We have all heard of the Hatfields and McCoys. The two families ended up in a feud that lasted nearly 40 years, beginning in the early nineteenth century. You may not know the story, but you have surely heard references to its toxic influence on generations of family members and the fighting and deaths that it caused. It continued until 1901 when finally, it abated. Years later, amazingly, the two families would meet on Family Feud for a friendly competition!
We Are No Better!
We may look at the two families and feel superior, believing that we would never succumb to such illogical hatred. But many of us, like them, have held grudges for longer than makes sense.
In my work as a strategy consultant and executive coach, I regularly hear from my clients about long-lasting disputes and anger. Sometimes these arguments exist between members of a team, undermining collaboration and cooperation. Other times, the issue concerns someone’s personal life. People stay angry at siblings, parents, and ex-spouses for years and sometimes decades. I’ve seen cases where the grudge began in childhood, and although both parties are octogenarians, the anger and resentment remain vivid.
Other Mammals Don’t Hold Grudges
Grudges are strangely human phenomena. They are not the same as anger. It makes sense to get angry when someone insults you or otherwise treats you badly. But anger is a reaction that happens the moment we experience the mistreatment. It’s often automatic and happens in a flash. Grudges are a long stewing, simmering anger that is disconnected from whatever first sparked anger. They are like a routine that we have created – a routine pattern of thinking that repeats itself over and over, digging an ever-deeper rut into our brains and our emotions.
Grudges require Care and Feeding
The strange thing about grudges is that we cultivate them. They are not inert emotions that simply linger, leaving us powerless to dissolve them. To hold a grudge takes energy. We must perpetually remind ourselves of our reason for being angry. When you talk to someone who is holding a grudge, they do much more than simply express their dislike for the other person. They will go on at length, explaining the way in which they have been wronged, detailing the malevolent intent of the other person. It can feel like they are trying to persuade you to their point of view. Why? Because they are convincing themselves again, for the umpteenth time.
That’s the curiosity about grudge-holding. It seizes us in a repetitive story that we tell ourselves over and over, often for years, convincing ourselves time and again of our own righteous anger.
There is No Harmless Grudge
The cost of holding a grudge is significant. At the most obvious level, it estranges us from the person by whom we feel wronged. Since grudges tend to be toward people who were once close to us – either family, good friends, or close colleagues – our grudge-holding severs that relationship. Moreover, there is always peripheral damage. When two siblings have grudges, the whole immediate family suffers, contorting themselves around the breach of kinship. Wedding plans are tortuous, family occasions a hair-pulling, laborious process.
There are more significant costs to the quality of life for someone who holds a grudge. In the moments when we are gripped with our self-justified anger, busily telling ourselves the story of how we were wronged, there is no room for any other experience. You cannot feel the rage of a grudge while simultaneously experiencing love or joy or the full expression of yourself. Try it. Anger is a suffusing experience, and it overshadows every other positive experience. It ruins dinner parties, dims love affairs, distracts us from focusing on the present moment, and kills creativity.
It Feels Good to Be the Victim
So why do we do it? The narrative of victimization gives us a sort of pleasure. It’s not the pleasure of falling in love or feeling affection or listening to an extraordinary piece of music. It is a pleasure of self-indulgence and festering sanctimony. We are smugly self-satisfied in our rightness. Human beings often undermine their genuine happiness in a quest to prove they are right. Just think about every insignificant argument you ever had with your mother, your spouse, or your best friend. Did any of it matter? No. But at the moment, it seemed more important to win than to be happy.
It Pays to Give Up a Grudge
The feeling of self-justification never ultimately compensates for what it costs us. By hanging onto our self-justifying story, we continuously convince ourselves to stay angry. Grudges are a kind of emotional paralysis. They cannibalize our own experience of freedom, self-expression, and joy.
How do you unhook yourself from a grudge? You can only loosen the grip by focusing more on the pain and cost of it than on the corrosive pleasure of your righteousness. That takes energy and commitment. Start by asking yourself a simple question: What do I want more, to be right or to be free to experience joy, freedom, and love? It does not seem like a very big dilemma when you think of it that way.
So, make the leap, and let it go. There is immense freedom and joy just around the corner.