A few weeks ago, I got a text from a friend I haven’t spoken to in almost two years. (I won’t get into why, but the inciting incident was, ah, the 2016 election.) She asked for my mailing address, and said she hoped I was well. I gave her my address, and wished her well in return. A week later, I received a package from my erstwhile friend containing two books I have no memory of lending her years earlier, and a short note of regret that our friendship has functionally ended. It wasn’t really an apology, and I shouldn’t have expected one. But I’d accidentally started hoping for a reconciliation in the space of that week, mentally writing the sort of profusely apologetic booklet I believed I deserved. What actually arrived was disappointing, and made me mad all over again. I have yet to respond.
I am nothing if not stubborn, and once wronged I can (and often do!) hold onto that hurt forever. I like to think this makes me tough, but it’s very possible it’s the opposite. For instance, in high school I heard that this popular girl in my grade named Melissa hated me, and I have hated her in return ever since. I never even got confirmation that rumor was true. But, as my mother would say, Melissa can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, I recently saw a viral, broadly anti-grudge tweet made by Kylie Jenner’s boyfriend (I don’t know), and this, in conjunction with my old friend’s delivery, made me wonder if I’m doing it wrong. I’d read studies that suggest dwelling on grudges increases your stress level, heart rate, and blood pressure, and that forgiveness is good for your mental and physical health. I am hesitant to change (see: stubbornness), but I also don’t want to doom myself to a lifetime of resentment, either. I wondered: Is there a better, lower-stress way to keep my grudges, big and small?
Psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger, who has written extensively about forgiveness, had some welcome thoughts on the subject. The first thing we (okay, I) should do is to distinguish between a grudge and what she calls “anger as a positive force.”
“Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of anger preserves the very dignity and integrity of the self,” she wrote in an email. “It can inspire us to define where we stand, and to take a new and different position on our own behalf.” This is what I like to imagine that I’m doing when I refuse to speak to someone who once said something devastatingly cruel to a friend of mine, even when the friend themselves has decided they’re over it. What other people might consider petty, I think of as “morally consistent.” A grudge, lovingly held, can make you feel strong, and superior, and who doesn’t want that?
But where anger can be useful in illuminating what we do and do not like, or tolerate, in ourselves and others, Lerner says grudges are the static, unhelpful extension of that anger. “Whereas our anger can be a vehicle for personal and social change, the very word ‘grudge’ implies that feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness are keeping you stuck,” she writes. In some ways, I wonder if this is a semantics issue: why describe someone as “not my favorite” when I could call them “my nemesis”? How often do we really mean it when we say we have a grudge against someone? (Certainly, sometimes.)
If you do feel held back by a grudge, Lerner says it’s possible to let part of it go and still honor all those bad feelings. “Letting go of a grudge does not mean you deny your legitimate anger and pain,” she writes. “It doesn’t mean you have to forgive, forget, or whitewash another person’s bad behavior, especially when that person failed to apologize, listen to your feelings, or show heartfelt remorse. It simply means that you aim to find a way to let go of the corrosive aspects of anger and resentment that don’t serve us.” To me, it sort of sounds like the difference between ambivalence toward or disinterest in a person and straight-up ill will. You don’t have to forgive anyone you don’t want to, but there’s not much satisfaction in mentally reliving one’s grievances all the time, either.
Still, letting go isn’t easy, and it’s not always up to us, either. “Letting go of our grudges is not completely in our control,” Lerner writes. “We don’t just decide one day, ‘Gee, I think this would be a good time to let go of all my grudges, so I can gain some inner peace.’” Hard news to hear mid-afternoon on the day I decided that exact thing, but also, sort of a relief.