Why you shouldn’t just brush off slights

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - EDITOR'S LETTER - How to Hold a Grudge by So­phie Han­nah is pub­lished by Hod­der & Stoughton and out now, priced €20.99

Many years ago, I was in­vited to speak at a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val. I was thrilled to be there – but that warm feel­ing quickly evap­o­rated when the or­gan­iser told me that he’d only in­vited me be­cause I was cheaper than the au­thor he re­ally wanted. I still re­mem­ber the anger I felt – I very nearly walked away.

This is one of my many grudge sto­ries, and it now makes me laugh when­ever I think about it. So what do we mean by a grudge? The Ox­ford Pocket Dic­tionary de­fines it as a per­sis­tent feel­ing of ill will or re­sent­ment, which sounds pretty mis­er­able. No won­der many of us try not to keep grudges, or deny that we do. ‘Oh, I’m not one to hold grudges,’ we boast.

Me? I have loads of grudges, and I love and value them all. None of them in­cludes feel­ings of pain or rage. It’s true that the ini­tial in­ci­dent might have caused me to feel those emo­tions, but hold­ing on to a grudge does not have to mean hold­ing on to neg­a­tive feel­ings.

I’ve been a col­lec­tor of grudges since I was a child and I swear they’ve done me noth­ing but good. For ex­am­ple, in the 1980s, a school­friend, Delia, al­lowed me to take all the blame for our smok­ing in a class­room. She heard me own up but when the teach­ers asked her if she’d also been smok­ing, she lied and pinned all the blame on me. It felt like a be­trayal.

I have a grudge about this – a grudge about Delia, though not against her. It’s im­por­tant to make that dis­tinc­tion, be­cause a good grudge should never be used as a weapon against any­one, even in the pri­vacy of our own minds. We should not wish the per­son who sparked the grudge ill, but nor should we for­get.

For a long time I felt guilty for hav­ing my grudge about Delia. Then a cou­ple of years later she did some­thing else grudge-wor­thy. For sev­eral months she en­cour­aged me to pur­sue a boy I fan­cied and told me to in­vite him to a party that was com­ing up. I fol­lowed her ad­vice – and the mo­ment said boy ar­rived at the party, Delia snogged him her­self!

That was when I saw the light and al­lowed my­self, of­fi­cially, to have a grudge about Delia, and that grudge helped de­fend me against pos­si­ble fu­ture hurts. It was a ben­e­fi­cial thing. In­deed my own per­sonal def­i­ni­tion of a grudge is this: a story in­volv­ing a neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence that feels im­por­tant to re­mem­ber be­cause it still has rel­e­vance.

When we let our­selves feel guilty for hav­ing an­gry feel­ings that are en­tirely jus­ti­fi­able, those neg­a­tive feel­ings be­come much stronger. In­stead, if we ac­cept and wel­come our anger and al­low our­selves to change our thoughts, feel­ings and be­hav­iour in re­la­tion to an in­ci­dent or per­son, then our neg­a­tive emo­tions pass more quickly.

This to­tally worked in the case of me and Delia. I gave my­self per­mis­sion to be­have dif­fer­ently to­wards her – to stop con­fid­ing in her and trust­ing her and to spend time with her only when it was un­avoid­able. From that point on, when Delia did some­thing treach­er­ous I wasn’t hurt by it, be­cause I hadn’t ex­pected her to be­have bet­ter. This meant I no longer felt un­der threat and was there­fore less bit­ter. That’s right – hold­ing a good grudge in the right way is an aid to for­give­ness, not an ob­sta­cle to it.

So how can grudges truly be a force for good?


Of­ten when we find we can’t get over a grudge it’s be­cause a voice in­side us is whis­per­ing, ‘But that per­son be­trayed me and if I for­give them and move on, it’s as though their ter­ri­ble treat­ment of me never hap­pened or didn’t mat­ter.’ It’s like when you see bunches of flow­ers at­tached to a lamp­post by the side of a road and you re­alise some­one must have died there in a traf­fic ac­ci­dent. Those flow­ers are say­ing, ‘Some­thing hap­pened here and that thing ➤

mat­ters.’ We of­ten say, of his­tor­i­cal or pub­lic atroc­i­ties and tragedies, ‘Never for­get’. That is what our grudges do, too: they com­mem­o­rate what hap­pened and tell us that our mis­treat­ment and pain are sig­nif­i­cant and should be ac­knowl­edged. It re­ally mat­ters when peo­ple treat us badly and we have ev­ery right to our in­ner com­mem­o­ra­tion of what hap­pened, in the form of a grudge. Take that per­son who told me he in­vited me to the fes­ti­val be­cause I was the cheaper op­tion. That grudge re­minds me that this level of ru­de­ness is sim­ply not OK and that I – and all of us – de­serve to be treated bet­ter.


If some­one set fire to your house and your beloved pet ham­ster died, you would ex­pect the ar­son­ist to be found guilty in court and given an ap­pro­pri­ate sen­tence. But of­ten the kinds of things we hold grudges about are not se­ri­ous enough to be put be­fore a judge. By cre­at­ing and keep­ing our grudge, we can feel as though we have se­cured some small mea­sure of pri­vate jus­tice for our­selves. We will think and be­have dif­fer­ently in fu­ture and there­fore life will not go on as if the grudge-spark­ing in­ci­dent never hap­pened or doesn’t mat­ter. It mat­ters to us, and that’s what the grudge means.


Grudges teach us how we do and don’t want to be treated, and show us what our deep­est val­ues are. When I was eight, I wrote a poem for a school com­pe­ti­tion. My teacher said it was too good to be the work of a child my age and that I must have copied it from some­where, so she re­fused to en­ter my poem in the com­pe­ti­tion. That in­ci­dent, and my story about it – which is one of my favourites in my grudge col­lec­tion – taught me that fig­ures of au­thor­ity aren’t al­ways cor­rect or fair and that the ‘in­no­cent un­til proven guilty be­yond rea­son­able doubt’ prin­ci­ple is es­sen­tial to a just so­ci­ety. I was in­spired by my teacher’s be­hav­iour to write even bet­ter po­ems and win more sig­nif­i­cant com­pe­ti­tions.


Once you have com­mem­o­ra­tion, jus­tice and in­spi­ra­tion sorted, you will usu­ally feel that you can af­ford to for­give – that you can let go of your anger and re­sent­ment so you don’t feel churned up in­side any more. Good grudges of­fer a learn­ing op­por­tu­nity, sym­bolic jus­tice and pro­tec­tion. Your grudge story pre­serves the mem­ory of how your grudgee be­haved, and so now you can avoid sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions in fu­ture. This means you can move on with­out cling­ing to neg­a­tive feel­ings. I am hugely grate­ful for all my grudges. They have taught me so much about how I do and don’t want to be­have. When I cre­ate a grudge about some­one who has been rigid and in­flex­i­ble, it re­minds me that I al­ways want to be open-minded and adapt­able. When I see peo­ple on Twit­ter get­ting ag­gres­sive and sweary in re­sponse to the mildest ex­pres­sion of dis­agree­ment, I re­solve al­ways to dis­agree in a friendly way if I have to dis­agree at all.


We can and should en­joy our grudges. A lot of them are hi­lar­i­ous! Via our grudge sto­ries we can cel­e­brate the ab­sur­dity of much of our ex­pe­ri­ence, which can help us deal with what­ever life throws at us. One of my for­mer neigh­bours used to re­act with great fury if any­one parked their car by the side of the road out­side her house. It was a pub­lic road and any­one was al­lowed, legally, to park there. My neigh­bour did not own that sec­tion of the road. Yet she seemed not to re­alise this and would run out of her house and ver­bally sav­age any­one who tried to park in the spot that she wished was of­fi­cially hers. Once you re­alise that hu­man be­ings are ca­pa­ble of such ab­surd be­hav­iour, it can help you to take life, other peo­ple and your­self much less se­ri­ously.


When friends guiltily share their grudges with me, I ad­vise them to write them down. Writ­ing out our grudge story – work­ing out how best to tell it, what the cru­cial el­e­ments are and what the moral of the story is – helps us to stand out­side our ex­pe­ri­ence and to be ob­jec­tive ob­servers in­stead. This de­gree of de­tach­ment in­evitably re­sults in the weak­en­ing of any strong neg­a­tive feel­ings to­wards the orig­i­nal in­ci­dent. I also en­cour­age peo­ple to grade and clas­sify their grudges ac­cord­ing to a sys­tem I’ve cre­ated: a one-carat grudge is a rel­a­tively weak one where the per­son might not have meant to do you any harm; a ten-carat grudge is very pow­er­ful and will prob­a­bly in­volve some level of ma­li­cious in­tent on the part of the grudgee. Clas­si­fy­ing and grad­ing your grudge helps to pro­vide dis­tance and per­spec­tive on the up­set­ting and an­noy­ing stuff life throws at us.

As long as we hold grudges re­spon­si­bly they can be great. Recog­nis­ing that you can be the grudgee of some­one else’s grudge is also use­ful – we’re no more per­fect than any­one else. We, too, will up­set and of­fend peo­ple.

Think of it this way: ev­ery grudge we hold is a clue to some­thing, a mes­sage our ex­pe­ri­ence is try­ing to con­vey to us. If we try not to hold grudges, we’re turn­ing away those clues when we should be us­ing them to solve the mys­tery of how we want to live, think and feel.

So next time you feel a grudge brew­ing, wel­come it with open arms. It might have a lot to teach you and could truly en­hance your life.

‘We can and should en­joy our grudges – a lot of them are hi­lar­i­ous’

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