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Holding a Grudge? Likely? Possibly?

| June 4, 2019

by Jim Bruce

… Let it go.

“Holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to be hurt by it.”                                                              —— Mark Goulston, M.D. author of Just Listen.
The Oxford Dictionaries define grudge as a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury. Other definitions use stronger words speaking of “anger,” “strong feeling” and “dislike.” 
Another thing to note is that the feeling is persistent, it doesn’t seem to go away. Tim Herrera, founding editor of the New York Times’ Smarter Living column, recently wrote in his column “Let Go of Your Grudges. They’re Doing You No Good,”about a regular practice of his: asking people what their oldest or most cherished grudge is. “Without fail, every person unloads with shockingly specific, intimate detail about their grudge. Career slights (intentional or not), offhand-yet-cutting remarks, bitter friendship dissolutions; nothing is too small or petty when it comes to grudges.” One of Herrera’s favorites came from a friend whose grudge stretched back to second grade. His friend remembered the name and described in detail, how a girl insulted him about the glasses he was wearing, and he had been seething ever since.
Some of us will remember managers who assigned a project we really wanted to a colleague, only to have the colleague repeatedly come to us for help. My most memorable grudge has to do with my salary, about two decades ago. After I shared an anonymous salary study done for my position at similar institutions, my manager observed that my salary was too low compared with my peers and said that he would seek an appropriate increase. Instead, he proceeded to get an increase in his own salary. Though my harsh feelings about the matter are long gone, I do remember the details of the conversation very vividly.
“The HBO show ‘Big Little Lies’ perhaps put it best, when Reese Witherspoon’s character, Madeline Mackenzie, matter-of-factly noted: ‘I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets’.”And, we all do.
Nancy Colier, in her Psychology Today essay, Why We Hold Grudges, and How to Let Them Go,wrote that “It’s not about the person who wronged you. It’s about who you want to be.” Later in the essay, she writes “Many people hold grudges, deep ones, that can last a lifetime. Many are unable to let go the anger they feel towards those who ‘wronged’ them in the past, even though they may have a strong desire and put a concerted effort to do so.”
She continues asking “Why do we hold grudges when they are in fact quite painful to maintain, and often seem to work against what we really want? Why do we keep wounds open and active, living in the past experiences of pain which prevent new experiences from being able to happen? What keeps us stuck when we want to move on and let go? Most important, how can we let go?”
This leads to two questions: What do we gain by holding so tenaciously on to our grudges? And, what benefit might we receive from letting them go?
Colier gives us insight into the first question. She notes that “grudges come with an identity.” We’re the person who was “wronged” and with that comes a kind of rightness and strength. We have a kind of rightness and victimhood and a sense of solidness and purpose. To let go of the grudge we forgo our identity as the “wronged.” She puts it this way: “We have to be willing to drop the ‘I’ who was mistreated and step into a new version of ourselves, one we don’t know yet, that allows the present moment to determine who we are, not past injustice.” 
In a Mayo Clinic essay, “Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness,”the authors’ write “…if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly.” Simply put, forgiveness involves making a decision to let go your thoughts of resentment and of revenge. You may always have the act of the hurt or offense with you. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting or excusing the harm done or necessarily becoming friends with the individual. However, forgiving the person will lessen its grip on you and help free you from the control of the person who harmed you. 
If you continue to hold onto a grudge and you are not able to forgive, you might:3

  • Bring anger and bitterness into new relationships and experiences
  • Become so tied to the past wrongs that you cannot enjoy the present
  • Become depressed and anxious
  • Feel that your life lacks meaning and purpose
  • Lose a sense of connectedness with others.

Colieralso tells us that freedom from a grudge is also through loving your own self. “[W]e need to move the focus off the one who ‘wronged’ us, off of the story of our suffering, and into the felt experience of what we actually lived. When we move our attention inside, into our heart, our pain shifts from being a ‘something’ that happened to us, another part of our narrative, to a sensation that we know intimately, a felt sense that we are one with from the inside. … [W]e take responsibility for caring about our own suffering, and for knowing that our suffering matters. … We can then let go of the identity of the one who was ‘wronged,’ because it no longer serves us and because our own presence is now righting that wrong.”
Earlier in this essay I asked what benefit might we experience if we let go our grudges? Wendy Wisner in her essay Is it Okay to Hold Grudges?writes “Holding a grudge means that you are living with a feeling of anger almost constantly, even if it’s below the surface …[T]his sort of resentment can find its way into all aspects of your life. It can be easy to start seeing everyone you meet as someone who has the potential to wrong you.” Referencing Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. and licensed professional clinical counselor in Ohio, Wisner continues “When you can end up ‘stuck’ in a grudge, anxiety, heightened stress, or depression are common conditions that can manifest.”
In the essay “How Holding a Grudge Hurts Your Health,”Emily Mitchell identifies four other effects of holding onto a grudge:

  • It ages you. The anger, frustration, and sadness associated with holding a grudge increases the stress hormone cortisol which shortens one’s telomeres, located at the tips of our DNA chromosomes and linked to biological aging.
  • It hurts your heart.  Angry, bitter people have higher blood pressure and heart rate, and are more likely to die of heart disease. A prolonged state of “fight” also leads to higher levels of C-reactive protein in the bloodstream, which promotes cardiovascular disease and stroke (according to a Duke University study).
  • It beats up your body.  Author Carsten Wrosch – Self-Regulation of Bitterness Across Lifespan– has found that bitterness can affect metabolism, immune response, and organ function.  Prolonged resentment creates a feeling of injustice and disturbing memories that can cause depression, anxiety and rage.
  • It hurts other relationships.  A grudge can have a spillover effect and become associated with others – like your spouse and children – beyond the target of your grudge. Nobody wants to be around a bitter, negative person.

So, grudges are really bad things to hold onto. Think about those you continue to hold onto. Let them go. Yes, you deserved better treatment, but let go of the negative emotions. And, do it for you. Remember, forgiveness doesn’t deny, minimize, or justify the wrong. But, it will help you gain peace and freedom in the long run.
There’s still two weeks for “spring cleaning” before summer arrives on June 21. You may want to use some of that time to clean out any grudges that are still lingering about.
Make it a great week for you and your team. .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Tim Herrera, Let Go of Your Grudges. They’re Doing You No Good, New York Times, May 19, 2019.
  2. Nancy Colier, Why We Hold Grudges, and How to Let Them Go, Psychology Today, May 2015.
  3. Mayo Clinic Staff, Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness, Mayo Clinic, November 2017.
  4. Wendy Wisner, Is it Okay to Hold Grudges?, Talkspace blog, December 2018.
  5. Emily Mitchell, How Holding a Grudge Hurts Your Health, Men’s Health blog, April 2014.
  6. Carsten Wrosch, Jesse Renaud, Self-Regulation of Bitterness Across Lifespan. In: Linden M., Maercker A. (eds) Embitterment. Springer, Vienna, 2011.