Grudges are exasperating. Holding one eats away at our insides, no matter how much we think someone deserves it. You may have heard that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
It’s no picnic to be on the receiving end of a grudge either. The person who resents us could be a spouse, family member, coworker, or someone in our social circle. How can we cope when someone’s ill will disturbs our equilibrium, self-esteem, or ability to shine forth our light?
What We Can Learn from Grudge Holders
It’s easy to feel unworthy around a grudge holder. We may think, “Why can’t he or she like me?” or “Did I do something terrible?” Maybe you didn’t do anything objectively wrong, but you somehow pushed the person’s button.
You may try to improve the situation by asking what’s wrong, being especially kind to the person, ignoring the problem, or doing something else. The other person may or may not let go of the grudge.
By recognizing that the person might not change despite our best efforts to improve the relationship, we’ve taken the first step toward feeling calmer and keeping our self-esteem intact. The next step is to implement one or more strategies outlined below for coping with someone’s resentment.
Apologize if you’re at fault, but with no strings attached.
It may be challenging to ask the grudge holder what’s wrong, but asking may clear up a misunderstanding. If you think you’ve been at fault, ask what’s wrong. If an apology is due, give a sincere one. Ask for forgiveness, with no guarantee that you’ll receive it. Consider how you might make amends.
Know that you can control only your behavior, not anyone else’s. Apologizing may or may not help. Some people stay attached to their grudges. This form of the Serenity Prayer can help us focus on who we can change: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things and the people I cannot change, the courage to change the things and the people I can change (myself only), and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Once you’ve done all you can to try to improve the relationship, do your best not to take it personally if the grudge holder doesn’t budge. Grudge holders are usually expressing more about themselves than about you. Think Q-TIP: “Quit Taking It Personally!”
A grudge holder may have an emotional wound. Everyone has a story, a history that helps explain how they are. We may never know the details, but we can understand that people who demonize others are acting out unresolved feelings from when they were emotionally or physically hurt, blamed, or shamed long ago by a parent or someone else who made a lasting impression.
Grudge holders are afraid to be emotionally vulnerable. They may lack awareness of how hurtfully they express their hostility. They haven’t processed their feelings enough to deal with them in healthier ways. So strive for compassion and, again, don’t take their resentment personally. Below are two examples to illustrate how to cope with being on the receiving end of a grudge:
Example #1: A Wife Begrudges Her Husband
Suppose a wife is holding a grudge against her husband for not having acknowledged her birthday. She feels hurt but says nothing because she’d learned long ago not to ask for what she needs or to express hurt feelings. Instead, she withdraws from him physically and emotionally.
Should her husband focus on how rejected he feels? Or should he ask her what she needs from him to repair their relationship? She’s more likely to say what’s bothering her if he tells her that he loves her and that he wants to know if he’s done something that upset her.
Example #2 Formerly Friendly Acquaintance Holds onto Grudge
Because grudge holders express their feelings indirectly, and sometimes quite offensively, it can be easy to think they’re wrong or mean, to demonize them in turn.
Joelle and Carla were in the same social circle, and Carla had been friendly to her at first. When Carla apologized to Joelle about a faux pas she’d made earlier in the day that might have upset her, Joelle had smiled and waved her off as though it were nothing. But after that, she became routinely rude toward Carla.
When Carla asked her what was wrong, Joelle complained about the same behavior which she’d passed off as nothing when Carla first apologized. Joelle again was contrite and asked for forgiveness. Carla said she accepted her apology, but Joelle continued to ignore her and avoid making eye contact.
Attempting to Improve the Situation
Carla tried being pleasant to Joelle by initiating greetings and giving her a couple of small gifts, but Joelle continued to snub her. After accepting that Joelle wasn’t going to change, Carla tried to find ways to feel more comfortable in her presence, because they would still be seeing each other often at social gatherings.
I’ll ignore her, she decided at first. That was a start, but then Carla shifted toward a more compassionate approach. She began to view Joelle as wounded rather than mean. Carla believed that a spark of G-d exists inside all of us. Sometimes — not always, but at least occasionally — she began to change “uh-oh” upon seeing Joelle to thinking: “G-d … holy.”
When Carla was sometimes able to focus on the fineness of Joelle’s essence, she became more accepting of her, at least momentarily. Once in a while, she even felt warm toward her, but generally, she felt on guard upon seeing her.
Carla wanted to believe that everything happens for the good, although it may not look that way at the time. She asked herself why she was still experiencing Joelle’s toxic grudge after she’d tried so hard to restore the relationship. Here’s how Carla answered her own question: “I’ve been a people-pleaser for so long. I want everyone to like me. But I’m learning from Joelle that I don’t need everyone to like me, and also that I can control only myself, not her or anyone else.” Carla also recognized a need to be compassionate, to view Joelle as somehow wounded rather than as evil or mean.
Keeping Your Distance Can Be the Best Strategy
Being around a grudge holder may cause us to experience an unhealthy degree of emotional or physical pain, regardless of whether or not we’ve tried to improve the relationship. No one should feel forced to stay in an unhealthy situation. It may be time discontinue all contact with the person. But, if that’s not feasible because of your lifestyle, interests, or family obligations, the best solution may be to keep your distance.
Some people avoid being in places where they expect the grudge holder to be present. Others value attending such events enough to go to them anyway. They may manage by keeping enough physical distance between themselves and the grudge holder to lessen their discomfort.
A Grudge Holder Can Help Us Grow
Asking yourself, “What can I learn from this?” as Carla did in the above story, assumes that the Universe, G-d or Spirit — wherever you put your faith — cares about our wellbeing and gives us whatever comes our way to help us grow personally.
By learning to cope with someone’s grudge against us, we can grow. Whether or not the person changes, we’ve expressed humility by asking what’s wrong, apologizing, or asking for forgiveness. Doesn’t that sound more humane than giving in to an urge to retaliate by paying back the grudge holder with nasty thoughts or actions, or by trashing the person to others?
Learning to accept the discomfort we can experience around a grudge holder is progress in our personal growth. Sometimes our feelings will get hurt. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Where does it say that we’re always supposed to be comfortable?
Carla’s Surprising Insight: “I Worsened the Grudge.”
After many unsuccessful attempts to restore her relationship with Joelle, Carla realized that her mere presence pushed Joelle’s buttons, and there was nothing she could do about it. Eventually, however, Carla realized that her responses to Joelle had an “edge.” Was she provoking Joelle by subtly egging her on somehow? Like when you’re expecting to be on the receiving end of a blow and therefore acting protectively? When Joelle occasionally spoke to her, Carla heard harshness and sensed she was trying to control her. Carla sometimes responded defensively. Carla had an “Aha! moment.” She realized, “It’s not just that I push her buttons; she pushes mine too!”
Her next challenge was to respond thoughtfully rather than impulsively when she felt attacked or mistreated by Joelle. Instead, she would give herself a moment to become centered, and then respond in a way that would be kind and respectful to both Joelle and herself.
Maintain Your Self Esteem Regardless
As noted earlier, emotional wounds that remain untreated tend to fester. Sadly, some people who don’t process their emotional pain enough to gain some resolution act out their hurt on select people (targets) in various ways, including by accumulating grudges and holding fast to them. We can’t change this, but we can decide to view a grudge holder with compassion.
That doesn’t mean letting another person walk all over you, nor does it mean retaliating when tempted to. It involves applying the kind of self-control you wish the grudge holder would show, which is what Carla strives to do. It means responding assertively, not aggressively. Sometimes it can mean ignoring. All such responses can be signs of growth.
Finally, we want to keep moving forward. We all have our lives to live. Deal with someone’s resentment if you can, but don’t let a grudge define you or slow you down. When we focus on what we want to accomplish in life and take care of that, step by step, we’ll have less time to ruminate about a grudge, because we have a purpose and are moving toward fulfilling it.