Not long ago a friend told me about a particularly thorny dispute he had with a neighbor. While he was telling me about the argument, my buddy’s face got red and I could almost feel his heart rate quickening. Granted, he had good reason to be angry about the incident. But here’s the thing…
The dispute took place more than 20 years ago and that neighbor had moved away eons ago!
Yet this friend was still dragging around a grudge that served no purpose except conjuring up angry emotions. My friend isn’t alone in this behavior. It’s human nature. Indeed, too many folks hold grudges that last a lifetime.
To some degree, we all know it’s wise to ‘forgive and forget.’ But did you know that letting go of a grudge can be vital to maintaining your good health? That’s right! And I came across some interesting research that proves just that.
Plus, I’ll share some tips for conquering your toughest, longstanding grudges for good. (And no, revenge isn’t one of them!)
The Science of Holding a Grudge
Grudges are typically accompanied by bitterness, anger and an element of despair. And this inability to cope with the situation leads to mental and physical health damage.
Dr. Frederic Luskin, founder of The Stanford Forgiveness Project, explained how grudges impact one’s health. “The hopelessness shuts down and dampens immune response, leads to some aspects of depression,” he writes. “Anger can have immune implications, it dysregulates the nervous system, it certainly is the most harmful emotion for the cardiovascular system.”
But here’s the good news: forgiveness can pretty much reverse these negative repercussions of clinging to age-old anger and grudges.
Forgiveness is Powerful Medicine
For more than eight years Dr. Luskin led a team who researched the health benefits of forgiveness. In an article he wrote called “The Choice to Forgive,” Dr. Luskin explained that forgiveness isn’t just “wishful thinking. It’s a trainable skill.”1
He went on to say that he and his colleagues have developed a method for forgiving almost any conceivable hurt. “We have tested this method through a series of studies with people who had been lied to, cheated, abandoned, beaten, abused, or had their children murdered,” Dr. Luskin reported. “They ranged from neglected spouses to the parents of terrorist victims in Northern Ireland.”
In a study, Dr. Luskin worked with Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland who had lost a family member to violence. After undergoing Dr. Luskin’s forgiveness training, participants reported a 40 percent decline in symptoms of depression.
I think that’s an amazing result.
In another study, Dr. Luskin and his team worked with people who had suffered a variety of hurts, from business partners lying to them to best friends abandoning them.
“Six months after their forgiveness training, these people reported a 70 percent drop in the degree of hurt they felt toward the person who had hurt them, and they said they felt more forgiving in general,” wrote Dr. Luskin.
Specifically, Dr. Luskin’s team found that forgiveness training can:
- Reduce stress
- Lower blood pressure
- Lessen feelings of anger and hurt
- Reduce symptoms of depression
- Increase optimism, hope and compassion
- Boost physical vitality
Dr. Luskin published his work in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2006, saying “skills-based forgiveness training may prove effective in reducing anger as a coping style, reducing perceived stress and physical health symptoms, and thereby may help reduce” the stress we put on our immune and cardiovascular systems.2
Don’t Delay in Addressing a Grudge
A 2019 study found that carrying anger into old age is associated with higher levels of inflammation and chronic illness.3
“Part of holding a grudge is replaying the story over and over in your head and thinking about all of those emotions associated with it,” says Dr. Meghann Gerber, a psychologist at the University of Washington.4
A good definition of a grudge is the act of rehashing an event in your mind long after it has passed. But it’s important to know that a grudge is not the same as carrying the effects of serious trauma from sexual assault or violent crime.
So, How Do You Forgive?
Dr. Luskin has come to the conclusion that forgiveness is for you, not the offender. Forgiveness is about “freeing yourself,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to condone what a person did or even reconcile with the person.
Forgiveness is simply gaining peace and understanding. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Luskin offered some helpful strategies he uses in forgiveness training.
- When you observe that anger bubbling up, try to calm yourself. This can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths or taking a brisk walk. “You have to counter-condition the stress response when it happens,” Dr. Luskin said.5
- Next, try to shift your internal and external “grievance” storytelling. “Change your story from that of a victim to a more heroic story,” Dr. Luskin says.
- And finally, show gratitude for the good things in your life and balance the harm. “Life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to,” Dr. Luskin says. “Combining those two ideas can shift the ground, and it lowers very dramatically your general level of stress.”
Remember, forgiveness doesn’t come naturally– it’s a learnable skill.
And like learning a new language or hobby, forgiveness just takes education and practice.
For more tips on how to forgive, visit Dr. Luskin’s website where he outlines forgiveness training and offers more resources: https://learningtoforgive.com/9-steps/.
Alas, I think the tendency in our society is running the opposite of what Dr. Luskin suggests. More and more, people are being encouraged to nurse their rage and express it.
A couple of weeks ago, I even saw an advice columnist – one of those Ann Landers types – advising a reader to refuse to speak to an ex-friend who was asking for reconciliation. The columnist’s premise was that the advice-seeker’s first job was to nurse her own fragile emotional wellbeing.
This was not a case of someone who had suffered abuse or something like that. The ex-friend’s offense was so trivial it was hardly worth mentioning.
But the whole anecdote fits well with what I see in general – the idea that there’s a “right” not to be offended, each of us has the right to decide what’s offensive to us (most commonly, just some opinion the offended person doesn’t like), and the victim’s view of the matter is the last word.
God Can Help If You Give Him a Chance
With all due respect to Dr. Luskin, I think his remedy is just a halfway house if we want to reap the benefits of forgiveness and bring our blood pressure down a few points.
Anger, revenge, shunning and excluding other people are probably the natural human impulses. They are our default setting. I don’t want to ruin your day, but we humans are not naturally very good.
Forgiveness runs against the grain. It’s hard. And no, Dr. Luskin, forgiveness is not all about you and what’s good for you. The wellbeing of the person who’s hurt you is actually one of the values at stake, at least in the religious view of things.
I don’t agree with Dr. Luskin’s idea that forgiveness does not involve actually trying to reconcile with the other person. Anything else is a sort of sham forgiveness. His three suggestions above will help you feel better, but they aren’t forgiveness.
I used to carry my share of grudges and even stopped speaking to my brother for several years at one point. It was only my return to religious belief that required me to see forgiveness as a moral obligation, something I had to do.
And what do you know, I liked it! My life got better. But this was not something I ever would have figured out for myself. I needed a push.
We are where we are. We live in a secular age where people who commune with God are a beleaguered minority. I hope the rest of them can figure out, on the basis of medical journal articles, that forgiveness is a good thing. But I’m only modestly hopeful. Especially when there’s a noisy mainstream culture telling them to rage, rage, rage.
- https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/well-being/holding-a-grudge#:~:text=When you
hold a grudge,make you minimize your emotions