunity to learn that “instead of being dependent on someone else to fix your feelings for you, you’re able to fulfill that need for yourself,” O’Neill says.
Perhaps then there is a positive to holding grudges.
If we can get past the feeling of resentment, maybe there is a real chance for self-growth. It’s an opportunity for us to to accept things for what they are, live more completely in the present, practice some serious self-love — and most of all, learn the fine art of letting go.