Anger is a response to trespass. It’s a response to an incident that you feel violates some boundary or value that you hold. When you feel hurt, when you feel wronged, when you’ve been disrespected or humiliated or shamed, it’s easy to hold on to that anger. Sometimes for a long, long time.
I want to suggest that you don’t.
I had some Great Aunts who, well into their 70’s, would occasionally bring up some incident or other involving one of the sisters. They were still angry about whatever the transgression was, still pushed out of shape by it, still holding onto a grudge from something that happened more than 50 years earlier!
I guess they were still holding out hope that they could one day go back in time and make it so that that transgression didn’t happen. Beyond that, all they were doing was keeping a negative feeling alive.
This is not unusual. In fact there is quite a market for holding grudges in my profession. I have seen so many people over the years who are willing to spend a lot of time and money going over in greater and greater detail just how their parents hurt them.
The hope here, as with my Great Aunts, can only be that somehow, by “working through” those painful events, those events will no longer have happened. This is not stated clearly, of course, or else it would seem ridiculous on the face of it – which is why I am stating it clearly here.
It is more often stated in vague terms, implying that by going over this past history, somehow you will no longer be hurt by what happened back then, and you can get on with your life.
But the very process of going over the painful past serves only to turn the path to that past pain into a superhighway.
Remember, you get good at what you practice. If you practice dwelling on what has hurt you in the past, then you will get very good at dwelling on what hurt you in the past.
This does not mean that you should pretend that what was painful did not happen. This does not mean that there is no reason to look at the past in order to learn from it, or to bring greater understanding, compassion, and perspective to it. It does not mean that you pretend that you were not affected by what may have been truly awful events.
The fact is, truly awful events will affect you for the rest of your life. They will never cease to have happened, but they will fade in intensity the farther out in time you get from them – unless you keep those awful events alive in the present by holding a grudge.
If you think of time as a journey away from events, holding a grudge is like refusing to leave bad events until they get better. But since these are by definition past events, there is no changing them, and so they will never get better. The best that you can do – and this is significant – is to see those events from the perspective of a larger context. Close in, the Sun is all burning heat and blinding light; as you move out from say the orbit of Mercury to the orbit of Neptune, that same Sun that consumed your senses with such pain becomes just one of billions of other stars decorating the heavens.
To hold a grudge is to keep yourself in a Mercurial orbit about whatever has hurt you. To accept what has happened, to forgive when and as you genuinely can, and to will yourself to look around at the larger context within which that solar event is but a point of light, is to give yourself the gift of a continuing journey.
Sometimes with severe trauma there are reminders, flashbacks, invasive memories, that keep the events alive against your will. This is much more difficult to deal with, and if this is the case for you, please don’t think that I am being glib with my suggestions here, I fully understand the challenges and the horror of such trauma, and I am not suggesting that you just pretend it away.
What I am suggesting is that you do what you can to forgive what you are able to genuinely forgive, and to accept that what happened did indeed happen, and to do everything you can possibly do to avoid carrying around a grudge.
There may be an action that needs to be taken. You may be holding onto a grudge in part because you have not said what you need to say. Maybe somebody close to you said or did something that hurt you and they don’t know it, or haven’t acknowledged it, and you need to tell them and/or hear that they are sorry. Maybe there is a more severe event that requires some form of justice – if a crime has been committed, the criminal needs to be apprehended and punished.
If there is an appropriate action to be taken to address a trespass, then define that action, determine whether it is reasonable, legal, congruent with your values, and will serve to allow you to get on with your life in a better way (no violent outbursts, no doing harm out of revenge, no taking actions that will simply make someone else hurt and make your life worse), and decide whether it will help to take that action.
For example, you may feel angry with a loved one over a hurtful comment. The appropriate response would not be to become physically violent, or to come up with a comment that would hurt them back just as bad. Rather, you would want to let them know that what they said hurt, and that you don’t want to be spoken to in that manner. Usually in such cases, if the other person offers an apology at that point, the hurt is over and you can let go of any remaining grumpiness.
Sometimes when you can talk about it directly and benevolently with the other person you may even find that what you were dwelling on was only a misunderstanding, and you were holding a grudge for nothing.
There may be something that happened for which there is no action to be taken. Either it just happened so long ago, or to address it would take you into a worse situation, or there simply is nothing to be done. You may have feelings that are difficult to let go of. Here’s something that may help:
This is very simple, but do it slowly; approach it as you would a strange animal. For very severe events, this may be too much and could bring up overwhelming feelings; consider getting help from someone skilled in dealing with trauma if this is the case.
Simply think of the person who hurt you, and begin to wonder what their situation was, what they may have been thinking, what they may have been going through. See the situation through their eyes for a moment, standing in their shoes.
By doing this, you may get a sense of empathy that allows you to understand what happened in a different light. You may even find that it is now easier to accept what happened and forgive the person who hurt you. Perhaps the shift in perspective will bring you to a larger context that may free you to a degree from the negative feelings.
This week, begin to notice when you find yourself carrying a grudge. Do what you can to broaden the context and bring a sense of acceptance, understanding, and, if possible, forgiveness to the event, the other person or people, and to yourself as well.
And the reason to do this is so that you can live a better life yourself, today and into the future, regardless of what other people may have done or failed to do in your past.
Holding a grudge is not about justice, for there is no action involved, just continual orbiting about a painful event.
Forgiveness is not primarily about letting the other person off the hook.
Forgiveness is a gift that you give to yourself, so that you can continue on your life’s journey with greater happiness.