Holding a grudge is generally seen as mean or petty. But what if a grudge is actually a protective tool? Is holding onto one necessarily bad? Sarah Lang looks into it.
Who else remembers Gilbert Blythe (swoon) from the Anne of Green Gables young-adult book series that so many of us loved? Anne was so sensitive about her red hair that, when Gilbert called her ‘carrots’ at school, she smashed a slate over his head. Despite Gilbert’s ongoing attempts to make friends, and his saving her from drowning, she held a grudge against him for years. Anne, how could you? Also, Anne, I’ve been there. Not with a slate, but certainly wanting to smash something.
We’ve all held a grudge at one time or another, right? The term ‘grudge’ is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as “a strong feeling of anger and dislike for a person who you feel has treated you badly”; by the Collins English Dictionary as “a persistent feeling of resentment, especially one due to some cause, such as an insult or injury”; and by the Urban Dictionary as “a bad feeling or hate you hold against another person for something bad they did, or you think they did, to you”. If you don’t like the word “grudges”, you may prefer the term “hold-againsts”.
When I posted in a Facebook group, asking about people’s grudges, I expected few, if any, responses. I assumed that people wouldn’t want to admit to others (or even themselves) that they hold grudges, because holding a grudge is generally seen as ‘bad’.
However, about two dozen people admitted to holding one or more grudges. Said one woman: “I scrolled past your post the first time thinking ‘ah, not me’, but I’m now curating quite the list!” Said another: “I’m really warming up to this now… oh the grudges it turns out I hold! I need to write these all down. I have no intention of relinquishing any of them!”
Holding a grudge: The beginning
Grudges can be big or small – and it turns out a ‘baking grudge’ is a thing. One woman commented on my post that she has “an acquaintance who tucked into a birthday cake before Happy Birthday had been sung, back in 2011. I think about that probably once a month.” Said another woman: “I had a colleague who ate one of the farewell cupcakes that I’d made for someone leaving our office – the icing on them clearly spelt out a thing and I’d told them in advance what I was doing! They were totally unapologetic. I already disliked them intensely, so no new grudge was added, just further justification for an existing one.”
I’m no expert on this topic, but I reckon grudges exist on a spectrum of how much you dislike a person and why – as in, from small slights taken personally through to ‘I won’t forget this person wronged me but I don’t think about it much’ right through to flat-out ‘I never want to be in the same room as this person again’.
I have a couple of grudges that I don’t feel the need to ever resolve. One is against the superette owner who accused me of shoplifting and rifled through my son’s pram without my permission. My husband went in later, picked up milk, magazines, and M&Ms, took them to the counter and said ‘this is what I’m not buying from you because you insulted my wife’. (Brownie point earned.) But I didn’t hold onto my grudge because that dairy was the closest to my office. Then there’s my grudge against the pigeon who pooed on my head through my car’s sunroof right before I went on a date (ok, maybe that doesn’t qualify since the bird presumably wasn’t acting with malice).
Are grudges always bad?
Grudges could be part of a wider societal conversation about ‘forgiveness culture’, boundaries, accountability, and toxicity – which are ‘good’, which are ‘bad’, and how to handle them. Without getting into all that, let’s note the widespread notion that forgiveness is ‘good’ – and that holding grudges is ‘bad’ – in nearly all circumstances.
Not so, says the book How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment: The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life. No, this isn’t a wannabe self-help writer trying to make a buck. Its author Sophie Hannah is an internationally bestselling British writer of psychological crime fiction. In 2019, How to Hold a Grudge was named one of the 100 Must-Read Books of the Year by Time magazine.
Sophie’s website is home to three seasons (10 episodes each) of the ‘How to Hold a Grudge Podcast’, featuring guests including a psychotherapist, an ‘emotional-freedom therapist’, a cataloguing expert, a reverend and a poet. It’s good stuff.
Episode titles include Season 1’s ‘Grudges Can Be Great’ and ‘Grudges, Justice & Karma”, Season 2’s ‘Criticisms Are Not Grudgeworthy’ and ‘Forgiving, Not Forgetting’, and Season 3’s ‘Grudges, Boundaries & The Manual’ and ‘Against my Better Grudgement’. Sophie’s website also features a ‘Grudge of the Week’ (submit one and she might choose it and give you advice) and songs about grudges. Who knew this was a musical genre? And there’s a ‘grudge-grading’ tool, where you answer questions to get to a score.
Sophie, who interviewed various experts for her book, has a unique perspective on grudges: how to hold them in a safe, responsible way and how, if we want, to eventually forgive the person. Importantly, she doesn’t think grudges are a bad thing in themselves. “Secretly, we all hold grudges,” she writes, “but most of us probably think we shouldn’t, and many of us deny that we do. To bear a grudge is too negative, right?”
“Many of us have been trained from a young age to think that holding grudges is a petty, compassionless and horrible thing to do.” However, Sophie poses a question. “What if our grudges are good for us? What if we could embrace them, and use them to help ourselves and others, instead of feeling ashamed of our inability to banish negative emotions and memories from our lives?… Holding grudges is seen by many people as a bad thing – but what if our grudges, when managed correctly, are good for us?”
Can holding a grudge be helpful?
Because, actually, holding a grudge can be useful. If someone has done you wrong, it may be logical to distance yourself from that person or avoid interactions altogether. In other words, it can be an act of self-preservation. As one woman commented on my post, “Keep those grudges I say – grudges are actually your intuition.”
Kirsty, from Auckland, says: “I think of grudges as like the little red flags I didn’t see beforehand, but can see now in the rearview mirror. They mean I won’t make the mistake of going in that direction again.”
Alice, from Christchurch, pondered whether or not she holds grudges. “I don’t in the sense that I don’t really spend loads of time thinking about people who did me wrong, but I won’t forget and I sure as shit will never trust them again. In the manner of Mr Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, my good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.” Alice adds that this kind of thing “is usually described at ‘holding a grudge’ or ‘carrying a grudge’ which has always sounded quite active to me – like you’re actually nurturing it in some way. Whereas to me it’s just like, ‘Okay, you’re dead to me. Moving on!’ But if that qualifies as a grudge, then I’ll totally cop to it.”
Writer Chris Jordan-Clark says: “I don’t feel like my grudges are weights I carry. More that they’re things I’ve learned from having wobbly boundaries. Cross those boundaries and I’m done. I think a grudge is a particularly attractive option for women who are taught not to be confrontational or even to be angry, so we can seethe in silence for decades and still be seen as polite. I would love to be someone who could just say ‘you have upset me’ and have it out and it all be over. But I just find that almost impossible.”
Isla, from Dunedin, can poke fun at her multiple grudges. “Many years ago, I came up with a plan to have all the people I held grudges against win a competition where the prize was a holiday somewhere, all on the same plane, then take the plane out. It wasn’t a well-thought-out plan or anything. But it’s fair to say at some points that I would have needed a second flight.” You gotta admire the strategy here.
As Isla adds: “I think particularly as women we are expected ‘to forgive’. This is why I generally hold my grudges quietly, clutched to my bosom where I can keep them warm and secret.”
It’s up to us whether to forgive and/or forget – and if for some reason we don’t, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.