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Forever Resentful: Grudges Are Easy to Develop but Hard to Let Go

Holding grudges can be psychologically harmful.

Key points

  • Feeling hurt and resentful may be justified but it can also be corrosive to one’s mental and physical health.
  • Rather than let negativity usurp one’s emotional state, moving on may be a better response.
  • Some wrongdoings are unforgivable, but ruminating over them may be more harmful.

The digital consumer review group Trustpilot conducted a recent poll of 2,000 nationally representative adults, including those in the U.S. (Trustpilot, 2021). They found that a whopping 69% reported lingering resentment created by a wide net of experiences including not getting a job, being rejected in a relationship, or having a bad consumer related experience. Although 70% acknowledged that it was harmful to their health to hold onto a grudge, about the same percentage admitted to harboring a grudge.

Grudges can have a long life

Grudges could also be long-lived. The poll found an average of five years as the longest run for a grudge; however, a small percentage (15%) held onto a grudge for 11 or more years. Grudges are easy to develop, but hard to let go of, even if we know they are bad for us.

Elizabeth van Monsjou and colleagues (2023) suggested that there may be a number of factors that contribute to holding onto a grudge. Using a semi-structured methodology, they interviewed a small sample of college students and identified six underlying components of a grudge. Among them, and highlighting the psychological underpinnings of a grudge, were the need for validation, moral superiority, and an inability to let go. These elements may be proxies for a high need for approval, brittle self-aggrandizement, and rumination.

Grudge-holding is destructive

The items in van Monsjou’s original study highlight the destructive psychology of a grudge. For example: reminders can reignite the anger; not knowing how to get over the feeling; a belief that it will always be with them; an inability to envision letting go of the grudge or moving on; and a belief that the transgression will always bother the person. These elements may explain the Trustpilot poll findings of the longevity of reported grudges.

Not surprisingly, van Monsjous et al. found that grudges created negative emotions and intrusive thoughts that impacted quality of life. Given the negative experience of holding onto a grudge, why do people do so? Based on the qualitative findings across three studies, van Monsjou and colleagues (2022) validated a scale to assess persistence of (or holding onto) a grudge. Three factors emerged: disdain (dislike, intolerance) for the transgressor; emotional persistence (sustained feelings of anger, hurt); and perceived longevity (the sense of never being able to let go of the grudge).

Rapske et al., (2010) suggested another dimension—that of the threshold one holds for forgiveness. In their attempt to understand why some people did not forgive transgressions, Rapske et al. found that it was not necessarily the severity of the unforgiven transgression. Some individuals held on to even comparatively minor transgressions. In their study of the lived experiences of grudges, van Monsjou et al. (2023) found in their interviews themes of lack of closeness or contact in a once close friendship; a casual dating relationship that ends abruptly; and a family member saying something that was hurtful. These examples may seem minor as a transgression when compared to breaches as in a long-term marriage ending due to infidelity, or a business partner’s fiscal maleficence, or losing a loved one due to a drunk driver. Rapkse et al. suggests that the varied levels of severity in the transgressions where people neither forgot nor forgive indicate that people seem to have unique forgiveness thresholds. For some individuals, Rapske et al. concluded that past harms by others are neither forgotten nor forgiven.

The path to letting go

How does one go about letting go of a grudge? For some, a transgression may not be forgiven or forgotten if the transgressor was viewed as shallow in their apology or made feeble attempts to repair the situation. For others, the transgression may have formed a deep wound to one’s psyche. Such grudges die hard. This may be why what appears on the surface to be a minor transgression may not be readily forgiven.

Forgiveness may be the best antidote to the psychological toxins created by grudges, such as negative rumination, bitterness, resentment, anger, depression, and anxiety. There is a large body of psychological research on forgiveness that suggests the difficult work of doing so yields positive benefits.

If forgiving the transgressor is not possible or feels too early, another option may be to consider moving the grudge off “center stage to the sidelines” in one’s thinking. Psychologists call this reducing negative self-reminiscing and increasing positive ones. In other words, this means stopping the intrusive thought (e.g., “I will never forgive X for cheating on me.”) and replacing it with a positive one (e.g., “I did well on that presentation at work.”). This type of intentional shifting to a positive memory of mastery can enhance integrating the negative in a way that makes life more manageable and meaningful.

The fact is that we human beings have our fragilities and foibles. We will behave in a hurtful way, perhaps not intentionally, and others will behave in a similar manner towards us. Holding onto a grudge only takes up valuable psychological space.


van Monsjou, E., Struthers, C. W., Fergus, K., & Muise, A. (2023). Examining the lived experience of holding grudges. Qualitative Psychology, 10(1), 60–78.

van Monsjou, E., Muise, A., Fergus, K., & Struthers, C. W., & (2022). The development and psychometric properties of the grudge aspect measure. Journal of the International Association for Relationship Research. 29(3), 622-639.

Trustpilot, January 18, 2022:

Rapske, D. L., Boon, S. D., Alibhai, A. M., & Kheong, M. J. (2010). Not forgiven, not forgotten: An investigation of unforgiven interpersonal offenses. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29(10), 1100–1130.

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