Holding grudges from the past stops you living now

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Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

How many of you are holding grudges from the past that stop you living now? Are you replaying distressing conversations word for word? Chances are you’re still hurt or saddened by the impact it’s had on you. Or maybe you’re still fuming over the other person’s callousness.

When you feel like this

In these states, your thoughts and emotions seem to run away from you. You may find it hard to focus while anger or sadness seem to take over your day.

You may know you’re living in the past. But you can’t block the endless reruns in your head. You’re a prisoner of your thoughts and feelings.

You sense you’re marking time. Very little may have changed. You want to do other things, but can’t muster the willpower. In the end, nothing gets better.

Holding grudges from the past stops you living now.

When you replay the past

Each time you relive what happened, you get upset. It’s as if it’s happening for real all over again. The more you replay it, the more emotionally distressed you get.

Often you still don’t understand what happened. So you keep searching for answers.

Sometimes you imagine the ending the way you’d like it to be. But sooner or later you come back to reality. And there’s a catch. 

The result never changes

No matter how many times you replay the situation, the result will still be the same. Whether you understand what happened or not, the result will still be the same. Whether you wanted it or not, the result will still be the same.

No amount of questioning can alter what happened. No amount of wishful thinking can alter the outcome.

Sometimes it was just bad luck

The whole situation may have been out of your control. Sometimes another person may have been the problem. Sometimes you may have been partly at fault as well.

It doesn’t really matter. Anyone can get stuck in a cycle of bitter and resentful thoughts.

Take Jamie’s example, for instance.

Jamie: holding grudges from the past

Jamie was so proud of his dream car that he never drove recklessly. So he was shocked when his car was rear-ended by Peter, who was drunk.

Jamie suffered serious neck and back injuries, and his car was wrecked. Peter escaped without a scratch.

Thankfully Jamie’s insurance company paid for a new car. But now medical expenses are biting. He needs to return to work soon, or he’ll have to resign.

1 Jamie is recovering physically, but not emotionally

Jamie’s worked hard on his physical condition. For six months, he went to rehab to strengthen muscles and regain movement. He walked, swam and ate healthily to maximise healing. Although he’s still in pain, with limited mobility in his neck and shoulders, he’s progressing well. 

But emotionally he’s stuck holding grudges from the past.   

2 Jamie focusses on the past

All the thoughts Jamie has about his future are bleak. He has a recurring image of himself as out of work, sitting alone wracked with pain. 

And because of the pain, Jamie doesn’t sleep well. So he replays the crash over and over in the middle of the night.

Could he have done anything to prevent it? If only he’d left work a minute earlier or later, or driven a different way, or even been in the other lane. The more he replays events, the more agitated he gets, and the harder it is to sleep. 

3 He dreams of revenge 

Jamie hardly thinks of any goals for the future. Instead he dreams for hours about getting revenge on Peter. Even while working out in the gym, he imagines Peter’s downfall.

Peter’s never acknowledged he was in the wrong. He’s probably getting on with his life without a care in the world. Secretly Jamie hopes someone will smash into Peter one day. Then he’ll know what it’s like.

A wave of anger surges up each time Jamie relives the chain of events. But he doesn’t care. In a perverse way, the anger gives him a bleak pleasure. At least it’s better than feeling depressed and hopeless, or fearful about his future.  

4 Anger is more rewarding than fear or sadness

Anger makes Jamie feel more energised. It’s like being rewarded every time he thinks about the accident – not that he’s consciously aware he feels like this.

And thinking about revenge starts to have its own rewards as well. But because Jamie’s getting some benefit each time he thinks of revenge, it’s harder to stop thinking about it. So Jamie keeps his grudge against Peter alive, without even knowing that’s what he’s doing. 

5 Jamie gets stuck in negative thinking patterns

Because Jamie’s getting some benefit from being angry all the time, he’s now stuck in his negative thinking patterns. He’s can’t see his life could be different if he chose to think and act differently.

If he’s willing, he can adapt and learn to manage his pain. He can get back to his former happiness, even after an accident like this.

But Jamie is too obsessed with thoughts of how unfair life was.  

6 He believes life should be fair

Before the accident, Jamie believed life was basically fair. His parents told him he’d be fine if he did the right thing, so he expected everything would work out for him.Yet he was the one who’d got hurt. And all because of Peter. 

Life was so unfair. It shouldn’t have happened like that. And so he obsesses about life going back to the way it “should” be. 

7 But who says life should be fair?

Unfortunately, there’s no rule that says life should be fair 100% of the time. Of course, we’d all prefer that it was. But there’s been little proof of that throughout history. 

So expecting life to be fair is going to set Jamie up for eternal disappointment. On the other hand, it’s just as unrealistic to expect that life will always be unfair, 100% of the time. 

But because of his experience, Jamie has swung to the opposite extreme. Now he thinks life is totally unfair, and expects bad things to keep happening to him all the time. So what’s the point of even trying for a better future?  

But what Jamie has forgotten is that sometimes:

Bad things happen to good people

Bad things happen to bad people

Good things happen to bad people

Good things happen to good people. 

Life if often random and unpredictable. It’s nothing to do with being fair or unfair. It’s just the way it is. But you can make the best of what happens.

8 What proof does Jamie have that his future will be bad?

Jamie has no proof that his future will be bad. In fact, his only “proof” is a feeling of dread that he can’t shift. He’s so stuck in his anger and hurt that he can’t see anything else. 

But feelings aren’t always accurate.

Just because Jamie expects bad things to keep happening, doesn’t mean they will. So he’s not doomed to disaster forever, and doesn’t have to be always looking out for bad things. 

9 No-one escapes difficulties

But if Jamie waits for life to run smoothly, he’ll never start living again. Of course he’ll have some difficult challenges ahead.

Everyone has problems at some stage of their life. Even people who seem to breeze through can be hiding plenty of hurt and disappointment under the mask they present to others.  

But Jamie can learn to solve whatever problems come his way. In reality, most of them will probably be of mild to moderate severity. With good problem-solving skills, he’ll manage life’s curve balls in future.

Luckily for him a physiotherapist, who works at the rehab facility, notices his revenge obsession. And she’s keen to help him regain a more balanced view of his future. 

Janet helps Jamie reframe his thinking

Janet acknowledges Jamie’s hurt and suffering, then teaches him to notice his own thoughts and emotions. In addition, she encourages him to express his fears for the future.

She also teaches Jamie to refocus his attention when the revenge thoughts come up. Now, as soon as Jamie starts to replay the whole saga, he tells himself that starting down the revenge track isn’t necessary. He reminds himself how anger isn’t helpful for him any more.

Then he practises letting the revenge thoughts drift past without allowing himself to get hooked into them.

Jamie can either ignore these thoughts, or pretend they’re setting a trap for him to fall into. He chooses to imagine falling into an anger pit, where a metal trap snaps shut on his leg. Once he lets the anger float away, he imagines the trap springing open.

Jamie also acknowledges how exhausting anger is, and realises he doesn’t want to waste valuable energy on blaming Peter any more.

Instead he focuses mindfully on an enjoyable activity he’s doing. Jamie’s slowly learning that holding grudges from the past has stopped him living now.

Challenging the belief he can’t move forward

Janet introduces Jamie to other young men who’ve had similar accidents. Many have taken up fulfilling activities even though they’ve had injuries.

Jamie’s struck by the positive attitude of a man called Michael.

Michael explains he’d once been consumed by bitterness like Jamie. But he took stock of his life after his wife threatened to leave him. He could see he’d replaced his normal thinking with thoughts of revenge.

That was all he cared about.

But his wife shocked him into remembering what life could be like. Luckily Michael still had strong relationships with her and his kids. He knew he needed to change his thinking for them.

And he gradually accepted that life wasn’t always fair. This was his reality now. He could either sink into bitterness, or choose to create a life worth living.

Learning to accept reality

Yes, life is unfair. And that’s the way it is. It’s annoying and frustrating. Disappointing. Not the way you want it to be. But that’s the way it is.

Jamie could fight reality. However, would fighting reality change Jamie’s situation for the better? Or could he could use his energy more wisely?

Yes, it was bad luck he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. There wasn’t any particular reason that he’d been the one involved. 

Jamie can choose to act differently to get his life back on track. He can stop telling himself negative stories about the accident and its impact on his life.

And he can create new, more hopeful stories about his future. That way, he’ll stop holding grudges from the past. Because those grudges are stopping him living now, in the present.  

Jamie notes how long he spends on replays

Jamie decides to add up how long he spends thinking about Peter and the accident. He’s horrified that he spends four hours every day ruminating. Then he loses even more time questioning why this happened to him.

Do either of these things improve his life? He decides he can use this time to create a better life for himself. For instance: 

He can study a mechanics course.
He can renovate a car.
He can reconnect with old friends in the car club.

Jamie has finally understood that if he continues down the path of bitterness, his life will be over before it begins. He no longer wants to hold grudges that stop him living now.  

So Jamie makes a life-affirming decision.

He asks Michael to be his mentor

Jamie asks Michael to be his mentor. And he also joins a support group of other young people rebuilding their lives. 

Jamie finds part-time work with his old employer, and attends a mindfulness group to help with chronic pain. He works out a plan to manage his physical condition.

Each time he notices himself rehashing his accident, he nips it in the bud. He tells himself it’s not helpful to brood over the past. The thoughts decay gradually as he immerses himself in a chosen activity.

Over time, Jamie even returns to study, in order to change his career.

Of course, it’s difficult at times. Jamie still finds himself lost in negative thoughts. But he persists in letting them pass without adding more comments.

He lets go of critical thoughts of Peter, and even finds compassion for Peter’s chaotic life.

Jamie cultivates gratitude 

Jamie finds one of the most important ways to let go of grudges from the past is to cultivate gratitude. 

Even though his life is very different to what it was, he is still grateful for so many things:

The support of his family and Michael.
The assistance of many health workers.
His recovery, even though he has a way to go.
His own living space.
The parks, forests, and beaches he lives near.
The opportunities he can have if he chooses to take them.

Jamie keeps a journal each day

At the end of each day, Jamie records two things without fail:

Three things he’s grateful for, no matter how small. 

Three things that went well in the day, no matter how small.

Even if he’s feeling negative, these reminders change his mood in a positive direction. They help him drop the grudges that stop him living now in the present moment.

Jamie changes his thinking round after a year

Looking back after a year, Jamie realises he rarely thinks of Peter any more. When he does, it’s with more compassion than hatred. 

Jamie intends to see a therapist to help him really forgive Peter. He wants to free himself of the desire to live in the past. Mastering his thoughts and emotions will let him choose his own future.

What about you?

How can Jamie’s story help you stop holding grudges from the past?

Can you see a way to release the burden of anger or emotional pain? Think of what you could do with all that energy and time. Perhaps you’re ready to begin mastering your thoughts and emotions.

Move your life forward in a valued direction and drop grudges that stop you living now.

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