Sometimes it is hard to leave the past behind. When we experience resentment or anger because we think someone insulted or hurt us, we’re holding a grudge. Often we hold on very tightly, for a very long time. This keeps us from dealing with whatever happened and moving on. Holding grudges holds us back and it’s important to address the root issue to keep old acrimony from tainting your relationships today.
One of the biggest problems with grudges is that they color how we interpret the actions and intentions of other people. Suppose a couple, Fran and Bill, celebrated their anniversary a week ago. Fran really wanted to do something special and she thought Bill knew that. On their anniversary, a Tuesday, Bill forgot to say anything to her until she reminded him, then he got stuck at work (causing him to be late for the nice dinner Fran prepared)… and when he did show up, all he had was a card… and he didn’t even write anything thoughtful or particularly meaningful.
The next week, Bill tries to make up for being so lame. He brings home flowers on a Friday and says that he made reservations at a nice restaurant for Saturday night. Fran likes all of this, but she was mad as hell and her interpretation was this: “All Bill is doing is trying to make up for being so pathetic… he’ll be right back to his old ways soon… I’m not going to let him get away with this kind of crap.”
Fran’s position seems reasonable enough, but her grudge is (negatively) coloring her view of what could be a sincere effort on Bill’s part to apologize and to make amends. It could be an insincere apology as well, but the point here is that holding a grudge is like wearing a set of glasses that focus you narrowly and exclusively on a person’s negative, selfish, and thoughtless behaviors.
If we wear these glasses too often, we just can’t engage in the kind of softness that is required to make a relationship work. Imagine a scenario in which Fran’s reaction is different and she never forms a grudge to hold onto: Say says, “I’m really upset with you. You hurt me. You make me feel like our relationship is second to everything else. I want you to show me how much you love me, especially on our anniversary. You got it?” In this alternative reality, anger comes up and goes through Fran without her becoming attached to it.
Anger Is a Source and a Solution
Like all emotions, anger is a signal for us to act, and anger can motivate all kinds of very positive behaviors. Yes, I did say positive behaviors. When expressed appropriately, anger is incredibly useful—it helps us defend ourselves and have our needs met.
Unfortunately, for many people our anger system is on a hair-trigger, and we’re quick to get mad and quick to hold a grudge. Ultimately we end up suffering more than the person we’re angry at.
I graduated from college 16 years ago, and when I asked my wife (in preparation for this column) if she thought I held any grudges, she quickly said, “What about that guy in college who was drunk and tried to push you down the stairs after your spine operation?”
She was right. For the past 16 years, every time I thought about my experiences as a sophomore in college, I thought of this guy and suffered a noticeable spike in my blood pressure. If I talked about it to any of my old friends, which I did from time to time, I would get so animated and distressed that you would have thought someone had tried to rob me on the way over.
How much do you think this guy thought about me in the last 16 years? What’s that? Did you say 10 minutes? You’re being generous. When you hold on to resentments and insults and let these feelings fester, it’s you that suffers, not the other person. I repeat: You will suffer more.
Perhaps the best all-time quote on this topic is alleged to come from the Buddha (although it remains unsourced): “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” In the first example of the couple, Bill acted poorly and hurt Fran, but she compounds this pain by holding a grudge. She makes it worse than it is by letting the anger stick around for longer than it’s useful, rendering her incapable of accepting Bill’s attempt at atonement.
Now I want to turn to the idea of forgiveness, and let me do this by trying to read you mind. If you’re holding a serious grudge, then you might saying something like this: “OK, doc, this is all well and good, but you don’t understand the depth of my pain— my husband had an affair… he didn’t just forget to buy me a gift! More importantly, you haven’t said anything about how to get over a grudge.”
As a therapist, I have worked with many adults who were terribly abused as children. Understandably, some of these people remained totally stuck in their anger and hurt. This anger went beyond a mere grudge, and in some cases my clients’ lives revolved entirely around how they were wronged and mistreated by others.
A key idea behind one of the treatments we routinely used to help people in these circumstances was that although they were not responsible for what happened to them or how other people hurt them, they were entirely responsible for overcoming and getting past the hurt. Getting past a grudge hinges on changing how we think about the events in our lives, and this is where forgiveness comes in.
Many people deplore the idea of forgiveness because they see it as a weakness or an agreement to forget what happened. This is not the case, and most experts on forgiveness recognize that it takes considerable courage to get past anger and resentment.
So, how do you do it? The first thing to recognize is that forgiveness is a process not an event. It’s better to say to yourself and others, “I am trying to forgive,” than, “I forgive.” The trying in this case means a conscious effort to let go of the negative feelings. With respect to a grudge, one way to try to do this is to consider understanding the other person’s perspective and perhaps his/her own weaknesses or limitations.
Here is how I overcame my own grudge against the college bully. In 2009, I got a friend request from him on Facebook. I sent back a scathing reply:
This is a [expletive] joke, right? …If you simply state, "I am very sorry for being a total [expletive] when I was younger. I realize that there were periods in which I was a belligerent S.O.B., and I am especially sorry about the night I chased you down and tried to beat the crap out of you for no good reason right after you had spine surgery..." then we'll be square from my end.
What do we see here? I was angry! This is a seething, hostile message and I basically demanded an apology. Guess what: I got it. And it was sincere and heartfelt. He said this was a low point in his life, and that he really regretted what happened. At that point, it was easy to forgive him, and all of a sudden, it was water under the bridge. (In fact, I quickly apologized to him for writing such a nasty response to his friend request.)
We can’t always get this kind of closure, but forgiveness provides a route for letting go of our grudges, and it’s as much of a gift to yourself (remember the hot coals?) as it is to others.
If you’re holding a grudge, I hope these ideas are useful and help you move toward some forgiveness.
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