“I screwed up on a job the other day. I was wrong, and I took responsibility for it. I told my boss and I straightened it out,” Robert* said. “She said not to worry about it, but I know her: She’ll hold this against me from now on.”
“I had a best friend who could never let anyone off the hook,” Anita says. “If you said or did something that upset her, she just stopped talking to you. And she never spoke to you again.”
“My mother-in-law got mad at me about something,” James said, “but she wouldn’t tell me what she was mad about. In fact, I didn’t even know she was mad until Christmas, when I didn’t get a gift from her. I was sort of embarrassed, but my husband and all of his siblings started giggling and whispering and finally one of them said, 'Oh, James: Welcome to the family! Mom is mad about you about something. And good luck ever finding out what!”
“I worry about being like my father,” Lily says. “He could hold a grudge for years. I’ve really worked hard trying to be different, trying to talk about whatever I’m angry or upset about, but sometimes I can feel myself withdrawing and starting to think about just refusing to talk to someone.”
What makes some accept your "sorry" and others hold onto a grudge for dear life? And what can you do when you’re the target of a grudgemeister’s sometimes silent, but unmistakable wrath?
My PT colleague Nancy Colier says a grudge can be a way of establishing your identity. She thinks that some people hold onto a grudge because it gives them a sense of being “someone who has been wronged.”
The sense of victimization may be secret or hidden from the world, as with Robert’s boss, or it may be out in the open, as it was with Lily’s dad. But either way, that identity brings along with it a sense of being the one who is right.
Many times a person who holds a grudge has a sense that the world is split up into those who are right and those who are wrong. This is what psychoanalysts call “splitting,” that is, dividing people (feelings, beliefs and other things as well) into “good” and “bad.” British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein introduced this concept, which begins in early childhood and is usually outgrown as we get older and develop the capacity to see things in a more nuanced, complex way.
But some of us never quite move out of this tendency to view everything as only one way or another, and to protect ourselves from feeling that we are all-bad, we have to see ourselves as all-good. An unrelenting grudge puts the grudger into the category of those who are right, and the person who wronged them in the category of those who are bad.
Anger toward the person who has done wrong is then justified as appropriate and well deserved. That individual, the holder of the grudge thinks, also deserves to be punished for having done something so hurtful and insensitive.
The problem is that both a grudge and the anger that accompanies it are often disproportionate to the “wrong.” Psychologically, someone holding a grudge may be punishing you not only for something you actually did in the here and now, but also for a wrong or series of wrongs done to them in the past. Often those wrongs happened in childhood, when the injured person had little or no power to respond to the injuries. They became a grudgemeister because they had no choice but to hold the anger and resentment inside. Now they feel self-righteous about expressing it—even though in truth they may be directing their feelings toward the wrong target.
Psychoanalysts have long been conflicted about the question of anger and aggression. Is it, as Freud and his followers posited, a basic human drive? Or is it, as self psychologist Heinz Kohut and his followers believed, always a reaction to feeling hurt or threatened?
Attachment theorists and neuroscientists have yet another possible explanation: Anger and aggression is frequently, if not always, a mixture of innate characteristics, biological predisposition, and life experiences. In other words, when someone tends to hold a silent, unresponsive grudge for eons, it is at least partly a matter of the personality they were born with, their experiences throughout their lives, and the ways they learned to deal with their feelings as they were growing up. This combination influences how our neurons fire when we feel hurt or angry. And the firing of our neurons colors our behavior.
So what can you do when someone seems to be holding a grudge against you?
- Apologize. If you actually did something wrong, take responsibility, acknowledge that you made a mistake, and do what you can to rectify it. If you do not think that you did anything wrong, but you know that the other person believes that you did, let them know that you understand that they have a different perspective than you do, and that you had no intention of creating the problem that you and they are now facing. Let them know that you are sorry that the situation occurred, even if you think it was through no fault of your own.
- Ask what you can do now to make things better. Sometimes your good intentions, along with an apology, will be enough. But be prepared – your boss, like Robert's, might not be ready to let you off the hook and might find a way to make things worse even after your apology.
- Recognize that although you might have done something wrong, it is not likely to be as all-or-nothing as your grudge-holder would have it seem. This is probably not something you want to say to him or her, but it can at least help you hold onto a more realistic view of what you have done.
- It might help to remember that there are probably many reasons that he or she needs to hold onto the grudge. Perhaps they were frequently criticized by a parent and are still trying to protect themselves from that pain. Or maybe a younger sister or brother always got off without blame while they always got punished for any infraction of family rules. Maybe, to make matters even worse, you remind them of that younger sibling, who they are punishing vicariously through you.
- After you have made your apology and made a case in your own defense, leave it alone. Repeatedly pushing at the issue by demanding repeatedly to have your perspective acknowledged, will simply reinforce the grudge. In many cases, a person holding a grudge will eventually let it go. Sometimes this shift happens faster when you move on first. Try acting as though you are not worried that the person is angry with you and see what happens. Cognitive-behavioral therapists have long known that sometimes we are able to change a situation simply by acting as though we believe something is true.
- Get positive reinforcement from outside the relationship. James initially felt embarrassed when his in-laws teased him about having made their mother angry, but he soon felt much better when they made it clear that he was one in a long list. “It was like I was really part of the family now!” he said. At work it can be more tricky. You don’t want to complain about a boss or even about a colleague, but you might want to put out some feelers. “Have you ever felt like Mary was mad at you?” you might ask an older colleague. Don’t let the conversation devolve into gossip, but do ask what they did to deal with the situation. You’ll discover that you aren’t alone, and you might even get some helpful advice.
- At some point, you may have to give up the hope that you can change things. When that happens, it may be time to move on, albeit sadly, from a job, a friendship, or even a relationship. Anita, for example, finally realized that she had to let go of any hope of repairing her friendship. “I was very sad,” she said, “but it was time to move on.”
If you are dealing with a superior at work and not in a position to move on, this can be difficult. If you can, look for support from colleagues, but if at all possible without whining or badmouthing your boss, which just ups the ante on whatever splitting is going on. And try to keep in mind that even if a grudge seems personal, it is not all about you. Something that you don’t know about, and that has nothing at all to do with you, is going on in the other person’s psyche—because in the end, a grudge is about the problems of the person holding it than about the person who is the target.
*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.
Copyright @fdbarth 2016. Follow me on Twitter @fdbarthlcsw.
Klein, M. (2002). Envy and Gratitude The Free Press.
Kohut, H. (2014) The Restoration of the Self. University of Chicago Press
Schore, A. Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self. Norton Publishers.