Matthew Rozsa discusses the millennial generation’s habit of freezing people out… and whether the practice of holding grudges offers any benefits.
“No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.”
I’ve always been fascinated by this quote, which was allegedly the personal mantra of the Roman dictator Sulla. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it’s a great rule-of-thumb to use in fiercely competitive job fields (such as politics), where being feared is often perceived as vital to being taken seriously. If you want people to be loyal to you, it’s important to return all of the favors that they have done (the fact that it keeps you out of anyone’s debt doesn’t hurt). Similarly, if you want to make sure those who might wish you harm are reluctant to cross you, it’s certainly effective to set an example at the expense of someone who you decide deserves it.
Having acknowledged all of this: Why would you want to live your life that way?
I’m not implying that victims of traumas, crimes, and atrocities should forgive the people who wronged them. This isn’t an article about the importance of forgiveness, or if overcoming the scars left by serious emotional injuries in your past. Instead I’m talking about the petty grudges that all of us nurse (myself included), the ones we hold against former significant others and family members and friends. From what I’ve observed, people who harbor those feelings usually do one of two things:
1. They develop an ongoing hostile relationship with the other party, what could almost be called a hate affair, or
2. They impose a “freeze out,” meaning they completely ignore the other person until they “get the message.”
Neither of these alternatives are positive, although the latter is a necessary evil at times. When you remain in constant touch with someone whose main function is to provide you with stress and a human punching bag, you’re only injecting unnecessary misery into both your own life and someone else’s. Freezing people out, on the hand, can be useful, particularly with people who can’t seem to control their behavior, choose to continue harming you despite being given opportunities to stop, or are genuinely dangerous. At the same time, one of the most common complaints I hear from my fellow millennials is how this or that person “froze me out” (a grievance that I fully share) instead of simply communicating about whatever was upsetting them. Although the freeze out can be a helpful social tool, it’s also easily abused, particularly by individuals who find working through conflict to be particularly unpleasant.
Regardless of how you handle your grudge, though, one thing is for certain – it’s terrible for your body.
“Holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to be hurt by it,” says Mark Goulston, M.D. (author of Just Listen) in an interview with Men’s Health. The emotions associated with holding a grudge increase production of the hormone cortisol, which ages you, raised your blood pressure, and lowers your immunity. Although these symptoms can be relieved if the grudge goes away, that can only happen if either (a) each party is able to forgive the other one or (b) the person with the grudge makes the choice to get rid of it on his or her own.
And that, in the end, is what I find so fascinating about Sulla’s quote. While we can’t control whether or not others choose to harm us, we can decide to suppress the emotions that can build into a grudge. We can examine our own behavior with an open mind and find areas to concede where we were wrong; we can accept apologies when they’re offered to us, even if a little voice inside our head insists the other person isn’t sincere or shouldn’t be allowed to “get off the hook”; we can simply decide to “be the bigger person” by recognizing that, in the grand scheme of things, there are very few offenses so terrible that destroying your relationships and physical health for their sake is actually worth it. Sure, a Roman dictator like Sulla was able to find his own method for resolving his grudges… but the vast majority of us aren’t autocrats who can dispense our own sense of justice with impunity. We need to live in a world that is full of imperfect people, including ourselves. Considering all of this, why would anyone choose to fight instead of move on or freeze someone out instead of letting things thaw out?
Just a thought.