Allowing anger to fester over a perceived injustice can be debilitating and destructive. So learn to forgive, forget, and move on
I have an old school friend who I meet up with once or twice a year, and every time we do, the conversation always circles back to her ex-boyfriend. Or more importantly, how he dumped her. It wasn’t a particularly messy break-up, but I can see why she thinks their local KFC wasn’t the most compassionate place to break the news that he wanted to see other people. It happened more than eight years ago, and she’s happily married with kids. But it’s always in the back of her mind – she simply cannot let go of the grudge.
My grudge is a little different. A university lecturer once pointed out that I had a massive spot on my chin when I was in the middle of giving a presentation to a roomful of other students. It’s safe to say I’ve been harbouring hatred for the man ever since. For you, it might be the fact that Susan in accounting gave everyone a Christmas card except you. Maybe a friend has ghosted you, or your older sibling has always been more successful. Grudges come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re not necessarily all bad.
I asked cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Peter Klein, to elaborate. “Being angry at someone who has wronged us is a healthy response,” he explains. “It is often more unhealthy to not notice, or hold no ill will against anyone.”
Great! So, I can continue to feel seething contempt towards the middle-aged man who publicly shamed me for having a spot? Well, not quite. “When we think about specific moments in the past and keep ruminating about these excessively, then people can become mentally absent, are more likely to experience mental distress, and will have less energy because of that,” says Peter.
Is it bad to hold a grudge?
There is reason to believe that holding a grudge can have a significant impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. A study carried out by the University of Georgia found that bearing grudges is associated with a “history of pain disorders, cardiovascular disease, and stomach ulcers”. In 2015, a study found that people who engaged in actively forgiving others were able to perform better in jumping activities, suggesting that they felt physically lighter than those who had not. Almost like a weight had been lifted as a result of letting go of resentment.
The root of the problem
If you’re angry because of how someone has acted towards you, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is often a result of your personal expectations. You might think that KFC is an inappropriate place to end a relationship, but others can (and will) disagree. You could spend years waiting on an apology that will never come – and letting anger fester is a recipe for disaster.
You could spend years waiting on an apology that will never come – and letting anger fester is a recipe for disaster
Trainee counselling psychologist Sanjivan Parhar says that the ‘downward arrow technique’ can help get to the root of the problem. With the help of a therapist, you can “get to the core emotion that perpetuates thinking cycles,” by asking “why am I annoyed? And then what is this doing for me? What does this mean to me? Why is this important?” For example, the regular circling back on the famous KFC dumping of ’02 might reveal that my friend had wanted to end their relationship before he did, but didn’t dare to do so, and the resentment she feels is directed at herself because she wasted years with someone she didn’t love.
How to let go of a grudge
• Journaling is an effective way to record your negative thoughts and reflect on them. You can also use this to collect ‘thought records’, a CBT technique that teaches you not to believe everything you think by evaluating your thought pattern from a logical perspective. Is what you’re feeling a fact, or just an opinion you have formed in your mind?
• Interrupt the thought with a mantra like “I can learn to forgive” or “I can let go of this grudge” and this will help you to create a new, positive thought pattern.
• Try reframing the situation. This is a “process to slow down your thinking and re-evaluate your automatic thoughts”, according to Sanjivan Parhar. Can you play devil’s advocate and explore the reasons why someone might have acted out? Cognitive reframing helps shift your thoughts and can change the meaning you’ve assigned to certain events.