The well-balanced grudge

Some would say I am an expert at holding grudges: there are people I’ve been mad at for years. Since the only thing you can do when it comes to emotional accountability is to say “Yes, I did that,” I’m just going to have to go with that. Yes, I hold grudges. Following with “but” devalues any accountability, so there’s no but. Yes, I hold grudges.

It’s true. I do hold a grudge a long time. I’ve come to realize that this is one of those limbic-hijack responses where anger tells me “Oh yes, I’m so insightful and smart for seeing the problem,” that actually makes me short-sighted and rather stupid. All anger is supposed to do is turn your attention to the problem: after that, anger’s role is done. There is a troubling caveat that doesn’t happen all the time, however, that I will get to.

The trouble with holding a grudge is that ultimately, the grudge takes you prisoner. You can’t go places or do things in case you run into the person you hold the grudge against. Your friends have to leave you out of certain invitations. You can’t even accept an act of decency or an overture of kindness when it’s appropriate, because the grudge keeps you too busy to open to new opportunities in life along the pathway of the target of your grudge.

All a grudge really does is make your universe, inch by inch, so narrow that eventually you’ll be unable to leave the house or check your mail (because the mail carrier pissed you off.) It’s a classic example of anger gone awry, turning on itself. Anger is usually about control: either having it taken away, or not having control over another person’s behavior or outcomes. Whether that desire for control is justified or a warning sign of more insidious problems is a discussion for another time. When you hold a grudge, you’ve given up control to your anger – and therefore you have no control. Having no control is why you were mad in the first place.

The reality is that you will eventually do something that pisses someone off.  Also, every single person you know will do something that pisses you off. To be more clear: no matter who you are and how saint-like you consider your intentions, you will eventually on a one on one basis piss off every single person you know. Most people let things slide –  while I tend to get angrier at drunken misbehavior than at sober violations, I daresay most people blow off inebriated exploits; it’s reasonable to forgive if you were obviously tired, you were locked in  a room with your mother and a measuring tape all day or if someone close to you just died.

Yet even more serious affronts that might merit time for anger to cool still do not merit a grudge.  Ruining a borrowed dress, a dinner party that goes up in flames, even a ride that somehow ends in all four hubcaps lost are all anger-inducing offenses, and someone might be inclined to hold a grudge. Direct insults to your person, whether intentional or not, can also induce grudge holding.

Here’s the thing: most of the time, these terrible things aren’t apt to be repeated. If a bouncer turns you away at a bar and calls you a name, for instance, holding a grudge against the establishment for eight years means that you’re restricting your own freedom for a person who won’t even be there anymore. You’ll be telling yourself how clever you are and how you have principles, but in fact you’re making yourself a weaker person.

The grudges I hold on to are the ones where I’ve been given strong reason to believe the person who has violated my boundaries will not change that behavior when confronted.  This is usually because I’ve confronted the behavior…and I’ve gotten a “…yes, but…” You know the accountability weaseling involved.

That creates a difficult situation: yes, holding a grudge limits freedom, but for a person who refuses to stop hurting you once you’ve made that person aware you’re hurt by his/her actions is a big problem. This is usually one of the first signs of an abusive relationship, and then the situation becomes not about unanswered justice but about self-protection.  While no grudge is healthy, a grudge in its proper place on the anger spectrum is an inner warning: watch out for repeated behavior.