Why it’s so hard to let go of a grudge; 6 tools


According to one study, 78% of people globally have a lingering resentment of some sort. And it doesn’t stop there, the average adult is currently harboring no less than 7 grudges, even though about 1/3 of them don’t remember how the conflict began.

It’s hard to let go! A 2014 YOUGov poll showing that 13% of Americans were still holding a grudge toward Britain for opposing their independence in 1776, even though the people responsible for that decision have long passed.

Here’s how the dynamic frequently goes down. Someone does or says something hurtful, but here’s where it gets tricky. The offending person either doesn’t realize the effect it’s had on you and if they do, they justify it as unintentional or even unavoidable. And then they move on. For them, it’s a done deal.

Now think about all the things your partner or parent or child does that bug you. Typically, we don’t hold a grudge because we accept that’s just how they are, and/or we’re comfortable letting them know the effect they’ve had.

But when it comes to work or even friendship, we don’t always (or often) show our true emotions, especially when we’re feeling hurt or vulnerable.

Think of this extremely common example. You send someone an email request and they don’t respond. Depending on your relationship, it’s easy for your mind to fill in the blanks with all sorts of nefarious reasons. They don’t value you, they’re too self-important or just plain rude.

These days I tell coaching clients not to expect a response the first time they send an email, especially to someone they don’t know well. It’s not rudeness per se, in our overwhelmed society ignoring the first email has become the new norm.

But that realization doesn’t change our innate needs for fairness, respect, and closure.

And when we don’t get it (intentionally or not), we’re likely to hang on to that “breach of trust”, regardless of the other person’s intention or awareness. And when the person is aware of their offending behavior but continues to act like everything is fine, it feels especially hurtful.

To be clear, letting go doesn’t mean accepting bad behavior, or suppressing your feelings, it simply means redirecting your thoughts away from the rumination patterns that keep the hurtful memory alive and simmering.

Grudges hurt the wrong person

“When we hold onto grudges and resentment, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick,” says Angela Buttimer, MS, NCC, RYT, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “It causes us to carry negative, tense energy in our biology.”

“Living in a chronic state of tension disables your body’s repair mechanisms, increasing inflammation and the stress hormone cortisol in the body,” she explains. “Forgiveness engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your immune system function more efficiently and makes room for feel-good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin.”

You’re probably already aware of the pain associated with holding a grudge. In another study, 62% of Americans say they need to be more forgiving.

The problem is, as we know, ingrained thinking patterns are hard to change. Once we label people or actions as unfair or worse, intentionally malignant, our triggered defense response hangs onto that judgment until we intentionally revisit it and use our tools to catch and release that thinking pattern or use our mind-body practices to let that expectation go.

It helps to recognize that the negative stories we tell ourselves about others are seldom entirely true. It’s easy to make assumptions, but research shows we’re rarely right about other people’s motivations. Although most people believe intuition to be an accurate guide for interpreting another person’s thoughts and feelings than systematic thinking—the opposite is actually true. 

So how can you let go of old hurts you’ve been harboring?

6 tools for letting go:

  1. Use breathwork and letting go practices to downregulate triggered emotions and get clear the real feelings underlying them.
  2. Recognize the reality around expectations. Unless they’re clearly communicated, they may be fair game for ignoring by others, even when you think they should be obvious.
  3. Get clear about your boundaries, and your policy around relationships with people who cross them.
  4. Decide whether the relationship is worth saving. If you’ve been repeatedly let down, recognize this is the nature of this dynamic. So, you can either decide to accept it as is or let it go.
  5. A recent Harvard Business Review article suggests intentionally shifting your posture by choosing to be more gracious and hospitable, even kind to them if you can muster it. Although you can’t change another person, you can acknowledge the ways this posture is more aligned with your values.
  6. Play the Blame Game (adapted from Mindful Leader). The Blame Game is a forgiveness exercise that can be helpful in organizing your thoughts around the incident in question.

Here’s how it works:

  • Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle to create two columns.
  • In the left column, write down all the things you blame the other person for. This could include actions they took, things they said, or ways they made you feel.
  • In the right column, write down all the things you blame yourself for. This could include overreacting, not standing up for yourself, or not communicating clearly.
  • Once you’ve finished your list, take a step back and look at it with a fresh perspective. Notice how much blame is being placed on both yourself and the other person.
  • Next, take a moment to acknowledge that blame is a natural response to feeling hurt, but it doesn’t serve us in the long run. Consider what you can do to move past blame and towards forgiveness.
  • Finally, take a deep breath and let go of the blame. Visualize yourself releasing the negative emotions associated with blame and moving towards a more peaceful, forgiving mindset.
  • Remember, forgiveness is not about assigning blame or fault. It’s about letting go of negative emotions and moving toward a place of healing and growth.

We’ve all had the experience of storifying someone else’s response (or lack of) only to learn later that we were entirely wrong. As well as the realization that our values and very different from someone we otherwise want to need to be in relationship with, either personally or professionally.

In either case, letting go of hurt feelings, unmet expectations and long-past events sets you free.

Personally, I struggled with certain relationship dynamics for years (even decades!) I used the tools listed above to adjust my expectations around and recognize that I can’t change other people but I can shift my posture, uphold my boundaries and find support when I need it. No surprise that my coach is one of them! (Thank you Jodi!)

Of course, these are all rational ways of letting go of a grudge. And as we know emotions are not rational.

Which is where breathwork and movement come in. The daily practice of using controlled breathing exercises and later the yoga postures that accompany them, was developed thousands of years ago as a means of letting go.

Breathwork and movement are powerful tools to let go physically and emotionally, freeing the mind to focus on other, healthier things. Today we know that 78% of toxins are released through the breath and that the defensive posture of holding onto old hurts retains a physical form.

Our emotions drive our mental and physical reactions based on habit patterns. If every time we think of (that person) we feel our stomach knot and chest tighten, we’ve created a holding pattern to match that thought, as our breathing constricts and the anxious thoughts start flowing.

As a coach, I recognize how many of us are stuck in holding patterns, and that in order to begin to unravel them, we need to learn to recognize the ways they show up in our daily lives. By practicing exercises like “The Blame Game,” we can become more aware of our patterns and work towards releasing blame, practicing acceptance and moving towards true forgiveness.

As we loosen the grip of these holding patterns using breathwork, movement and self-compassion, we can expand into more flexibility, possibilities, and freedom.

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Four Ways We Avoid Our Feelings—and What to Do Instead by Sandra Parker

Forgiving a Difficult Colleague by Ron Carucci

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