Holding a Grudge. Good for you?

Jim works in sales, and most of the time he is away from his office. One Monday morning, after a productive two-week trip that brought three new accounts to the company, Jim was catching up on paperwork in his office. His colleague and friend, Adam, stopped by. “Glad to see you back, Jim. I need to alert you that the new guy in marketing, Ralph, has been spreading some garbage rumors around about you. I swear, I think he wants your job. But don’t worry – I made sure everyone knows he’s full of hot air, and that there’s no truth to what he’s been saying.” Jim was furious. “That b*****d! I’m going to the boss and getting him fired!” Adam said, “Hold on, Jim, hold on. Like I said, everyone knows he’s full of it. It’s going to get to the boss and I think his days are numbered. So don’t take a chance on making yourself look bad. Besides, your day will come. One day he’ll walk into your bullseye and you can nail him. He’s a loose cannon and will hang himself.” Jim accepted his friend’s caution, but every time saw his adversary around the office his blood boiled.

Everyone is likely to get mistreated by others now and then. You’ve probably been bullied, insulted, given a lousy grade, turned down for a job, criticized, dumped romantically, and on and on. When you’re on the receiving end of such actions it’s natural to think negatively about the person responsible. You may carry a grudge or dislike for them in your mind for months, sometimes even years after they’re no longer a part of your life.

Many religions say you should forgive others for their transgressions against you. Even in everyday conversation, others tell you it’s not good to hold a grudge against someone. “Forgive, put it behind you, and move on,” they say. The problem is, forgiveness requires a lot of humble-pie energy. If you had a personal high-school bully who made your life miserable on a daily basis, why bother to forgive this person years later? Plus, you figure holding onto the grudge is harmless and just one of your unpleasant youthful memories. But, is maintaining a grudge harmless?   

In one study psychologists asked participants to think about a person who had done them some personal harm in the past, and whom they still blamed for the action. The participants were asked to rehearse the original negative event, to dwell on the hurt they had felt from this person, and to think about their anger and the unforgiving feelings they had toward the person. But then the participants were asked to switch gears and imagine what they would say to forgive the person. They were told to concentrate on having empathy for the person, to see things from their perspective, and think about various ways to forgive. During these two phases, the participants were asked questions to assess how they felt – their emotions, comfort, tension, etc.

When dwelling on the unforgiveness phase, participants showed increased arousal and discomfort. They felt angry, nervous, and sad when thinking about unforgiveness. In the next phase, however, when imagining comments geared to forgiveness, participants were more relaxed, understanding, and felt good about being able to control their emotions.

            Some psychologists say that holding a grudge can cause considerable stress and weaken your body over time. At best, you could become more vulnerable to episodes of anger and other negative emotions; at worst this strain could negatively affect your immune system and contribute to health problems. So, what can you do to lighten this burden?

For starters, all you have to do is imagine yourself apologizing to the person during a civil conversation with them. That’s right, the forgiveness does not have to be face-to-face; just rehearse in your mind how you would apologize, and then go on with your life. Forgiving (in your mind, at least) is not only good advice, but it’s easy to do.

            You can also try this technique with current antagonists. What do you usually do after you have a conflict or disagreement with someone? We bet you spend time thinking about the confrontation and imagining what you should have said to win the argument or to put your antagonist down. You come up with clever insults, but unfortunately, you didn’t say those clever things in real time, so dwelling on the episode after it’s over just frustrates you, and creates anxiety about your next meeting.

            To cope better, try this: Instead of fantasizing about things you could have said to dominate your tormenter, why not imagine yourself saying something like, “You know, this is not worth getting all worked up about. I think both of us have some valid points, so why don’t we just agree to disagree and work together?” In other words, take the high road, the honorable road, at least in your mind. Doing so should relax you and make it easier to put the episode behind you. And who knows, you may even find yourself making forgiving comments the next time you see the person. Even if you never make conciliatory face-to-face comments, however, or if the other person persists in being belligerent in the future, your symbolic forgiveness in your mind will help you shrug it off with a smile, knowing, “I tried! It’s their problem now.”

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