The Mental Health Effects of Holding a Grudge

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Holding a grudge is when you harbor anger, bitterness, resentment, or other negative feelings long after someone has done something to hurt you. Usually, it's in response to something that's already occurred, other times a grudge may develop after simply perceiving that someone is against you or means you harm—whether or not they actually do. Grudges also often feature persistent rumination about the person and/or incident at the center of your ill-will.

While we don't often like to admit it, holding a grudge is a common way some people respond to feeling that they've been wronged.

If you're still mad well after a precipitating incident, you may be holding on to those negative feelings for too long, sometimes well after other people typically would have let them go. You may remember multiple past bad acts and relive those experiences every time you think about or interact with that person—either making your displeasure abundantly clear to them or keeping your true feelings to yourself. You might be intentionally holding a grudge, but sometimes you aren't even aware of it.

But whatever your intentions or the cause of your bitterness, holding a grudge can end up hurting you as much as the person who inspired it.

Learn more about how clinging to anger can impact you, emotionally, physically, and socially, as well as how to begin to let go of your grudges and cope with anger in a healthier way.

Overview

From early childhood on, holding a grudge is one way people respond to negative feelings and events. This reaction is particularly common when you think someone has done something intentionally, callously, or thoughtlessly to hurt you, especially if they don't seem to care or make an attempt to apologize or make the situation right.

If you have low self-esteem, poor coping skills, were embarrassed by the hurt, and/or have a short temper you may be even more likely to hold a grudge.

While we all may fall into holding an occasional grudge, some people may be more prone to hanging on to resentments or anger than other people. Sometimes, holding grudges—and blaming others—may be a form of self-protection. In the same vein, some people may be more cognizant that they are stoking feelings of bitterness than others, who may be unaware of the role they play in keeping their anger alive. Lasting bitterness can grow from a variety of issues—large and small—as well.

For instance, holding a grudge may come about as a result of seemingly small slights, such as someone not picking you for a team, taking your preferred seat, not including you on a group text, not inviting you to an event, calling you by the wrong name, not noticing your new haircut, looking at you in a strange way, or even simply bumping into you.

Of course, resentments and prolonged anger more often spring from larger missteps, such as someone forgetting your birthday, not helping you when you need them, making a thoughtless or rude comment, or letting you down in another hurtful way. Grudges also naturally build from more egregious events like taking credit for your efforts at work, lying, false accusations, forgetting or ignoring something important, or making a pass at your significant other or the object of your crush.

Additionally, sometimes you and the person you feel wronged by may both be holding grudges against each other, further exacerbating the cycle of bitterness, anger, and blame.

Some grudges may be relatively short-lived, eventually getting resolved or simply fading away, while others can last a lifetime. However, while occasional anger, frustration, disappointment, disillusionment, feeling attacked, ignored, or let down, or other negative feelings towards others may be an unavoidable reality of life, coping with them in a positive way is imperative for healthy well-being—and holding grudges usually backfires on this front.

Is Holding a Grudge Harmful?

Essentially, holding a grudge isn't good for you. It ensnares you in anger and makes you prone to persistent rumination rather than moving forward with your life. You might think that harboring ill-will harms the person you're mad at, but ultimately you're the one who suffers from it. Essentially, a grudge inhibits your ability to cope with or resolve your issue and keeps you stuck in the past—trapped in an unpleasant event or interaction that causes you distress.

The grudge doesn't solve your problem and is highly unlikely to make you feel any better. While it is certainly unhealthy to not feel or fully process (and accept) your feelings, research shows that fixating on negative emotions rather than resolving them is also harmful—and can even make for an unpleasant demeanor and substantially erode your well-being.

Consider that the phrase "holding a grudge," comes from the Old French word grouchier, which means "to grumble" and is related to the English word "grouch." Related older English and German words have similar meanings that translate into "to complain," "to wail," "to grumble," and "to cry out."

Clearly, holding a grudge can be detrimental and painful for the person holding it—just like the hurt that inspired it.

Mental Health Effects

Grudge-holding can adversely impact your mental health in a variety of ways. Most importantly, harboring anger will, generally, just make you feel angrier. Instead of accepting and moving on from a negative experience or finding an acceptable resolution, holding on can trap you in a loop of resentment, bitterness, hopelessness, emptiness, or enragement.

Simply put, harboring negative feelings naturally makes you more exposed to these more unpleasant emotions and thoughts, which can skew your mindset toward negativity, either slowly or in a swift shift. And a focus on negativity can dampen your overall well-being.

Reliving the negative incident and emotions over and over can be upsetting, draining, and frustrating, as nothing gets resolved or changes, except, perhaps, that you end up feeling more enraged or hurt. In fact, studies show that ruminating about an unpleasant event makes it feel like the incident happened much more recently, despite the passage of time.

Additionally, if you ultimately exaggerate the experience or issue in your mind, which is fairly common, the act of holding the grudge may even become more painful than the event itself. And sadly, this is a self-inflicted wound that will likely just make you feel worse.

Built-up resentment and uncensored internal fury create the potential for added stress, worry, defensiveness, aggression, and negativity, which can also increase your propensity for mental health concerns, such as:

If you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Researchers have shown that unhealthy emotional regulation, blaming others, suppressing emotions, and holding on to these negative feelings all beget more negative feelings. Forgiveness and acceptance, on the other hand, often lead to a more emotionally stable mindset, less stress, and healthier well-being.

Additionally, holding on to anger makes you more likely to fixate on revenge, including acts of aggression. Plus, living under stress leads to burnout,

Physical Health Effects

Studies show that holding on to anger rather than responding with forgiveness and/or moving on can have profound negative physical health effects as well, likely due to the added stress harboring grudges creates.

Chronic stress can cause a range of adverse health effects on the body, including on:

  • Cardiovascular health
  • Digestion
  • Reproduction
  • Sleep
  • The immune system

Headaches, insomnia, upset stomachs, heart disease, and asthma are all known to occur more commonly in those living under high levels of stress, particularly for those that don't respond well to change or difficult situations. Finding productive ways to release anger, frustration, and other forms of stress, such as letting go of grudges, may mitigate these symptoms.

Excess anger has also been shown to adversely impact cognition and executive function. In fact, one study found decision-making skills to become impaired in those with high levels of anger. Memory and perception of reality may also be negatively associated with holding grudges as well.

Social Effects

Holding grudges can have a big impact on your social life as well. Having a bitter reaction to hurtful situations can cause estrangement from family members, ruin friendships, or otherwise limit the number of people with whom you socialize.

However, it's important to note that minimizing or ending some relationships, particularly if you deem them to be toxic to your well-being, could be a good thing.

Still, take time to assess if you may be overreacting or if another measure can be taken to heal the rift before you cut someone from your life. Also, consider that the impact of harboring resentments may spill over into multiple relationships beyond the person you're mad at to include others who may disapprove of the fact that you won't let go of your angry feelings.

If people think of you as a person who regularly holds grudges, they may be less inclined to socialize with you or trust you to be there for them—even if you aren't holding any grudges against them. Additionally, you may lose perspective about other aspects of your relationship with the person or people whom you feel wronged you.

For example, if you're ultra-focused on the fact that your friend canceled your plans at the last minute, you may forget that they are usually very reliable, fail to empathize that they got overwhelmed at work, or not recall that you recently canceled on them, too.

Or you might miss that while your friend may occasionally be late or fail to show up, this issue has nothing to do with you—and that you don't really want being mad about this unfortunate quality to derail your entire friendship. Additionally, if your partner did something truly hurtful, consider that only in forgiving them can you heal the relationship—assuming that's what you want to do.

Also, if you have children, understand that you're modeling this behavior. Routinely holding on to bitterness rather than processing negative feelings through forgiveness, acceptance, grieving, conflict resolution, or other healthier methods of coping teaches your kids to do the same.

Possible Benefits

While it's clear that routinely harboring grudges has many pitfalls, it's important to look at any possible benefits that might come with keeping these negative feelings around. Firstly, as noted above, it's not ideal to just brush off your feelings or bury them, so, in some situations, it might be preferable to hold a grudge than to completely avoid your feelings.

For some people, holding a grudge may be the first step in accepting and acknowledging their feelings to themselves and/or to the person who they feel wronged them.

While it's usually better to deal with your feelings outright and, potentially, to discuss the matter directly with the person who upset you, holding a grudge may be more likely to get the ball rolling on those fronts than entirely ignoring a situation or your emotional response altogether. If temporarily holding a grudge gets you to call someone on behavior that hurt you or otherwise rectify a distressing situation, then there may be some good in the practice.

Often, people hold grudges when they feel someone has let them down. However, while it may be justifiable to be upset or resentful, as noted above, a healthier approach may be to address the situation head-on with the person in question, especially as misunderstandings or misplaced expectations are often the roots of these issues.

People often want someone to blame even if no one is really at fault, which can add to the appeal of holding a grudge, particularly if you keep your feelings to yourself and eventually let them go.

For example, sometimes someone does something (like bumping into you) that can have larger, unintended consequences (like you dropping your drink and spilling it all over your favorite skirt), which can make you hold a grudge even if being mad about the misstep seems a bit unfair—even if your skirt was ruined.

In this situation, you may feel not feel entirely vindicated or righteous in your anger but holding on to it may help you process the upsetting event. Keeping your grudge private may let you feel your anger without confronting the person you're blaming, something you may not want to do if they aren't really to blame.

This may not be an optimal way to cope with discomforting situations but may be preferable to overtly overreacting or accusing people of things they didn't do.

Propensity to Hold Grudges

Research and anecdotal evidence alike point to the fact that some people are more inclined to hold grudges than others. People prone to jealousy, sensitivity, immaturity, negativity, and impulse control may be more apt to hold grudges. Cultural, lifestyle, parenting, environmental, genetic, and other factors may contribute to an individual person's propensity to harbor resentments as well.

Those with certain personality types and traits may be more likely to engage in this response to angry or bitter feelings. In fact, those who are more empathetic, resilient, have a better ability to self-regulate, and have stronger coping skills are less likely to hold grudges. Interestingly, research also shows that certain lifestyle habits, including regular exercise, can also make you more amenable to forgiveness and flexibility.

Additionally, people who tend to be more irritable and emotionally volatile are more likely to harbor angry feelings and blame others rather than consider their own responsibility in a situation as well. In fact, people with a variety of different mental health conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are more likely to exhibit behaviors rooted in anger and irritability that may make them more prone to hold grudges.

Ultimately, some people may just be wired (or work hard) to rebound from hurts or deal with them directly, while others are more apt to become embittered. Some of this variance may be out of your control, but there are also strategies people can take to develop healthier anger management and coping mechanisms.

Holding a Grudge vs. Healthy Coping

So, how do you know when you're holding a grudge rather than when you are simply feeling appropriately angry about something? The difference is that healthy anger typically dissipates with time and/or appropriate resolutions, such as talking it out, getting an apology, resolving a misunderstanding, reaching acceptance, and/or ending the relationship. In contrast, holding a grudge entails the opposite—not letting go or accepting a resolution of any kind.

Another strategy is to notice if you feel better or worse after thinking or talking about what happened. If it's the latter then you may be processing your feelings in a productive way. However, if you feel more distressed, overwhelmed, or worked up after going over the events in your mind or discussing the issue, then you may be creating a grudge rather than coping in a healthy manner.

If you're not sure, consider if a friend described what happened but as if it happened to them as well as your response, would you still feel as embittered if it wasn't about you? Also, think about whether you would feel comfortable (or embarrassed) telling someone close to you about your internal thoughts regarding the grudge. Think about if you believe they would think your reaction was justified or an overreaction.

Additionally, you can always ask a person you trust for their opinion on how you're handling the situation as well, as getting the perspective of someone else whose judgment you value can help you get a better sense of if you're holding a grudge or just in the process of justifiable anger. In either case, talking out the situation and your feelings can assist you in making sense of what happened and how to move on.

Tips For Letting Grudges Go

If you find that you're holding on to bitterness and grudges rather than letting them go, it may be helpful to talk to a counselor—or even to a friend or loved one, as noted above. Getting out of your head can help you clear the air and come up with a plan to seek a better resolution. Talking through your conflicts with a therapist can give you insights into why you hold grudges and help you develop the skills to respond more effectively to difficult or hurtful situations.

Additionally, before you jump to conclusions or condemn someone's behavior, it can help to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Consider that your worst suspicions may not be entirely accurate. In fact, often someone else's negative actions aren't about you at all. Maybe they were just having a really bad day. Maybe they misunderstood what you were hoping they would do, or bad luck piled up despite their good intentions.

Invest time in learning and practicing positive coping skills, such as truly forgiving those that have hurt you and practicing healthy stress management techniques, including:

  • Accepting what happened, your feelings, and what you can do to make amends
  • Considering your own role and what you could have, and might do, differently
  • Cultivating empathy, for yourself (and the target of your grudge)
  • Distracting yourself—watch a movie, read a book, draw, or anything that you enjoy that gets your mind off of what's bothering you
  • Doing yoga
  • Exercising
  • Focusing on the positive
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Learning anger management skills
  • Letting go of the past
  • Listening to the other person's perspective
  • Living in the present moment (or mindfulness)
  • Making a plan for closure that considers both sides
  • Mediating
  • Practicing restorative breathing
  • Rather than judging your feelings, accepting and processing them
  • Saying (or texting, writing, or emailing) what you need to say to the object of your grudge
  • Setting healthy boundaries
  • Spending time with loved ones or a pet
  • Talking with supportive friends
  • Writing down your feelings

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, while it's important to process grudge-worthy emotions, holding on to those feelings is typically unhealthy for all involved. Rushing to forgiveness or avoiding dealing with uncomfortable situations aren't good solutions either.

Instead, aim to sort through difficult events and feelings, while, if needed, giving yourself a little time to grieve, be mad, or wallow. Just don't let your methods of coping with the upsetting incident become a long-lasting state of being. Rather, aim to work through the issue, resolve it, and move on.

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