Winning the Grudge Match
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Winning the Grudge Match

Don't let lingering anger and hostility take over your life. Grudges can impact your health -- learn what you can do to let them go.

Give Up Old Grudges

Several years ago, I was thrilled to be asked to co-write a book with a prominent architect -- a woman whose work I greatly admired and who, at the time, I considered a friend. Putting aside other projects to meet the ridiculously tight deadline, I spent the summer glued to my computer and phone, interviewing, researching and writing. I was thrilled to learn that, with minor changes, everyone loved the manuscript.

Then I received my advance copy. My name wasn't on the cover. Oh, it was there all right, buried in small print on an introductory page. "You weren't really the author of the book," the architect explained when I called to inquire what had happened. "You just wrote the text." Excuse me? I'd always believed that's precisely what an author did!

I was livid -- and stayed that way for the better part of a year. Flush with self-righteous anger, I'd gleefully rehearse in my mind (and to anyone who'd listen) all the deliciously nasty retorts I wished I'd said -- and fully intended to one of these days. Needless to say, we're no longer friends but, for a long time, I remained miserably uncomfortable every time I bumped into her -- which, unfortunately, was often.

So I nursed that grudge. And though I hated her, in time, I hated even more the way hating her made me feel. I knew I was supposed to let bygones be bygones -- after all, the virtues of forgiveness are hammered into us since childhood. But I just couldn't forget and move on.

Whether you're still miffed about the nasty crack your sister-in-law made about your Thanksgiving turkey 10 years ago, or reeling from a colleague's grab for a job that should have been yours, at some point, every one of us feels hurt or mistreated -- sometimes deeply -- by friends, lovers, family members or colleagues. A grudge is born.

Gauntlet of Grudges

"A grudge is an anger that won't quit," says Robert Enright, PhD, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "When someone wounds you, it's natural to get angry. Like a turtle pulling into its shell, you harden your heart to protect yourself from further injury."

But hurt and anger are meant to be fleeting emotions, not permanent fixtures, says Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002). "For grudge-holders, grievances are like planes on an air-traffic controller's screen, circling endlessly and taking up precious air space." We hold grudges, Luskin explains, because we lack the self-confidence as well as the communication and resolution skills for dealing with a hurtful situation in the first place.

That's the Catch-22 about grudges: They can make you feel really lousy, yet one of the things that would help you get past them -- confronting the person who triggered the grudge -- is often too high a hurdle to leap. So while a grudge may have a legitimate beginning, and may initially make you feel powerfully self-righteous, ultimately, harboring a grudge is toxic.

In the long run, simmering bitterness -- even over grudges that seem shallow -- drains far more emotional energy than it generates, experts say. And, depending on the seriousness of the offense, grudges leave you irritable and anxious, souring your spirits and depriving you of joy. Grudge-holding can become a habit, a way of viewing the world and an excuse for cynicism and distrust.

Perhaps more significantly, a grudge's gnawing resentment keeps you tethered to the person who wronged you -- and why would you want that? If that person is a family member, you can't very well erase her from you life; you have to deal with her.

Allison, a real estate agent in northern New Jersey, can hardly contain her anger when she remembers how hurt she was to discover that her sister-in-law, Patti, had used a competing agent to buy and sell her house. "Mortified, horrified, I can't find the words to describe it," says Allison, the mother of three. "I must have shown her 95 houses over two years. Nothing was right, but I didn't mind. Patti was family, and I wanted her to find a house she loved. But while I was on a week-long vacation with my kids, a colleague who was checking the active listings online noticed that Patti had bought a home in an area she had never even told me was interested in! It was a real slap in the face. Just humiliating. And it wasn't about the money, either. Family is important to me. You're supposed to be able to count on family."

When Allison asked Patti why she did it, Patti said she hadn't realized it was such a terrible thing to do. Although she apologized, it didn't feel genuine to Allison. The two women have moved on because they have to, but family gatherings are much frostier.

Anatomy of a Grudge

For years, scientific research focused on how people coped with anger and resentment; forgiveness remained in the realm of spirituality and religion. Today, however, experts are using a battery of tools -- heart monitors to check blood pressure and heart rate, electrodes to measure skin conduction responses and muscle tension -- to investigate grudge-holding, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They've built a compelling case that breaking grudge gridlock is a profoundly healing act.

"Grudges are linked with stronger negative emotions as well as greater physical stress -- [including] higher blood pressure, heart rate, sweat, and muscle tension levels," notes Dr. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. "In a study we did three years ago, we asked grudge-holders to relive hurtful betrayals, lies, or insults from family members, parents, siblings, or romantic partners, and then to construct two different endings, one positive, one negative. Blood pressure and heart rates were two and half times lower when respondents imagined forgiving than when they didn't. The forgivers also felt happier, more hopeful, and more in control of their lives."

Why are some people better at letting go of grudges than others? Physiology and temperament play a role. "Some of us are 'hot' reactors," says Luskin. "Under stress, we're quick to respond. Our hearts pound, our palms get sweaty from the smallest insult. Others are 'cold' reactors -- scream at them and their blood pressure barely rises." Those who are naturally fearful, overly sensitive, or whose self-esteem is shaky, may take longer to bury the hatchet than people with sunnier, more easygoing temperaments.

Family history is important, too. "If your parents nursed grievances, or consistently treated you badly, you may be hyper-vigilant to affronts as an adult," says Luskin. Similarly, those raised with a strict set of rules regarding what people should and shouldn't do may find themselves constantly disappointed when others don't measure up to their expectations.

Grudge-Busting 101

Learning to forgive and let go of a grudge doesn't mean that hurts will bounce off you like water on a Teflon pan. "With forgiveness, you suffer less and heal quicker," says Luskin. "It's a skill that everybody can learn." So get started:

  • Acknowledge the hurt. Many people pretend they couldn't care less when someone hurts them. But that, experts say, only makes you feel worse. "Initially, minimizing or denying a grudge may seem easier than peeling away layers of self-protective scar tissue that a grudge affords," says Enright. But doing so pushes your pain underground, where it festers. Admitting that you've been hurt is the first step in healing.
  • Allay stress the moment it occurs. "Catch resentment early and you lessen the chance that it will harden into a grudge," says Luskin. Take several deep breaths and actively remember someone you love, a time when you felt loved and loving, or a kindness done to you. "By practicing this breathing-visualization technique, you short-circuit the physical charge [of a hurt] and remind yourself that you have a choice about where to focus your attention."
  • Confront the person who wronged you. Hilary, a San Francisco-based interior designer, had just celebrated her 40th birthday. One week later, following her first routine mammogram, she learned she had a type of breast cancer called DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). Because it was self-contained, doctors advised a mastectomy.

    Nine days after her surgery she was feeling depressed; Hilary's brother Mark, a physician, coaxed her into joining a family dinner. "He told me it would be good for me to get out and that they wanted to do something to make me feel loved," Hilary recalled. "But then Mark stood up and said, 'Now that Hilary's ordeal is finished, we can move on to happier things. I want to announce that Kim [his wife] and I are pregnant.' Hilary felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. Excusing herself, she ran to the bedroom and sobbed.

    "Mark had been incredibly thoughtless," Hilary recalls. "Growing up, I was always the good girl who never spoke up when something was bothering me." This time, she called her brother: "I thought that dinner was about making me feel better, but obviously it was about you and Kim," she said. "While my cancer may be finished for you, I'm the one who has to get undressed every day. It will never be over for me."

    That was six years ago and ever since, Mark has sent Hilary flowers on the anniversary of her surgery, with a note saying how much he loves her and that he remembers. What might have developed into a lifelong grudge was defused because Hilary found the courage to express her feelings.

  • Lower the thermostat on your anger. "Most of the time, people don't mean to hurt us," says Luskin. "Maybe they couldn't do anything differently, or maybe they were too self-absorbed to realize what they were doing." Recognizing this doesn't trivialize your experience; it puts it into a less-painful perspective.

    By figuring out which hot buttons a hurtful action is pressing, you can better determine what you need to do to suffer less. Instead of obsessing about how awful you feel, talk to a close friend who had a similar experience, consult a professional therapist, go for a run, or take the kids to the playground. The more often you interrupt the grudge-bearing cycle, the looser its grip will become.

    Jeanne Safer, PhD, a New York City psychotherapist, interviewed many people for her book on forgiveness -- Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not to Forgive (Quill, 2002) -- who had not forgiven their grudges, yet they felt great and weren't overwhelmed with rage and bitterness. What they did do was take an objective look at themselves, the person who hurt them, as well the offending incident. To do that, ask yourself:

    --What stress was she or he under at the time?
    --Is she terse, selfish, or callous with others, not just me?

  • Challenge your unenforceable rules. The more rules you have, the greater the chance that, at some point, you'll bump up against the frustration of not having them followed. Your inner rules might include: Friends shouldn't flirt with their best friend's husband...parents should love all their children equally...or even, it's wrong to stand in the express line at the grocery store with more than 10 items in your cart. When these things occur anyway, a grudge may take root. Luskin contends that, rather than demand that life be different, tell yourself you hope to get what you want, but know that you might not. As you focus on a positive outcome, you'll begin to feel more peaceful and think more clearly.

Four Grudge Myths

To break out of grudge-gridlock, it's essential to understand what forgiveness is -- and isn't.


Myth #1: Forgiving means you don't get angry. "This is the greatest obstacle to forgiveness," says Luskin. "Forgiveness isn't a non-guilty verdict. You don't excuse unkind, inconsiderate, or selfish behavior, or minimize your pain. Rather, you acknowledge that you can't change the past or predict the future, but that you don't have to suffer forever, either."

Myth #2: Forgiving means forgetting. "Forgiveness doesn't mean you get a lobotomy," adds Luskin. When you forgive, you remember in new ways: Instead of seeing the friend who failed to return phone calls as rude, you might view her as overwhelmed by job and family responsibilities. Instead of dwelling on how wronged you feel by a spouse's betrayal, you admit that there were serious problems in your marriage that may have contributed to it. "To really forgive you have to remember so you can protect yourself in the future," adds Robert Enright.

Myth #3: Forgiveness means you're a pushover. "Absolutely not. Forgiveness puts you in a position of strength," says Enright. "It's a courageous step to respond differently. When you forgive, you still hold people accountable for their actions -- but you take away their power to hurt you anymore." Adds Jeanne Safer, "Forgiveness is the rebirth of positive emotions, not the wholesale obliteration of negative ones." That can happen with or without an apology. "Sometimes, two people simply see a situation differently. The offender sees a minor slight; you feel a major slam," notes Witvliet. "If you refuse to forgive until you hear that apology, you give the key that can unlock the prison of your pain to the very person who caused it in the first place."

Mistake #4: Forgiveness means reconciliation. Sometimes reconciliation is not appropriate. "Forgiveness gives you the emotional space to make the decisions that are best for you now," says Luskin. That may mean ending a marriage -- or fighting like hell to save it. It may mean picking up the pieces of a friendship -- or deciding that having that person in your life is simply too difficult right now. To protect myself from further hurt, I've erected an emotional wall between myself and my former coauthor. I'm cordial, but I make sure never to put myself in a position where she can hurt me again. I've drawn my line in the sand and decided, with strength and confidence, what's best for me.

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