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October 12, 2010 > Counseling Corner: Letting go of a grudge

Counseling Corner: Letting go of a grudge

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

One would think the Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest people in America, wouldn't have a care in the world when it comes to most things, yet she recently talked about holding a grudge against someone who had presumably done her wrong. She said she felt indignant when she spotted this woman walking down Michigan Avenue and even entering a Tiffany's store (the nerve of her!). Oprah said it really struck a chord in her to see this individual laughing and having a good time and not caring one bit about the damage she had done. In contrast, Oprah had harbored feelings of anger and resentment.

Welcome to the human race, Oprah. All of us, at one time or another, have been hurt by someone else and have had lingering feelings of anger, embarrassment, vengeance, and bitterness in the aftermath. Perhaps your boss reamed you in front of your co-workers. Or your partner left you for a younger version of your self. Or someone whom you counted as one of your best friends betrayed you in a big way. Or a stranger stole your identity and messed up your credit.

Whether you have been hurt by a family member, friend, or stranger, the wound left by the infraction hurts. Like a wounded animal, we metaphorically lick our wounds again and again. But examining our wounds over and over again does not heal.

In the English language, we have the phrase "holding a grudge" as if we are hanging onto an actual physical object. But a grudge is not a tangible object - instead, it is a combination of resentment, anger, and ill will that we might feel toward someone who has injured us or done us wrong. Even though a grudge is not a real object, we can and do hold onto our hurt feelings as if our lives depended on it.

When we hold a grudge, we are literally hanging on to our injured feelings. Some of us might hang on to a grudge for a few days or weeks; other Master Grudgers might even hold a grudge for years.

Psychological research has shown many positive benefits to letting go of a grudge, including better mental and physical health and reduction of negative emotions. You might have heard the saying that a grudge is the heaviest thing to carry - you bet it is and you know what, it doesn't hurt anyone to carry it except you.

Letting go of a grudge doesn't mean that you become best buds with the person who offended you and you go off into the sunset holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." Letting go doesn't mean reconciliation with the person who hurt you.

Deep down, we all probably know that it's best if we could let go of a grudge. Perhaps the people around you have even told you to let it go. The question is, how exactly does one let go of a hurt that has been simmering inside you for months or years?

One of the first things to do is acknowledge to yourself what happened and the deepest impact that the infraction had on you. Say your friend borrowed some money from you and never paid you back. You've asked her countless times for the money and only received countless excuses and lame stories in return. You could really have used that money when you lost your job and needed to buy groceries. You're angry about being ripped off. But deeper still are feelings of being betrayed by someone whom you thought was a trustworthy friend. Even deeper still might be feelings of doubt about your judgment about people. Yet another level might be your sense of isolation and loneliness that she did not care about you when you were down.

The next step to take is to ask yourself the purpose of the grudge. Is it to feel morally superior? Is it to have a sense of revenge? What possible benefit(s) might your grudge bring to the side of yourself that is holding onto anger?

Then ask yourself if this is the right time to let go. I personally feel that now is the best time to get rid of a grudge. But I also believe that people have to be ready to let go, just as a smoker has to be ready to extinguish that last cigarette.

When you are ready, make a commitment to let go. You can even write this down to formalize the agreement that you are making with yourself. Remind yourself about the purpose of letting go of your grudge, i.e. you are doing this for your own peace of mind and sense of well being.

It might help to have a ritual to mark the end of the grudge. If you are ready to move on from a traumatic breakup, for example, you could take the ring your partner gave you and fashion it into something else to wear. Or you could literally bury your grudge in the ground. Use your creativity and imagination to have a cathartic release!

When we hold a grudge, our minds may trick us into thinking that having hateful feelings toward another puts us in a position of righteousness, power, or superiority. However, a truer source of personal power is ours when we decide to let go of a grudge so that we will have peace of mind as well as freed up energy and time to devote our lives to things that will make us happy instead of upset.

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