It’s been suggested to me on more than one occasion that I have trouble letting things go. That could explain why one of my favorite quotes ever (which comes from Third Rock from the Sun, a short-lived ’90s sitcom) is, “I may forgive, but I never forget … and I never forgive.” This penchant might come in handy during fights (“I’m sorry I was late, but remember two years ago when you forgot my birthday?”), but that doesn’t make it fair. Plus, the whole holding-onto-the-past thing? Not so great for mental or physical wellbeing.
Grudges, like all things that stress us out, eventually wreak havoc on our bodies, too. The inability to release anger weighs on our minds and weighs down our immune systems. Yet just knowing it’s bad for us doesn’t make grudges any easier to unload, so how do we learn to forgive?
The Past Can Make Us Sick
It’s no secret that stress causes a host of ailments, including high blood pressure, elevated heart rates, and even hair loss. And as anyone who’s held a grudge can tell you, constantly thinking about a person or event that made you mad or sad only heightens the feelings and makes you more anxious.
As a whole, people who are more prone to holding grudges tend to be sicker than their peaceful peers. A 2000 study conducted at the University of Tennessee asked volunteers to tell stories about betrayal and measured their heart rates and blood pressure levels. Researchers found that people who forgave more easily registered lower numbers. They also made less sickness-induced trips to the doctor than the grudge-prone.
Similarly, members of the Department of Psychology at Medical College of Georgia published a paper entitled, “Bearing Grudges and Physical Health: Relationship to Smoking, Cardiovascular Health, and Ulcers” in 2009 concluding, “In a population-based survey, bearing grudges is associated with a history of pain disorders, cardiovascular disease, and stomach ulcers.” Clearly, grudges damage not only our relationships, but our health as well.
Grudges, Gender, and Evolution
If grudges are so bad for us, why do we hold onto them in the first place? Some evolutionary psychologists believe that grudge-holding is a relic from our caveman days, when people relied on each other for survival and remembering who slighted whom was crucial for success. (Incidentally, this might also be why we gossip.) That makes sense, but it doesn’t explain why some people spend more time dwelling on the past than others—or why people think women are more likely to have grudges.
Paul Thompson, a columnist for AskMen.com, recently argued that women fail as bosses because they tend to hold grudges. As stereotypical as the rest of his article was, he’s not alone in that judgment. In the book Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars, anthropologist Helen Fisher voices a similar opinion, saying that women remember offenses and continue being mad about things after they’ve passed. There’s no concrete evidence that women hold grudges more than men, but anecdotally, most people I spoke with—including women—agree that ladies tend to dwell on the past more and, as a result, have trouble letting go of the resentment associated with the offending event.
One friend postulated that women view things more universally than men, bringing the past, present, and future into situations, while men relate to things in the present best. Females are also less confrontational in nature, so that anger at a person or situation only festers over time and turns from annoyance into an outright grudge. However, there are exceptions to every rule and there are plenty of guys who have issues dealing with anger, too.
Regardless of whether women or men dredge up the past more, grudges negatively affect our bodies and minds and we need to rid them from our lives. That might be easier said than done, but there are steps we can take to move toward forgiveness and eventually peace of mind.
Pinpoint the problem.
Figure out what’s making you dwell on the issue in the first place. Talking it out with an impartial third party or writing it down can help you sort through and understand your emotions, especially why they’re so hard to shake.
What forgiveness means varies among people. It could be releasing resentments or it could extend into mending broken relationships. In whatever form forgiveness comes, remember that it’s not the same as forgetting, which is something that might never happen. The memory can last, but if you’ve truly forgiven someone, its ties to residual anger should be severed.
Recognize its negative effects.
Is the grudge holding you back from pursuing new things in your life, or is your resentment alienating you from others? There’s no point in holding onto anger; it doesn’t change or affect anything but your wellbeing. Becoming cognizant of a grudge’s ill effects on your life makes holding onto one seem all the more pointless.
Changes like this take a great deal of time and effort, but they’re worth it for the relief of not carrying around grudges anymore. And if they seem too hard to let go of, just think of all the energy we waste being angry at things we can’t change. Now that’s something to get mad about.