Winning the Grudge Match

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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.

Continued on page 3:  Anatomy of a Grudge


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