Most people think that holding grudges is the opposite of forgiving someone. It's what we're all trained to think from a very young age—that holding a grudge about someone means continuing to be angry and resentful and usually dislike or hate them too, at least to some extent. If we are full of negative and hostile feelings toward a person, then how can we forgive them emotionally and feel positive about them again?
Even I assumed that holding a grudge was the opposite of forgiveness when I set out to write my book How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment—The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life, despite the fact that I knew that holding grudges had been beneficial to me in a whole range of ways. To say I've changed my mind about this is an understatement. In the process of writing the book, I discovered that in fact holding a grudge is the best, fastest, and most effective way to achieve forgiveness, however counterintuitive that might sound.
In order to discover why this is true and how holding grudges can aid forgiveness, we need first to look at definitions of both. Here's the Oxford Dictionary's definition of forgiveness: "to stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake.” And here's the definition from the same dictionary of a grudge: "a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury."
It's easy to see how, according to the Oxford Dictionary, holding a grudge must necessarily be the opposite of forgiveness: If your resentment persists, you can't stop feeling resentful. That would mean holding a grudge directly means not forgiving someone. But if we change the definition of a grudge, though, a very different picture emerges. Part of the reason I wanted to write my book in the first place was because I knew the world believed a grudge was a feeling (of ill will or resentment), and I knew that a grudge was not a feeling.
Your grudge has no component that is a negative feeling—not a single one. It's simply a story that's going to reinforce your belief that you deserve to be treated well.
I've held lots of grudges, and all but the most recently acquired ones have no feelings of bitterness or resentment attached to them at all. Those feelings might have been present immediately after the grudge-sparking incident (GSI) but have long ago dissolved.
So if I no longer feel anger or hostility, is it still a grudge? For me, the answer is a definitive yes: There's still something "bookmarked" in my mind that I want or need to remember about the person in question, even when my anger from the GSI has long since passed. It might look something like this: Remember, Jennifer has often told my secrets to other people, having promised faithfully not to. This means that Jennifer doesn't have a completely clean slate in my mind. My grudge about her is no longer a feeling of anger or bitterness, but it's a story I want to remember because I can learn lessons from it and protect myself.
Importantly, I can still see and hang out with Jennifer—still have fun with her, like her, even love her—but my grudge protects me. Remembering it and not granting her a clean slate in my mind simply saves me from having future secrets spread around town or sold to the New York Post.
I have many such grudges. For example, Thomas (not his real name) is the leader of an organization I deal with regularly. He's lovely and kind and a good guy, but he's terrible at answering emails. If there's ever any issue that needs sorting out, he will raise it for discussion, and then after I reply, I never hear from him again on the subject. I have a never answers emails grudge about Thomas, which means he doesn't have a clean slate with me. I think it's highly grudgeworthy to draw problems to people's attention and then, when they attempt to solve those problems comprehensively, simply not reply. I think it's rude. However, I'm not angry or resentful—in fact, I'm much happier and able to feel entirely positive about Thomas now that I've given myself official permission to hold this grudge. The grudge represents my judgment about the situation and my validation of that judgment. It's my way of saying to myself, "This is not OK, and it matters that I've not been treated well." That's why holding it empowers me.
I use my grudge story about Thomas to inspire me (to reply to emails and never rudely ignore people) and to protect myself. I still solve some of the problems Thomas draws to my attention if I want to, but I no longer expect replies from him. Therefore I'm not disappointed when those replies don't arrive. My grudge story has taught me what to expect in relation to Thomas. Thanks to my grudge, I don't need to cling to any negative feelings. All I need to do is remember my grudge story, learn from it, and use it to benefit me. Giving myself official permission to do so is the equivalent of saying, "That's now dealt with, and an official report has been filed." It lets any residual negative feelings know that they don't need to hang around. Their job is done!
Emotionally, I can then forgive and move on. My grudges enable me to think and behave differently around people as a result of their grudgeworthy behavior—and that's a very different thing from feeling hostile or unforgiving toward them.
How to turn grudges from feelings into stories that heal and benefit you.
Here's the model, broken down into simple, sequential parts:
- A grudge-sparking incident (GSI) occurs.
- You feel angry. You allow that feeling, instead of resisting it. Someone has done something grudgeworthy—it's natural and justifiable that you should feel annoyed about it. Say to your anger, “Welcome, anger! Stay as long as you like!” In this way, you validate your feelings, and therefore they don't grow stronger through being repressed or resisted.
- Give yourself official permission to create a grudge and register it in your metaphorical Grudge Cabinet. This has nothing to do with your anger. You are going to create an object (your grudge) that will be a story, not a feeling.
- Create your grudge: Write it down, analyze it, classify it (does it deal with rudeness, unreasonable impositions, hypocrisy, something else?), and grade how important it is, so that you end up with a valid, beneficial, and fully processed grudge story. (How to Hold a Grudge has a full guide to each of these steps.)
- Recognize that you now have two quite distinct things: (a) your feelings and (b) your grudge, which is a story. Tell your feelings of anger or hurt that they're still welcome to stay as long as they need to, and be aware that your grudge is a story you want to keep in your Grudge Cabinet even after the negative feelings have passed because it will be useful to you and will only do you good. Your grudge has no component that is a negative feeling—not a single one. It's simply a story that's going to reinforce your belief that you deserve to be treated well, help you commemorate a significant life experience, and define your highest values and priorities.
From years of experience, I can tell you what happens when you do this: Any negative feelings move on far more quickly and readily. Your grudge becomes a commemorative justice object, which means that you no longer feel that your grudgee has got away, scot-free, with their grudgeworthy behavior. They haven't, and your grudge proves that by officially marking that what happened was not OK. When we feel that those who have trespassed against us have not gotten away with it, we feel justice has been done, and humans are and will always be justice-seeking creatures. So, the model then might be:
- Fred was rude to me.
- I felt angry with Fred and created a grudge about him.
- My grudge (an official judgment against Fred’s behavior) showed me that Fred hadn't gotten away with it.
- My anger passed, and I chose still to hang out with Fred, enjoy his company, and give him every chance to behave better in the future. I was no longer angry with him at all. I forgave him emotionally while still recognizing (thanks to my grudge) that his rude behavior was not OK.
Put simply, holding a grudge makes me feel that I can afford to forgive. If I forgive emotionally, that doesn't mean I'm a doormat or naive. My grudge takes care of the justice, judgment, and official recognition, leaving my emotions free to be positive and my heart free to forgive.
Now, when someone does something grudgeworthy, I find that I spontaneously forgive them on an emotional level very quickly—because I know that constructing my helpful grudge is all I need to do to process the incident. I don't feel I need to cling to negative feelings or a refusal to forgive in order to affirm to myself that it's not OK that someone treated me badly.
Try it. Give yourself permission to hold a grudge in a positive and constructive way. You'll likely find yourself able to move on emotionally far more quickly.
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Sophie Hannah is an internationally bestselling writer of psychological crime fiction, published in forty-nine languages and fifty-one territories.
In 2014, with the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family and estate, Hannah published a new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was a top five bestseller in more than fifteen countries. She has since published two more Poirot novels, Closed Casket and The Mystery of Three Quarters, both of which were instant Sunday Times Top Ten bestsellers.
In 2013, her novel The Carrier won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the UK's National Book Awards. She has also published two short story collections and five collections of poetry—the fifth of which, Pessimism for Beginners, was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Award. Her poetry is studied at GCSE, A Level, and degree level across the UK.
Most recently, Sophie has published a self-help book called How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment – The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life, and launched the podcast How To Hold A Grudge.
She lives with her husband, children, and dog in Cambridge, where she is an Honorary Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College.