How to improve your life by holding a grudge
Grudges are not all bad, so here is how to get the best out of them in the new year
‘Grudges can be good, and we should hold onto some of them.’ File photograph: Getty Images
Have you ever held a grudge for years? (Unrelated but are you a Scorpio by any chance?) Grudges can be good, actually, and we should hold onto some of them, like petty Tamagotchis in our emotional pocket. We don’t often associate the holding of grudges with virtuous people, but 2019 is a new year, new you.
Sophie Hannah, author of How to Hold a Grudge, loves them. So much so that she holds each of her grudges in a special place, her “grudge cabinet”, where she visits them and tends to them.
A prolific crime novelist, Hannah, who is not a psychologist, used her personal experience – including lots of therapy she underwent over the years, in which she discussed her grudges in detail – to write this book.
Here is her system of enlightened grudge-keeping to process your pettiness.
Redefine the word ‘grudge’ as an experience to learn from
Hannah isn’t generally in the habit of redefining words that are in the dictionary. “But there’s no dictionary definition I can find that doesn’t describe a grudge as a negative feeling, or a collection of negative feelings,” she said.
The crucial difference in the way Hannah views grudges is that she believes a grudge is not a feeling. Rather, it’s a story that one can learn and benefit from. “When there’s some kind of suboptimal thing that somebody has done to us, the grudge is our story that we remember about that incident, because it benefits you to have that story remembered.”
Treat your grudges like protective amulets
Having a grudge-holding system means little reminders pop up in our brains as warnings. Say you have a friend named Fred. Fred gets very drunk and is a mess. If you hold a grudge against sloppy Fred because he has been a messy drunk in your house, you don’t have to stop being friends with sloppy Fred. You can, however, acknowledge your grudge, and protect yourself by meeting him at a bar instead.
Sweeping bad behaviour under the rug and pretending it didn’t happen will only expose you to more of the same. A lively grudge can both console and validate – it can create space for you to acknowledge that something bad happened to you, and that that matters.
“We are justice-seeking creatures,” Hannah said. Grudges serve as a monument erected to honour the memory of the injustice you suffered. “We’re constantly getting messages that our mistreatment doesn’t matter,” she said. If you don’t let things bother you, you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to process negative emotions.
Not everyone is a grudge person
Now that we’ve established that grudges can be good in your self-preservation, how will you know if you’re a person who can have some grudges? If you’re a person who analyses behaviour to construct a narrative to explain and compartmentalise it, you’re likely to be a successful grudge-holder.
Those who are detail-oriented, too, are likely to excel at grudges. “Whereas, if you barely notice anything that goes on around you, then you’re going to accumulate fewer grudges,” Hannah said.
Write your grudges down so you can remember how you felt, accurately
The act of writing down a grudge – or “constructing a grudge story”, as Hannah calls it – provides space to analyse what happened. Perspective gained by writing helps to make negative feelings more manageable. “We’re getting it out of ourselves so we’re not stuck in a feeling,” Hannah said.
She has developed a grading system as part of this process: The 10 Tenets of the Grudge-fold Path. This system is meant to guide you as you develop your grudge, serving to help you process the feelings spurred by the offending incident and to put it into perspective, since all grudges are not equal.
The grading system asks questions about the intention of the person who wronged you (definitely bad, possibly bad, not bad); the nature of the situation (very serious, somewhat serious, not very serious), and if you were harmed seriously (yes, maybe, no). So, how petty are you? Find out! Try it! It’s fun.
Make a ‘grudge cabinet’ where you can file things
Part of the process also involves turning your grudges into artefacts and having a place where you can store them. “The more concrete they are, the more they will protect and inspire you,” Hannah said.
When it gets to this point, she suggests stepping away from the grudge – physically putting it into your cabinet (which, in our modern era, may be a Google Docs folder) – for at least a day. Then read it over and ask yourself if there’s space to bring humour or fun to the story.
Rewrite the narrative
Check with yourself: “If I could rewrite this story changing only my behaviour, what would I change?” Compare the two versions of the story and ask if the negative feelings you’re experiencing result from frustration about not being able to change the past, or anger because you wish you had acted differently. This exercise is designed to let you process negative feelings so that they don’t eat away at you until the end of days.
Use your grudge stories to forgive and make you a better person
Like a set of resolutions or goals, grudge stories can be motivating. They can inspire us by defining values that are important to us; if, for example, someone is very rude and you form a grudge about that behaviour, it may inspire you to be more courteous.
Grudges can also encourage you to be more forgiving. Validating – even welcoming! – negative feelings by acknowledging that they have a right to be there is a way to keep the negativity from calcifying.
Constructing a grudge also gives us agency. Instead of feeling like you’re a person to whom things happen and are done, you may become an active participant in a situation. But your grudges, Hannah warns, should be held responsibly. By constructing your grudge, classifying and grading it, you should feel more empowered, and not feel like a victim.
Happy grudging! – New York Times