A year or two ago, when HBO’s Big Little Lies was on, I was gleefully dissecting an episode with a work friend. “You know which line I loved,” I said. “The one where Reese says, ‘I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.’”
“Yeah, her character can be so obnoxious!” my colleague Becky said, as if in agreement.
I felt I was wading into swampy waters, but said, “No, I mean, I related to that. I’m such a grudge-holder.”
I saw a nice combination platter of emotions play across Becky’s face—a bit of a recoil, some pity, some shock, a dab of distaste. I saw myself through her eyes, a grown woman who harbors petty grievances—and in that moment I vowed to understand my begrudging nature and do something about it.
My Grudge-Holding History
I have grudges that are older than my kids, and that’s saying something. My youngest will graduate from college in a heartbeat, and the idea that I am nursing nasty feelings towards others for over two full decades isn’t pretty. First, in my own defense, I must say I don’t act on my grudges in any way. I do not own a voodoo doll (though I’ve been amused by the ones I’ve seen in funky gift shops), I’ve never glitter-bombed anyone, and I don’t take steps to derail the object of my disaffection’s life after our flame-out or falling-out.
I just have my little internal tally, a checklist of people who crossed me badly, treated me wrongly, or otherwise did things that I consider a real violation of basic human ethics. There are just a handful of these people, thankfully, but when I think of them, there’s an angry heat in my heart and a sense of judgmentalism I am not proud of.
In my own defense, I must say I don’t own a voodoo doll, and I’ve never glitter-bombed anyone.
You want examples? Happy to oblige. These and other grudges are easily accessible, simmering just below the surface of my mind:
- A boss who told me he couldn’t promote me because he couldn’t count on me the way he needed to—it was obvious that I was too focused on my family on the weekend (yes, I did consult a lawyer about this).
- The former friend who last-minute canceled on me and stood me up so many times, especially right after my dad died after a long, painful decline, that I wondered if I ever really knew her. What kind of person does that?!?
- The teacher who HAD. IT. IN. FOR. MY. SON. Parents, you know what I’m talking about. I wound up pretty much cc’ing the entire town’s Board of Education when she egregiously stepped over the line, but it didn’t appease my ire.
Who Are You Holding a Grudge Against?
Interestingly, grudges seem to cluster in the following ways—or at least they do among the grudge-holding midlife women I (informally) surveyed.
Work stories—of coworkers who connived their way to plum assignments, bosses who had to keep their “team” in the shadows—were rampant.
‘I still fantasize about having it out with her in the aisles of Whole Foods. She owes me an explanation!’
As were tales of those we had trusted, who were close to our heart, and then dropped us. “I am still holding a grudge against another mom from when my daughter was in middle school. I met Suzie when we were class moms together. She was so fun, so funny—and we got very close, chatting all the time, but suddenly, without warning, she dropped me. No more power-walking together, no more coffee dates, no more venting about daughter drama. When I asked what was wrong, she just said she had gotten ‘super-busy.’ It still hurts. I don’t know why I can’t let it go,” says Mona of Teaneck, NJ. “I still fantasize about having it out with her in the aisles of Whole Foods. She owes me an explanation!”
And children—they are a lightning rod for grudges. “There is a special place in hell for the gym teacher who tormented my son Alec, who has some sensory issues that make sports difficult for him,” says Cathy in Oakland, CA, “Alec’s teacher refused to accept that my son was doing his best and teased him in front of his classmates. By the way, this man is still teaching—I admit to Google-stalking him, even though it’s 10 years later.”
Anatomy of a Grudge
What’s wrong with all these pictures—even if the grudge-holder may be “right” that they or their loved one has been mistreated—is at a certain point, the injustice doesn’t matter. The bottom line is we’re the ones stewing while those who wronged us probably never give us a second thought. So why can’t a person like me get over it already? I decided to talk to a shrink—Jennifer Kornreich, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Huntington, NY—for some insight.
“Most of us have had the experience of feeling resentful longer than is ideal, but those who habitually nurse grudges are often intense people with inflexible, oversimplified ideas about fairness and emotional closeness, who get thrown off if things don’t go their way. Grudges come easier to people who have black-and-white thinking and find it emotionally safer to categorize people as friends or enemies, instead of viewing them in a more nuanced way,” she explained. “Also, those who hold grudges may have had past experiences, in their childhood, that didn’t allow for open airing of grievances and resolution – so they tend to bottle up their emotions and assume that difficult situations are irreparable.”
‘People who hold grudges may derive some sense of moral superiority from seeing themselves as the injured party and deserving special care.’
For me, this made total sense. I grew up with a sibling who loved to try to get a rise out of me, and I was told by my parents to ignore her and she’d stop. Well, I did—but she didn’t—and while we’re all good now, it’s left some battle scars.
But Dr. Kornreich continued: “People who hold grudges indefinitely may have overly rigid standards for others and be intolerant about how others do things. They may derive some sense of moral superiority from seeing themselves as the injured party and deserving special care. The anger of that grudge can feel more powerful than living in a state of anxiety or sadness (which are more passive emotions) about the interaction. But grudge-holders aren’t working towards resolution or true intimacy.” In other words, you stay stuck in negativity. Seeing myself in this light—as a rather smug, smirky, superior person—wasn’t pretty.
Letting Go of Grudges
Listening to Dr. Kornreich, I vowed to get over my grudges, to erase them from the brain-space where they festered. Framed through her eyes—seriously, life is too short…why bother? It was time to give those feelings the heave-ho—a kind of Swedish death-cleaning for the soul. Her advice for getting past a grudge was excellent:
- Make sure the other person actually knows you are hurt or angry, and give them the chance to repair the situation. If you brood privately, the other party may not know they have hurt you, and even if they do, they deserve a chance to explain themselves. There’s probably a statute of limitations on this, though. Calling someone up after 10 years of radio silence may not be worth one’s while.
The offending behavior may signify more about the other person’s experiences than his or her intentions toward or view of you.
- Think about the other person’s motives and vulnerabilities. What might lie behind their offensive behavior? Could someone who teases too hard have been lonely as a child and found that this behavior got them attention when they were younger, for example? Is the boss who stifles your progress a person who is unhappy and feels threatened by other people’s successes? Empathy goes a long way—it may not erase the hurt, but it can alleviate some of it and help you see that this behavior may signify more about the other person’s experiences than their intentions toward or view of you.
- Does the hurt you are holding onto remind you of a deeper childhood hurt on a subconscious level? Examine it, and you may be able to defuse it.
- For long-held grudges, consider why the other person’s behavior is still nagging at you, and challenge yourself to see it in a positive light. For instance, if one boss slammed the door on your path upwards, did that energize you to find a new, more fulfilling job? Did your child’s difficult teacher inspire you to step up and advocate in ways you didn’t know you were capable of?
These points from Dr. Kornreich have helped me get my grudges to start slip-slidin’ away. I saw my nasty ex-boss for the controlling, type-A person he was, disliked by his entire staff. I saw my ex-friend as being unable to be a good friend to me. Though I don’t know what was going on in her life and her psyche, I believe she wasn’t out to hurt me. My son’s teacher? Sad person who picks on kids. Good-bye to her, good-bye to my grudge.
I’ve also used this tactic from my friend Vicky, who—unbeknownst to me—had been an Olympic-level grudge-holder in her day. “I mean, to the point that I Googled that service that will send your enemy a dog turd in a Tiffany blue box. My grudges were so ancient that there was no way I could confront the people I was fuming over. So I bought a New Age self-help book. It said to write down your grudge on a piece of paper—like ‘I release my grudge against Mary, who stole my high-school boyfriend.’ You think about how it’s in the past, you need to move on, and how your life is good now. Then you burn the piece of paper in the sink or wherever and imagine the grudge like a happy pink bubble, floating up into the sky and popping. Grudge begone!”
Between Dr. Kornreich’s advice and Vicky’s play-with-matches ritual, I have to say I’m making good progress. I feel lighter and less stuck in my angry, grudge-y place, and less persnickety about people’s behavior in general, which is a fine way to feel as I truck on through my 50s and beyond. Now let’s see how Reese Witherspoon’s character is faring on the next season of Big Little Lies. I might be able to offer her some advice.
The wonderful Janet Siroto has held the Editor-in-Chief position at Time Inc.’s Family Life magazine, as well as senior editorial positions at Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Her writing work has appeared in New York, The New York Times, Vogue and many others.