Has someone wronged you recently? Long ago? (How) Does it still affect you? Are you a grudge holder? Does someone hold a grudge against you?
Last night I gathered with good friends and this topic came up—we go deep, my friends and I. Of course, it started me thinking and wondering: What does it mean to hold a grudge? When I hold a grudge, what do I actually do? What is the motivation? What are the consequences? When/how/why does it resolve, if ever? As we talked, it felt straight forward at first. Everybody knows how it feels to hold a grudge—but how do you describe or define it?
Google dictionary defines it:
a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury.
“she held a grudge against her former boss”
||grievance, resentment, bitterness, rancor, pique, umbrage, dissatisfaction, disgruntlement, bad feelings, hard feelings, ill feelings, ill will, animosity, antipathy, antagonism, enmity, animus;
informala chip on one’s shoulder
“a former employee with a grudge”
be resentfully unwilling to give, grant, or allow (something).
“he grudged the work and time that the meeting involved”
||begrudge, resent, feel aggrieved about, be resentful of, mind, object to, take exception to, take umbrage at
“he grudges the time the meetings use up”
The more we thought about it the worse it felt to me. I’m reminded of the saying that hatred hurts the hater more than the hated. Grudges feel like dark clouds hanging over my consciousness, chilling my soul, or at least casting a cold shadow on my joy, freedom of emotion, and possibility for connection. My friends and I contemplated the utility of grudge holding. What good does it do, what need does it meet? I think it’s protective—a defense mechanism, a way of not being vulnerable again—armor, as I believe Brené Brown would call it.
I asked my friends last night, “So is it holding a grudge, or is it setting a boundary?” I wondered if they are the same or different. After all, both make you behave differently toward the other person. But I think it matters whether and how we judge the other person. When I hold a grudge, I judge the whole person based on the bad thing (I perceive) they did to me. I may generalize from my own negative experience and write them off as wholly selfish, ignorant, narcissistic, and unworthy of my compassion and empathy. Perhaps I start to depersonalize them, make them into an abstraction right in front of my eyes—dehumanize them. Does that seem like an extreme description? Even so, doesn’t it still describe the feeling? When I hold a grudge, I do not—cannot—like or even relate to the person. I avoid them, don’t want to be in the same room with them. I don’t trust them.
I listened to The Thin Book of Trust by by Charles Feltman (referenced by Brown in her book Dare to Lead) this past week. He describes four distinctions of trust: Sincerity, Reliability, Competence, and Caring. He suggests that when we find someone else untrustworthy, it’s likely that they have disappointed us in one or more of these elements. I have assumed for a long time that the person I hold a grudge against simply does not care about me or my well-being. Feltman suggests that of the four distinctions, this may be the hardest one to overcome when violated. My story about this person is that they don’t care about me, therefore they are categorically untrustworthy. So I feel justified in denying the validity of their point of view, minimizing their achievements, and casting them as the permanent villain in my story.
Yuck. That perspective does not align with my core values.
So what can I do? Maybe rather than holding a grudge, I can simply reorient myself to our relationship. Instead of harboring bitterness and ill will, can I instead learn, synthesize, and integrate some new information? When I’m wronged, maybe I can say, with curiosity more than resentment, “How fascinating!” Maybe I can take care of my own feelings, connect with people I do trust, and regroup. Then I can decide how I want to present to this person hereafter. I can set some new boundaries.
Rather than dismiss the person as uncaring in general and holding this against them, I can do other things. First, I can withhold judgment on their caring and make a more generous assumption. For example, I feel un-cared for by them, but perhaps their way of expressing caring is different from how I receive it. I can look for alternative signs of caring. Or perhaps they truly don’t care about me, but I need to work with them anyway, so I had better figure out a way to do it—are they at least sincere, reliable, and competent? How must I attend to myself, so I can honor my core values, get the work done, and not get hurt (or at least minimize the risk)? Second, I can set clear boundaries in our relationship. I can point out behaviors that I will not tolerate, and call them out if they happen. I can set realistic expectations about agendas, objectives, methods, and contact. I can give honest and direct feedback with concrete examples of words or actions that require attention and remedy.
Many thanks to my thoughtful and engaging friends who stimulate these explorations. I can feel my grip on the grudge loosening already.