Holding a grudge can be all-encompassing. Just the mere thought of someone who was rude to us, betrayed us, or otherwise hurt us triggers a tightness in our throats all the way down to our stomachs. Getting angry can feel empowering at first. But staying mad causes collateral damage in ways we may not even realize.
For one thing, harboring negative feelings can block us from experiencing positive ones. What’s more, when we dwell on how we’ve been wronged, we tend to talk about it a lot. If this is true for you, how might the grudge you’re holding onto be affecting your relationships? Is it possible that you’re so wrapped up in what happened that you aren’t as available to friends and family members as you’d like to be?
Staying mad also zaps our energy and can affect our health and well-being. Dr. Karen Swartz, a psychiatrist and clinical programs director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, said in a Q&A about the healing power of forgiveness, “If someone is stuck in an angry state, what they’re essentially doing is being in a state of adrenaline. And some of the negative health consequences of not forgiving or being stuck there are high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, not having a good immune response. You’re constantly putting your energy somewhere else.
So, how can we reclaim that energy?
1. Take a deep breath. Breathing deeply helps your body relax, which in turn helps to relax your mind. One of our favorite breathing exercises is 4-7-8 breathing from Dr. Andrew Weil:
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Dr. Weil demonstrates this breathing technique here.
2. Notice the story you’re telling yourself. Now that you’re in a calmer physical state, you can pay attention to your thoughts. Ask yourself, “What is the story I’m telling myself about how I’ve been wronged?” Even if someone did wrong you, repeating that upsetting story to yourself isn’t helping you get past it or feel better.
“The trick is to be mindful of your thoughts as soon as you feel like you’re going down that emotional trail, because once you’re immersed in the feelings, it’s much harder to stop,” says psychotherapist Donna Arling. So the next time you notice yourself starting to think about the grudge-sparking incident, give yourself the gift of simply noticing it. When the thought appears, say to yourself, “I’m thinking about it.” It may sound silly, but paying attention to your thoughts in this way is essential to eventually letting your grudge go.
3. Try telling a new story. No matter how true the stories you tell yourself about other people’s behavior might feel, there are always other ways the stories could be told. The key to identifying alternative stories — ones that may help you feel much better, emotionally and physically — is to remember that you never really know why someone else does what they do or what it feels like to walk in their shoes. You can be mad at their behavior, but when you begin to attribute motivation — to say, for example, “He only did that because he doesn’t respect me, and he never has” — then the storyteller in you is chiming in. Notice this, then challenge yourself to try a different narrative, even if it’s as simple as, “What he did felt very disrespectful” (acknowledging your feelings) “and I don’t know why he did it” (a powerful shift from assuming he doesn’t respect you and never will).
When you feel wronged, it can feel like adding insult to injury to take the high road. But what’s the alternative? You can choose to stay on this path — or you can choose to hurt less.