There’s something deliciously perverse about holding a grudge. Sitting atop your high horse, you cast judgment on the person who has wronged you, wondering how someone could commit such a heinous act. Weeks, months, and even years can pass, and all the while you hold on to your little treasures of spite. Indeed, C. Ward Struthers, a professor at York University who studies forgiveness, vengeance, and grudges, suspects grudges are meant to be remembered since they function as self-protection. “When I’m faced with that person again, or another situation like that, [the grudge] can be re-invoked and I can use it to protect myself,” he says.
Struthers defines a grudge as a sustained feeling of hurt and anger that can dissipate over time but can be reignited when needed. Harboring negative feelings toward someone and holding a grudge are similar experiences, Struthers says, but not identical. When grudges form, your perception of the transgressor has changed and you see them as an inherently bad person with harmful intentions. Feeling slighted by a friend because they got you a cheap birthday present doesn’t evoke the same emotion as the disdain felt for a coworker who constantly undermines you in meetings.
Grudges exist on a spectrum, says Robert Enright, a professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin Madison and a founding board member of the International Forgiveness Institute. Some grievances don’t impact your daily life, but you remember them nonetheless. These surface-level grudges are easier to relinquish, Enright says. Others take root in the soul and can grow into hatred.
Because grudges have the ability to shield you from future harm, Struthers believes once a grudge is set, it’s yours for life. (He does admit the research is scant in this area.) Enright believes, through forgiveness, even the most profound resentments can be released. Though feelings of bitterness may be deep-seated, it’s not exactly in your best interest to walk around brimming with rancor. Even if you’re not ready to forgive, understanding the process of how grudges are formed can help relinquish some of the power they hold over your life.
Holding a grudge is an ongoing cycle
The experience of grievance isn’t linear, but cyclical. After a series of interviews with grudge-holders, social psychologist Elizabeth van Monsjou, who was working in Struthers’s lab at the time, discovered common themes among the aggrieved. The journey of disdain, van Monsjou found, begins with wrongdoing — either perceived wrongdoing or an event where a person knowingly harms another. The person on the receiving end of the transgression begins to experience feelings of inadequacy — “How could someone do this to me?” — which leads to validation-seeking; the scorned person recounts the story to others who are, ideally, just as aghast. If the victim is unable to let go, ruminates over the event, and feels justified in their resentment, a grudge can form. “They have these thoughts and emotions, this negativity about the person who did them wrong, negativity about themselves, questioning lots of different things around this event,” van Monsjou says. “Then a breaking point leads to a grudge.”
Over time, the white-hot intensity of spite dissipates and the grudge doesn’t occupy so much mental space. This is, according to van Monsjou, the acceptance phase: “accepting that you’re holding a grudge,” she says. However, you might hear a song, say, reminding you of an unfaithful partner, and find yourself deep in the trenches of resentment once more. “That spurs the cycle again,” van Monsjou says, “where you move into that unmet need for validation, you try to seek validation, and then so on and so on until the next trigger.”
If you’re not ready (or willing) to forgive
Letting go of a grudge is not the same experience as forgiveness. Struthers sees forgiveness as a decision you make to replace a negative judgment of a person or situation with a positive feeling. By contrast, moving on from a grudge might conjure indifference instead of positivity; you don’t need to feel warm and fuzzy toward a person who wronged you to avoid letting negative feelings control your life. “In order to actually fully forgive someone, you can’t just let go and not care,” says Katina Bajaj, a co-founder and the chief well-being officer at Daydreamers, a mental health and creativity platform. “You have to actually feel positively toward that situation.”
To get to a point of nonchalance, you need more context about the wrongdoing — and the person who committed it. In the aftermath of a hurtful event, you might feel raw, confused as to why someone would mistreat you. While difficult, van Monsjou recommends stepping out of your own point of view and attempting to consider what motivated the other person. What do you think the other person thought about your actions? How did the wrongdoing affect their emotions? Try not to judge the other person for their behavior, van Monsjou says, which can help minimize feelings of righteous indignation. “If we do take the time to take on the perspective of the person who harmed us,” she says, “then it’s less about judging that person and more understanding what might have motivated or what might have contributed to the wrongdoing in that case.”
It’s also possible the transgressor didn’t intentionally hurt you, Enright says. Maybe their child was sick and they forgot about a charity event you organized — something that was meaningful to you but, at the moment, not as significant to them. “As you’re putting a context to it,” Enright says, “you’ll begin to see maybe this wasn’t such a big deal and I can move past, I can move on.”
The process of perspective-taking adds nuance to black-and-white thinking — thought patterns that reinforce the idea of inherent badness a person possesses to have wronged you. “If you only see things as all good or all bad, you’re going to be mentally inflexible,” Bajaj says. “But if you’re open and adaptable, and even curious, you’re going to be able to hold a bunch of different perspectives.”
Even if your resentment stems from an incident long in the past — say, harboring ill will toward a bully from high school — consider how the person may have matured and evolved throughout their life. This thought experiment doesn’t forgive their words or actions, but it allows you to view them as someone capable of growth. “With grudges, it can be really easy to get into that fixed mindset of ‘this is just who people are,’” says licensed clinical psychologist Lauren Cook. “Holding a hope that they have made better decisions and treated people better, that might help us get a little better sleep at night.”
To release the deepest grudges, you need to forgive
You may reach a point where the grudge has become a familiar bedfellow, but an emotion without a purpose: a motivation that no longer serves you. Releasing a grudge might mean letting go of the person who caused it, Cook says, by ending a relationship with a friend who betrayed your confidence, for example. “Sometimes we hold the grudge as a way to delay a grieving process,” Cook says, “because it really hurts to lose someone.” Accepting that a relationship has run its course can help lessen a grudge’s impact.
However, the strongest antidote against grudge-holding, Enright says, is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a solitary and conscious process, and the person who hurt you doesn’t necessarily need to apologize or take responsibility. To truly forgive someone, you have to decide to do some emotional work, like digging deep into the psyche of the person who hurt you. “What kind of wounds does this person have to have wounded you?” Enright says. Then, Enright says, consider your shared humanity: You and the person who wronged you are both unique human beings with meaningful lives.
This process may take time and patience; to find commonality and empathy for someone you perceive as an aggressor or manipulator is no small feat.
“That,” Enright says, “is when you actually begin to conquer the grudge that could conquer you.”
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