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Common sense tells you that holding a grudge is bad for the “grudger” and the “grudgee,” because it serves as a source of perpetual aggravation. When you can't "let it go," the grudge continues to eat away at your equanimity, always reminding you of a time when someone treated you badly. You can hold a grudge for something as seemingly inoffensive as a less-than-flattering comment your in-law makes about your new shirt, or you can feel more aggrieved by that same in-law’s leaving you off a baby shower invitation list. Rather than feel you need to get over your grudge, though, writer Jolie Kerr proposes in a recent New York Times column that grudge-holding has benefits. She suggests that you “redefine the word ‘grudge’ as an experience to learn from.” In fact, you should treat a grudge “like a protective amulet,” which you can keep in a “grudge cabinet.”

All of this flies in the face of what you’ve heard your entire life about the way that grudges can erode your relationships, happiness, and mental health. In fact, the present political climate seems rife with grudges that are preventing members of government from overcoming their mutual resentments. Whether it’s Brexit in the U.K. or the border wall in the U.S., politicians on opposite sides of a debate seem less likely than ever to get past the resentment they’ve harbored for years, if not decades. If a grudge is an amulet to be cherished, no one would ever be able to come to reasonable compromises that everyone can feel good about.

According to York University’s C. Ward Struthers and colleagues (2018), grudges are one of three maladaptive ways in which the victims of a transgression can react when wronged. They note that “interpersonal transgressions” have harmful outcomes to both the victims and the transgressors, although the effects are more negative for victims, who “often have no control over becoming victims” (p. 1). Victims can’t help becoming victims, the authors go on to argue, but they can decide how to behave in the reconciliation process by seeking revenge, harboring a grudge, or forgiving the person who hurt them. It may feel better to retain your feelings of resentment after someone wrongs you, and seeking revenge might feel like a delicious alternative, but the British authors believe that to do so puts you at risk of counter-revenge, or becoming so estranged from the other person that the relationship dissolves entirely.

Forgiveness becomes the desired option from an interpersonal as well as practical standpoint, as Struthers and his colleagues note. They define forgiveness as “a motivated decision to let go of one’s legitimate right to anger and resentment and evaluate the transgressor favorably” (p. 2). As desirable as this outcome may be, though, it may not be that easy to initiate. You’ve got to overcome your own fears that you’ll be hurt again, a point consistent with Kerr’s idea that you can learn something adaptive from a grudge. If you feel that the other person has more power than you, letting that grudge go will seem even more difficult. In this case, according to the British research team, “grudges can protect against threats by keeping victims vigilant” (p. 2).

Power, then, seems to be an important component of the likelihood of maintaining a grudge. When you perceive yourself as holding more power, you’ll be more likely to let a grudge fall by the wayside. Additionally, overcoming a grudge requires that you feel committed to the relationship with the other person. Although you might have felt slighted by your in-law overlooking you on the invitation list, you wouldn’t want to hold on to your resentment so long that it would lead to a permanent rift that would go on for years and potentially force other family members to take sides.

Across a series of five studies involving samples of both college students and adults in the community, the York University researchers tested a model in which an experimentally induced feeling of power in participants was manipulated in relationship to the tendency to either hold a grudge, try to seek revenge, or aim for forgiveness. Their model proposed that the feeling of being in power would lead participants to be more likely to seek revenge in the experimental condition in which they believed that they were wronged. Those who felt powerless, by contrast, would be more likely to hold onto grudges over their perceived poor treatment. However, all of this changed when the transgressor offered an apology, particularly if that transgressor was the one high in power. When power can be shared, the authors concluded, it will be easier for the victim to take the prosocial route of forgiveness. The victim will be even less likely to hold a grudge if they don’t fear retaliation by the transgressor down the road. As the authors warn, “forgiveness can be dysfunctional when it enables transgressors to take advantage of victims” (p. 15).

Looking now at the implications of this important study, here are the five ways you can overcome those grudges that you may be so tempted to hold on to:

1. Be the first one to seek reconciliation. Turning the other cheek is a well-known adage, but the York University study suggests it’s a method that can actually work. Perhaps you’ve felt offended by someone else’s rude comment. Ask that person for clarification, or share your reaction to the comment in a noncritical manner. Either strategy will help you to preserve the relationship, and perhaps let the other person in on your sensitivities.

2. Recognize your own power in the situation. If holding a grudge comes from the perception that you have less power than the other person, stop and examine how real that power differential actually is. Equalizing the power dynamics should pave the way to forgiveness.

3. Look for commonalities with the person you feel has wronged you. Conflicts have the potential, by definition, to highlight differences between people. If someone is crowding you out in a line or on public transit, consider that both of you share the desire to get where you’re going. Rather than demonize this person, acknowledge that you’re actually seeking the same goals.

4. Don’t let a slight take on a life of its own. That grudge you put in your treasure chest will only seem more valuable over time. The York study suggests that dispensing with the offense sooner rather than later will help it fade into distant memory.

5. Recognize when your grudge comes out of a rational fear. The Kerr article suggests you use a grudge to help you learn to avoid being hurt, a point reinforced by the Struthers et al. study. If you’re afraid of a negative outcome, such as retaliation from the transgressor, don’t let the grudge eat away at you in an unabated manner. Seek help from someone who can go to the transgressor to ensure that you’ll be safe.

To sum up, grudges remain one of the most unpleasant results of interpersonal disputes. Learn how to turn your grudges into reconciliation, and your relationships will be that much more fulfilling.

References

Struthers, C. W., Khoury, C. H., Phills, C. E., van Monsjou, E., Guilfoyle, J. R., Nash, K., … Summers, C. (2018). The effects of social power and apology on victims’ posttransgression responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. doi: 10.1037/xap0000188