Maybe you had a boss who played office politics with your career. Or maybe there’s a relative who never paid back — and doesn’t even mention — the sizable loan you gave them. Perhaps there’s a neighborhood gossip who questioned your parenting a little too often or a former friend who frenched your high school crush. Whatever the case, you hold a place for such people in your head in the form of a grudge you can’t let go. There’s resentment, but holding a grudge is more like resentment-plus because your not-so-kind feelings about them are now in their second week or fourth decade.
So why do grudges last as long as they do? “The ‘simple’ answer is because we refuse to let it go,” says Mitch Abrams, a clinical psychologist in Tinton Falls and Fords, New Jersey.
And what accounts for that? Well, because while we’re angry, we’re also hurt. Our ego has been bruised and we’re holding out for revenge or comeuppance, both of which will likely never come in a satisfactory amount. Mostly, we hold grudges because we’re ashamed we got screwed and let it happen.
“We feel like an idiot, and we can’t get rid of that feeling,” says Jeff Bostic, psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
But holding a grudge has no real upside for our physical or mental health. So it pays to try to let go of the feeling. So how do you let go of a grudge? As with anything tangled with anger, pain, and shame, there’s no one remedy or step-by-step formula. However, the following can help.
First, You Have To Be Ready
The big mistake with a grudge is to tell yourself I’m completely over it when you’re completely not. The denial keeps you telling the same poor-me story, which friends will gladly hear once, but not 17 times, Bostic says.
But there’s no law that mandates letting it go immediately. “Feelings are never about should and feelings are never wrong,” says Silvia Dutchevici, licensed clinical social worker and author of Critical Therapy.
Don’t judge or try to fix anything at first. The more you force stuff, the more power the grudge, and the person, have over you. Just sit with it; even give yourself five minutes a day to do so. You don’t feel the need to wrestle with the grudge all day long, because you’ve blocked out a dedicated time. Any unwanted thoughts can be internally dismissed with I’ll deal with you later
Get Up, Get Out
Whether you’re trying to let it go or not, do anything besides sitting around and trying to “work through it.” You’ll get into a loop of ruminating. Just changing your environment, and getting away from the negative space, causes what’s called behavioral activation, Abrams says. It’s addition by subtraction, but you can further that by getting around positive people and/or do something helpful to yourself.
Laughing is great because, well, you’re laughing. Exercise is too, because you start off with “eff you” energy, but shift to focusing on the workout, which has a repetitive, meditative nature and by the end you’re exhausted. With either, remaining pissed off isn’t possible, since, as Abrams says, “opposite mood states can’t occupy the same space.”
When You’re Ready To Let It Go
When you’ve realized that you’ve had enough, it’s not enough to merely get past the grudge. You have to replace it with something, namely forgiveness, Bostic says. It could be for the other person, and it helps to think about their background and motivations, which can bring empathy. But you can also still completely write them off.
The forgiveness is more for yourself in that you made a mistake in trusting the other person or allowing yourself to become so mad. But do a little more by asking what you can take from the experience to help for the inevitable next time. Now it’s no longer about what they did to you, but what you’re doing for yourself.
“You get good at looking at the right things,” he says.
And to finish the job, there’s benefit in ritual. Write a letter to the person – never, ever send it – laying out all they’ve done. The act of writing gives form to your thoughts and the words lose power.
“You’re vomiting up the toxic part,” Bostic says. Read it to a small group of close friends and get their perspective, which will likely be, ‘Here’s what happened to me’ or ‘That person does this to everyone.’”
Then destroy the letter. Rip it. Shred it. Burn it and put the ashes around a tree so they’re part of something that’s growing. The entire process gives structure and comes with an ending, which helps you end it, Bostic says.
What To Do When You See The Source Of Your Grudge Again
The challenge is that you may be over the grudge but you still have to see the person, and if it’s someone like your brother, you probably have to see them regularly. The best thing to do is prepare. Do whatever makes you feel good before you enter the room so you’re on a full tank. Have supportive people around who you can signal for help if needed.
But also know that the offender has their moves, so don’t be surprised when they act like themselves and go for your buttons. Control the conversation as much as possible, sticking to neutral topics. But if you feel tension bubbling up, leave, and Abrams advises to lean into the exit with, “I’d love to keep talking about this,” before using the blue-chip excuse of, “But I gotta hit the bathroom.” If you stay, you’re going to feel cornered, and, as Abrams adds, “we have the most problems when we get desperate.”
It’s harder when seeing them is intermittent or unexpected. You run into your old boss at a restaurant, or a former friend at a holiday party. With no warning, you can get triggered just because it’s that kind of day. There’s no quick solution, but the long-term plan is to build your ability to not react immediately, and, ultimately, not let someone get to you, Abrams says.
What helps is to schedule taking your emotional pulse a few times a day. Just pause long enough to see how your body and mind are feeling and what was happening to make it so. The more you do it, the better and quicker you get at sensing when you’re getting hot, and the easier it is to turn it down, he says.
But the bigger thing is to be kind to yourself. You can do all of the above and still get burned because bad people are eternal and will always be better at not playing by rules. But Dutchevici says in a twisted way, this is a positive, because, “it shows you still have faith in the world.”
And really what’s the alternative, being forever angry where the only person who loses is you?
“You only have so many minutes when you walk the earth,” Bostic says. “You can hold grudges or you can learn from past mistakes and move forward with new information. You want to be a happy person? You need to walk the walk and do the things of a happy person.”
Abrams adds that the goal is to improve your self-awareness — improve being the key word — because being clued in 100 percent of the time isn’t attainable.
“Most people are walking around at 20 percent,” he says. “If we could get to 50 percent, we’re at a significant advantage over everyone around us.”