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Letting go of a grudge

Q: I have a good friend whom I have always viewed as a spiritual person. She usually sees the best in others and is quick to find ways to justify inconsiderate behavior. If a friend gets upset at another, she will say, “Oh, she didn’t mean anything by it. She’s just cranky today,” or “Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you—he’s just worried about something.”

However, she recently had a big disagreement and blowup with a relative and is not handling it very well. She is angry, constantly saying mean, gossipy things about that person. She simply won’t let go of it. Because this has been going on for months, all of our mutual friends and I are now tired of listening to all the bitterness and pettiness. Recently, I gently confronted by asking, “You are usually so forgiving and able to see the best in others, why are you not able to forgive your relative?” She answered, “I honestly don’t know. But I know I can’t.” 

Is there anything I can say or do to help her get over this? And what could have happened to make her act this way? It’s not like her.

A: I don’t know what the disagreement with her relative was about but I can make an educated guess: The relative did or said something that made her feel unloved and rejected. It is this fear that is most likely fueling her anger and grudge. Like most of us, she is more comfortable being angry than afraid.

Once you understand the axiom “All anger is fear based,” it becomes easier to figure out what fuels a grudge. I have had clients argue with me about this, but no one has ever given me an example that I could not easily explain as fear.

One client argued, “If a man breaks into my house with a gun and threatens to harm my family, I’ll shoot him out of anger, not fear.” I answered, “In this situation, because you would be afraid that the intruder would harm your family, you would become angry and defend them with violence. It is the fear for your family’s safety that would drive your anger.”

From this frame of reference, then, it is telling that when you asked your friend why she could not let go of her grudge, she answered, “I don’t know.”  This is a clue she isn’t acknowledging to herself how painful and deep her feelings of rejection are. By choosing to hold a grudge and to paint her relative as a bad person, she allows herself to avoid feeling the depth of her pain and fears about her own lovability.

Grudge holding can lead to other problems. For example, it is not uncommon for people holding a grudge to insist that their friends hold it also. They will say, “If you’re friends with him, then you are not being loyal to me.” This places friends in an uncomfortable position.

I have had personal experience with this. When I’d go home to visit my parents, there were usually one or two grudges in place, and it was not unusual for my mother to tell me, “Please don’t visit with your Aunt Anna because she and I are fighting.  Also, please don’t visit with your Uncle Len—he and I have had a falling out.” 

I used to tease her by saying, “Mom, why don’t you draw me a sociogram to clarify who I can and can’t be friends with and post it in the garage so I don’t make any mistakes.” To her credit, she would laugh and say, “Yes, I know it’s silly but I’d feel betrayed if you visited with them.” It was a difficult situation for me, and I never really came up with a viable solution. I found myself guiltily sneaking around to visit those relatives who were on the “forbidden list.”

In summary, we can guess that it is the fear of rejection and of not being loved that drives your friend’s anger and resulting grudge. Once she acknowledges the fear and comes to terms with it, the anger/grudge will probably fall away because it is no longer needed. You might facilitate this insight by asking her what fears she now has as a result of her blowup with her relative. Don’t be surprised, though, if she answers, “I don’t know.” Good luck.

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