Winning the Grudge Match
Anatomy of a Grudge
For years, scientific research focused on how people coped with anger and resentment; forgiveness remained in the realm of spirituality and religion. Today, however, experts are using a battery of tools -- heart monitors to check blood pressure and heart rate, electrodes to measure skin conduction responses and muscle tension -- to investigate grudge-holding, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They've built a compelling case that breaking grudge gridlock is a profoundly healing act.
"Grudges are linked with stronger negative emotions as well as greater physical stress -- [including] higher blood pressure, heart rate, sweat, and muscle tension levels," notes Dr. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. "In a study we did three years ago, we asked grudge-holders to relive hurtful betrayals, lies, or insults from family members, parents, siblings, or romantic partners, and then to construct two different endings, one positive, one negative. Blood pressure and heart rates were two and half times lower when respondents imagined forgiving than when they didn't. The forgivers also felt happier, more hopeful, and more in control of their lives."
Why are some people better at letting go of grudges than others? Physiology and temperament play a role. "Some of us are 'hot' reactors," says Luskin. "Under stress, we're quick to respond. Our hearts pound, our palms get sweaty from the smallest insult. Others are 'cold' reactors -- scream at them and their blood pressure barely rises." Those who are naturally fearful, overly sensitive, or whose self-esteem is shaky, may take longer to bury the hatchet than people with sunnier, more easygoing temperaments.
Family history is important, too. "If your parents nursed grievances, or consistently treated you badly, you may be hyper-vigilant to affronts as an adult," says Luskin. Similarly, those raised with a strict set of rules regarding what people should and shouldn't do may find themselves constantly disappointed when others don't measure up to their expectations.