Time to Let Go

Why Grudges Hurt Us More Than Them

From the Vision archive: Grudges—whether fictional or real-life—often make for great stories. But unless we learn to let them go, there’s no happy ending. (Republished in Spring 2022 from our Summer 2020 issue.)

A love story, yes; a ghost story, certainly; a powerful drama, to be sure. But it could be argued that, at heart, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a story about grudges and retribution. Between the protagonist Heathcliff (badly treated as a child) and various members of the Earnshaw and Linton families, there’s no shortage of ill will.

Edgar Linton, who married his rival Heathcliff’s great love, Catherine (and blames him for her death), tries to explain Heathcliff’s evil actions to his daughter. The narrator relates her reaction: “Miss Cathy—conversant with no bad deeds except her own slight acts of disobedience . . . —was amazed at the blackness of spirit that could brood on and cover revenge for years, and deliberately prosecute its plans without a visitation of remorse.”

Grudges and vengeance often play a central role in fiction of the 19th century, when novels were still a fairly new literary genre; for example, in works by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Herman Melville and Alexandre Dumas. More recent writers, from Agatha Christie to Stephen King, have likewise capitalized on the grudge-revenge theme for some of their storylines.

There’s no shortage in real life either, some on a grand scale. There’s been bad blood between Japan and South Korea for more than a century, in part the result of Japan’s annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910. Many grudges have survived even longer. A 2014 YOUGov poll claimed that 13 percent of Americans were still holding a grudge toward Britain for opposing their independence in 1776.

Simply defined, a grudge is a negative feeling toward someone because of something he or she did (or is perceived to have done) in the past. It’s a persistent resentment, often stemming from an insult, an injury or some other slight. The language we use around grudges highlights this longevity. We talk of “holding,” “bearing,” “harboring” and “nursing” grudges. Common synonyms, such as resentment, bitterness, grievance and malice, indicate other features that may be present to varying degrees. While Edgar Linton and other Wuthering Heights characters displayed some of these traits, Heathcliff went in for them with a passion.

Others have too. You’re not many pages into the Bible, for example, before reading a description of the first murder. Cain was irritated that, for reasons not stated, his offering didn’t please God. His brother Abel’s, on the other hand, was good. Cain was given the opportunity to correct the problem but instead chose to nurture his anger. The grudge began with Cain feeling wronged. We aren’t given a timeline, but at some point he gave vent to the anger consuming him and, presumably out of jealousy, murdered Abel.

In Harm’s Way

A grudge may arise from what is seen as a justifiable cause, such as the ill-treatment of Heathcliff or the perceived wrong that Cain experienced, but both lead to the same conclusion: a world of hurt and pain.

We’d like to think we inflict that hurt on the target of our anger when we harbor resentment. But Scottish psychologist Joanna McParland explains that a sense of having been wronged actually hurts the health of the grudge holder. A perception of injustice can negatively impact our thoughts and emotions. Further, she notes that being badly treated or missing out on a promotion may be unfair, but carrying such feelings of unfairness for a prolonged period can make painful physical conditions worse.

Research conducted by psychiatrist Erick Messias and colleagues at the Medical College of Georgia arrived at similar conclusions: “Taken together our findings reaffirm the role of psychological factors, such as bearing grudges, in the causal path towards a variety of medical conditions; specifically cardiovascular problems, peptic ulcers, and pain disorders.”

Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It”

Despite the personal harm and the faulty, self-defeating logic of harboring grudges, some people foster them in hopes of a chance to exact revenge, as Heathcliff did. Others may direct their anger at people who have died or with whom they lost contact many years ago, in which case retribution isn’t even an option. It may also be that for the sake of maintaining peace in a relationship, we keep a grudge to ourselves. But nondisclosure won’t limit the damage if it continues to lurk unchecked in our mind.

The truth is that for whatever reason or in whatever manner we direct a grudge toward another, the grudge will simply be turned inward and eat us up from the inside; unwittingly we become the author of our own destruction. It’s often said that when we hold on to grudges and resentment, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.

Alanis Morissette makes a similar point in her song “This Grudge.” She details the extent of a resentment she’s carried for years and then asks: “But who’s it hurting now? Who’s the one that’s stuck? Who’s it torturing now . . . ?”

Holding On

Grudges are common. It seems we like to hold them, but why? Why choose to keep a wound open and festering, preventing us from healing and moving forward?

As with so many thinking styles, it may simply be a matter of habit. Our reactions to certain situations are often learned responses; we see the way others react and unthinkingly mimic their behavior. In time it becomes our own and, with repetition, becomes the brain’s go-to response, the neural pathway of choice—the path of least resistance.

In addition, a desire for justice may make us unwilling to forgo grudges. It may feel like we’d be letting the other party off the hook. In the new “cancel culture,” those who say or do something or are reported to have done something that others object to are ostracized and treated as though they no longer exist—canceled—while the grudge itself continues. Many teens have been on the receiving end of such treatment at the hands of their peers.

Former US president Barack Obama remarked in a 2019 interview: “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people—and this is accelerated by social media—there is this sense sometimes of ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.’” He added: “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

For those who believe the world should be a fair and equitable place, coming to terms with the fact that life is often unfair may cause some cognitive dissonance as they struggle to let go. Injustice and inequality exist the world over. But while we often can make a positive difference in alleviating social ills, grudges are unproductive.

A grudge may also carry with it a sense of identity that helps define us. We come to see ourselves as victims and seek comfort and compassion from within ourselves and from others with whom we share the hurt and pain. But holding on to resentment doesn’t lead to healing, well-being or inner peace. It’s less comfort and joy than despair and destroy.

Whether it’s a real or imagined offense that leads us to hold a grudge, doing so will only keep us in victim mode. Still, according to Frederick Luskin, founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, “each of us can learn to deal with our wounds and hurts. . . . We do not have to tell endless stories of victimization.”

Many people deal unsuccessfully with painful life situations by creating and maintaining long-standing grievances. They end up renting too much space in their minds to the hurt.”

Frederic Luskin, Forgive for Good

Letting Go

How do we exit the mentally toxic wasteland of resentment that we may inhabit? The key to avoiding the outcomes that grudges lead to is realizing we have a choice. We can choose how we react and respond; choose how we think; choose how we see the world; choose how we view ourselves and relate to others.

It’s inevitable that we will at times be offended and hurt, whether intentionally or not, but we don’t need to remain victims of a negative and destructive mindset. We can reframe the situation, change the story we tell ourselves, and think differently. This includes accepting that we may be mistaken and that our assumptions about motives may be wide of the mark. We can all too easily justify both our right to be offended and our response, choosing to see things from only our perspective, as Cain did. It isn’t difficult to build a case in our minds for what someone has said or done to hurt us. But what about allowing that sometimes we can be oversensitive or read too much into things, or that we have simply misunderstood?

We may also need to accept that our personalities vary greatly and that we’ve all had different experiences, so that what someone else sees as an innocuous comment or action, where no harm is intended, may be offensive to us. Of course, it works both ways: we want to be given the benefit of the doubt and forgiven when we mess up, so we should be prepared to extend the same courtesy to others.

Terrible and distressing events are a part of life. We don’t come equipped with a mental switch that we can just flip and “move on.” That’s why others’ advice that we simply forgive and “get over it” can seem trite, as if they haven’t taken what we’ve been through seriously. Indeed, we may all need to talk over an upsetting experience, relate what are very real distresses, and receive a compassionate and caring response. There are times, too, when we may need professional help to deal with what life throws at us, because trying to suppress our feelings can do more harm than good. Likewise, forgetting is not always an option or even advisable. For example, if we’ve been the victim of a crime, there may be aspects of the situation we can learn from to help keep us safe in future. Clearly there’s a need for balance.

We do know, however, that those who resort to revenge in an attempt to right a wrong, as Heathcliff did, leave little room for forgiveness and reconciliation or for understanding another’s point of view.

In whatever way forgiveness helps you, the science to date is clear: relinquishing your grudges will be good for you.”

Frederic Luskin, Forgive for Good

What about situations that are so clear-cut that we can be fairly confident the offense was deliberate and malicious? Maintaining a grudge may lend a sense of control in that we won’t allow ourselves to be put upon by others. But that’s an illusion and, as already noted, will only damage us in the long run as we bring on ourselves the negative effects of a destructive thinking style. So, as counterintuitive as it may seem, rather than holding on to a grudge, we should do the opposite.

Toward a Positive Outcome

There’s much in life that we can’t control or alter; but for most, the way we think and react is subject to self-regulation. Adopting this approach will lead to a new identity: not that of a victim needing comfort from hurt but a strong person who has mastered emotions and can rise above the petty perturbations of life. Many grudges begin with what are really minor infringements.

The story of Cain was about a perceived wrong that led the offended brother to commit murder. But we can also go to the Bible for an example of an actual offense. In this case it was an unambiguous wrong, also with serious consequences, yet the outcome couldn’t have been more different.

We’re told that the Hebrew patriarch Isaac, by then an old man with failing eyesight, wanted to bestow a blessing on the elder of his twin sons (and thus his rightful heir), Esau. But the younger twin, Jacob, tricked Isaac into blessing him instead—with, among other things, servants, grain, wine and ascendency over his brother. As a consequence, Esau hated Jacob and swore to kill him. Jacob fled and didn’t go back for 20 years.

Esau, when he learned of his brother’s impending return (accompanied by his wives, his children and considerable wealth), went out to meet him with 400 men. The intervening years had given him plenty of time to brood on the wrongs done him, to develop a full-fledged grudge, and to plot his revenge. So when Jacob saw Esau approaching with his entourage, he feared for his life and for the lives of his family. Yet Esau rushed forward and embraced his brother, and they were tearfully and happily reunited. We aren’t given details of the thought processes that Esau went through during all those years, but clearly he had moved on, forgiven and let go.

Such positive outcomes are possible for anyone.

Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”

Helen Burns, in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

In a paper on grudges and forgiveness, researchers at Hope College in Michigan concluded that “although people cannot undo past offenses, this study suggests that if they develop patterns of thinking about their offenders in forgiving ways rather than unforgiving ways, they may be able to change their emotions, their physiological responses, and the health implications of a past they cannot change.”

The next time we’re on the receiving end of a wrong, real or perceived, it’s only natural that most of us will feel a mix of negative emotions. The question is, what comes next? Realizing that we have a choice, that we can direct our emotional responses, is a vital step in avoiding the hurt and suffering that grudges lead to, often for others but always for ourselves. Heathcliff went headlong to oblivion down this path, and Cain brought about his own demise. Esau, with ample cause to bear a grudge, chose a different route, one that led to forgiveness.

Will we find ourselves stuck in a mental rut, unable to escape—or breaking free and moving in the opposite direction? Offenses can lead to holding on to grievances and so to harming ourselves and others, or to letting go and creating an opportunity for healing and growth. The choice is ours.