The first and only comprehensive examination of the universal but widely misunderstood practice of grudge-holding that will show you how to use grudges to be your happiest, most optimistic, and most forgiving self.
Secretly, we all hold grudges, 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? Shouldn’t we just forgive and move on? Wrong, says self-appointed grudge guru Sophie Hannah, in her groundbreaking and irreverent self-help guide. Yes, it’s essential to think positively if we want to live happy lives, but even more crucial is how we get to the positive. Denying our negative emotions and experiences is likely to lead only to more pain, conflict, and stress.
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? With contributions from expert psychotherapists as well as extracts from her own extensive catalog of grudges, Sophie Hannah investigates the psychological origins of grudges and also offers not-so-obvious insights into how we should acknowledge—and embrace—them in order to improve the quality of our interpersonal relationships and senses of self. Grudges do not have to fill us with hate or make us toxic, bitter, and miserable. If we approach the practice of grudge-holding in an enlightened way, it will do the opposite—we will become more forgiving.
Practical, compassionate, and downright funny, How to Hold a Grudge reveals everything we need to know about the many different forms of grudge, the difference between a grudge and not-a-grudge (not as obvious as it seems), when we should let a grudge go, and how to honor a grudge and distill lessons from it that will turn us into better, happier people—for our own benefit and for the sake of spreading good and limiting harm in the world.
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How to Hold a Grudge
“People believe that in order to live a happy life that they enjoy, they have to be delusional and sugarcoat everything. They pretend that bad things aren’t bad, that mean things aren’t mean, that people are good for them who really aren’t. It’s better to be realistic and find a way to cope with the negative stuff. Don’t sugarcoat anything—recognize the problem and deal with it. People think that to forgive and forget is the healthiest thing. It’s not.”
—Phoebe Jones, age sixteen
Secretly we all hold grudges, 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? Instead, we should forgive and move on.
Actually, it’s not exactly wrong. It’s kind of right, but in the wrong way. Confused? Then read on, and you’ll soon understand what I mean.
Of course it’s essential to think positive if you want to live a happy life, but even more crucial is how you get to that positive. Denying your negative emotions and experiences in the hope that they will disappear from memory and leave you feeling and thinking exactly as you did before they happened will lead only to more pain, conflict and stress in the long term.
So what should you do instead? The short answer is: you should follow the Grudge-fold Path.
“What the hell does that mean?” I hear you ask. Read on and you will soon know. For the time being, though, I’ll give you a different short answer (which is actually the same answer but expressed normally rather than in weird jargon I’ve invented): you should hold a grudge, and then forgive and move on, while still holding your grudge. Does that sound like a contradiction? The mission of this book is to explain why it’s not, and to lay out in simple steps what it means to follow the Grudge-fold Path.
Am I seriously going to encourage you to hold grudges? Yes, I am. And I’m going to start by asking you to consider these questions: What if everyone who has ever told you, “Don’t hold grudges because it’s bad for you and not very nice,” was wrong? What if our grudges are good for us? What if they’re the psychological equivalent of leafy green vegetables that nourish and strengthen us? What if we don’t have to accept the traditional definition of the word “grudge”—the one with negative connotations—but can instead create a better and more accurate definition that takes into account the full power of grudges? What if grudges can ward off danger? What if we could use them to help ourselves and others?
I’ve got some great news! It’s not a case of “What if?” All of these things are true. Holding grudges doesn’t have to fill us with hate or make us bitter and miserable. If you approach the practice of grudge-holding in an enlightened way, you’ll find it does the opposite: it makes you more forgiving. Your grudges can help you to honor your personal emotional landmarks, and you can distill vital life lessons from them—about your value system, hopes, needs and priorities—that will act as a series of stepping-stones, pointing you in the right direction for the best possible future.
Read on if you’d like to learn how to hold great grudges for a happier and more enlightened life . . . or even if you think my theory is probably wrong (I’ll convince you by the end of this book—you see if I don’t!), but you still quite fancy reading some entertaining and occasionally jaw-dropping true grudge stories.
Some people admit, proudly and happily, to being the grudge-holding type. Others don’t. When I announced on Twitter that I was writing this book, the reactions were varied and fascinating. Author Joanna Cannon said, “I feed and water my grudges as if they were small, exotic plants, and I CANNOT WAIT to read this.” Another woman, Jules, said, “Me and my sister specialize in ‘hold againsts.’ Our hold againsts are legion.”
I suspect that Joanna, Jules and I relate to our grudges in a similar way: we enjoy them and are proud of them, and, since we feel that they have positive value for us, we see no reason to pretend we don’t have them or to try to get rid of them. Personally, I don’t believe it’s possible to mix with other human beings on a regular basis and not collect some grudges—and it’s not desirable either, unless you’re one of those lucky people like Rachel, who responded online to the news of this book with the comment, “I am a hopeless grudge-keeper. I struggle on for an hour at most. I think I’m basically too lazy. I hope this isn’t a life-threatening condition.”
My son shares Rachel’s laziness in relation to grudges. If someone is horrible to him, he just wants it to be over—not only because it’s unpleasant but also, and mainly, because any kind of problem, anything that’s made him angry or upset, is something he’s fundamentally not interested in. All he wants is to stop thinking about it—not in a denial kind of way but in a Who even cares? Just go away way. Unpleasantness, the second it’s over, rolls off him like raindrops off the waxed hood of a car.
I’m different. I’ve always wanted any present-moment meanness or poor treatment of me (or anyone else) to stop so that I can start thinking about it—because what could be more gripping, right? Is the person who did me this particular wrong dangerous, or was it a one-off? What should I think about them from now on? How should I treat them? Every time, it’s a mystery that needs to be solved, and I’m a mystery addict. (This probably explains why my day job is writing crime fiction and my hobby is reading it.)
My daughter is exactly like me. She gets very upset if someone is mean, spiteful, neglectful or unfair to her or anybody she cares about—far more upset than my son does—but she is interested in nastiness and all the bad things people do, because they’re part of human behavior, which is the main thing in life that fascinates her. She likes to analyze it and to try to make it fit into a coherent overarching narrative. So do I. I think this explains why my daughter and I are dedicated and passionate grudge-holders, while my son can’t be bothered and genuinely doesn’t seem to have any grudges at all.
My son’s way of not holding grudges is, I suspect, the only healthy and harmless way to hold no grudges. In grudge-holding terms, I see my son as a tree trunk with no concentric circles in it. Those grudge rings simply aren’t there—that’s just how that particular tree has grown, and that’s fine.
I’ve thought a lot about what grudges might look like if they had a physical form. I started to picture grudges as if they were concrete things. A ring in the trunk of a tree was the first image that came to mind; then a cactus (lots of spikes), then a small square box wrapped in beautiful colored paper with a bow around it. I asked people to send me their drawings and ideas about what grudges might look like. I was sent two pictures that I loved. One was a round red ball or sphere cupped in someone’s hands. Words and phrases were dangling from the fingers of the hands: things like “broken hearts,” “forgotten birthdays” and “unfair dismissal.” The other was a kind of cloud-shaped grumpy grudge creature. (You can see both on the “How to Hold a Grudge” page of my website!)
I suspect that the person who drew the grumpy-little-creature grudge would feel and think differently about grudges than me, given that the image I finally fixed on was a gift-wrapped box. I didn’t ask my son to draw me a picture, but if I had, I’m sure he’d have rolled his eyes and said, “Nah. CBA.” That stands for “Can’t be arsed.” Of course he can’t—he is fundamentally not interested in grudges.
That’s absolutely fine. I’m not even going to cut him out of my will or accuse him of being no son of mine or anything like that. And it’s fine for my son—and anyone like him in this respect, anyone whose mind spontaneously and effortlessly ejects all bad things the moment they’re over because they find them as dull as I find anecdotes about the history of the steam engine (my fault—I’m not blaming steam engines)—to hold no grudges at all.
But what if, like most people, you have a mind that still remembers every detail of the time your supposedly best friend told your deepest secret to the postman without permission? What if you find yourself secretly thinking, Fuck you, every time your cousin comes to visit, because she once fed chocolate to your dog and made him ill? If you’re that sort of person—and I believe most of us are—then trying not to hold grudges when all your instincts are screaming, No, really, I’m pretty sure this is grudgeworthy is a very bad idea.
“That sort of person”? What sort do I mean?
Why, an ordinary person, of course. A perfectly regular person of the everyday kind. Regular, ordinary people get upset when people upset us. We feel betrayed when those we trust betray us. We get angry when we’re wronged, slandered, poked in the eye with a sharp stick or unreasonably imposed upon. Denial or repression of our natural grudge-holding instinct is bad for us, and it’s bad for the world. (Chapter 6 of this book explains why, but please don’t skip ahead—that’s an author-reader grudge waiting to happen right there. You need to read the book in the right order, or the arguments won’t make sense.)
Trainer, mentor and therapist Anne Grey agrees that trying to suppress our emotions is not advisable. She says: “It’s a natural response to feel emotions like hurt, sadness, anger. Allow the intense emotion to be there without judging it.”
Many of us have been trained from a young age to think that holding grudges is a petty, compassionless and horrible thing to do. This means that as we go through life and every so often find ourselves on the receiving end of treatment that’s somewhere on the shoddy-to-heinous spectrum, we are ill-equipped to deal with it in the best and wisest way. One of the responses to my announcement of this book was: “Ooh! How does this grudge-holding work?! I think of them as mean, grim obstacles to moving on and letting go!” I loved this response, because it neatly set out for me the challenge I faced: convincing people who’ve been trained to think that holding grudges is a negative and harmful thing to do that a) it’s not, it’s the opposite, because b) they’ve been thinking about grudges, and using the word, in the wrong way all these years. The purpose of this book is to give you a more psychologically accurate definition to work with—one that will make you a) think about grudges in a different and more optimistic way forever and b) want to start collecting your own.
Once I had committed to writing this book, I asked people to send me their grudges if they wanted to. So many people I asked looked mildly alarmed and said, “I’m not sure I have any. I don’t think I hold grudges.”
“Oh, okay, that’s fine,” I said. “So let me ask you a different question: Is there anyone who you feel differently about now because of something they once did?” At that point, almost everyone perked up and said, “Oh yes! My mother wore white to my wedding,” or “My stepmom bought the coat I wanted . . . and then never wore it,” or “A girl from the B team deliberately tripped me up and injured me so that she could get my place on the A team.”
Over and over again, people told me they didn’t hold grudges and couldn’t think of any at all, then went on to offer something that they claimed wasn’t a grudge but that, according to my definition, was exactly what a grudge should be.
We’re going to look in more detail about what grudges are, aren’t and should be in Chapters 2 and 3. For now, all I will say is: if you think of grudges as “mean, grim obstacles to moving on,” then when someone asks you if you have any, you’re obviously not going to leap up enthusiastically, hand in the air, and say, “Yes! Yes, I do! Let me give you a full, walkaround tour of my grudge collection!” Who wants to think of themselves as mean or grim? I’m going to show you that grudges are protective, life-enhancing and fun. I hope that once you’ve read this book, you will understand that sending yourself and your loved ones out into the world with a strong grudge-growing ability is as essential as putting on a helmet and not drinking four bottles of vodka before getting onto your motorbike and zooming off down the motorway. Trust me: it’s true.
And now I want to ask you a question: If someone were to ask you to name your top five grudges, could you? I could, though I’d probably come back ten minutes later to announce that I’d already revised the order, and numbers three and four had swapped places in my chart. I might also try to start a discussion (because, yes, I am that kind of weird person) about what “top” means, in this context. Most serious? Most enjoyable to hold?
Wait—enjoyable? Some of you will be wondering, “How could holding a grudge ever be enjoyable? How could it be anything but bitter, hateful and corrosive?” If that’s what you’re thinking, then you’ve come to the right place. You are the very person I had in mind when I first became aware of a burning urge to write this book, because you’re the person I need to convince that, handled correctly, grudges can be good for you—and not only good, but great. If, on the other hand, you’re grinning and saying to yourself, “Of course grudges can be fun—who could doubt it?” then you are my kindred spirit and I’ve written this book for you too (and you, especially, will love it. Unless you enjoy your grudges for the wrong reasons, which we’ll come to in due course).
Let me start with a grudge story that will always have a special place in my heart, for a very particular reason . . .
Michael Upside Down in the Doorway
A few years ago, I went to Exeter in South West England for a work-related event. It was an evening event, and there was no possibility of me getting home the same night. Luckily, I had close friends, a married couple named Michael and Linda, who lived a short drive from Exeter—friends I’d known for many years. They had a spare room and were only too happy to put me up for the night. They also had a dog—Hobart—a small border terrier who liked to nestle in warm places: his bed, other people’s beds, amid piles of woolly sweaters in drawers and wardrobes.
Michael was obsessive about Hobart. In order to relax, he needed to know, at all times, where in the house Hobart was. Even if he had no reason to fear for the dog’s safety or well-being, it wasn’t enough for Michael to know that Hobart was somewhere or other nearby; he had to know Hobart’s exact location. If he went out, the first question he would ask Linda on his return was “Where’s Hobart?” and if she couldn’t give him a precise answer (“on the blue chair in the kitchen” or “sitting next to the radiator in the lounge”), he would express disapproval, as if she had been negligent in her Hobart-monitoring duties.
I was well aware that if I spent a night at Michael’s house, there was a strong chance I would witness some Hobart-related peculiarity. On previous visits I had been asked a) if I’d be willing to give up my armchair and sit on a hard chair instead, because Michael suspected Hobart might want to sit where I was sitting, and b) if I wouldn’t mind sleeping with my door open, in case Hobart wanted to wander in and out of the guest room during the night. As charmingly as I could, and hoping I wouldn’t cause offense, I refused on both occasions, and Michael accepted my refusals with good grace.
I had never minded any of this. I found it amusing. Michael was the first to laugh at himself and admit that he was neurotic about his dog, so I was happy to spend time at the house. I also found it fascinating that Linda, who did not share Michael’s neurosis, was willing to pander to it so comprehensively, monitoring Hobart’s movements on a second-by-second basis, so that if ever Michael were to appear and ask, “Where’s Hobart?” she would have an answer ready.
On this particular night, I arrived at Michael and Linda’s house at around ten o’clock, and we all had a cup of tea together. At eleven, I said that I was going to bed. Eleven is early by my normal standards, but at the time I had two children under three years old, both of whom woke up often in the night, and I was also frantically busy writing a book while holding down a part-time job that was an hour and a half’s drive from where I lived, and traveling at least once a week to a poetry reading or event.
I explained to Michael and Linda that I was exhausted, that I had to get up early to drive home the next day and that I wanted to make the most of this night that would be blissfully free of interruptions from babies and toddlers. Then I went to bed and sank into a deep sleep.
The next thing I knew, I was jolting awake, clutching the duvet to my body like a shield. The adrenaline coursing through my body told me something was wrong. Sleep-befuddled and shocked, I found it hard to work out what had happened, but there were three significant clues: the light in my room was on, the door to the landing was wide open and Michael appeared to be suspended upside down in the doorway. His head was lower than his body, and close to the floor.
It took me only a few seconds to realize that he was not, in fact, hanging upside down from the door frame. His head was near the floor, though; I’d been right about that. He was bent double, with his head next to his feet, looking under the bed—the same bed that contained his freaked-out houseguest.
I remember feeling like an idiot, and wanting to cry because I’d been stupid enough to trust that I had a night of unbroken sleep ahead of me. At home, I could handle being woken up. I expected it; I slept in a new-mother-on-call kind of way. This was worse than being woken by my children, which I at least understood and didn’t react to with panic. In those first few seconds, I could think of no non-alarming reason for Michael to have opened the door to the room where I was sleeping, turned on the light and bent himself in half.
I waited for him to say sorry for disturbing me—for coming into the room where I was sleeping and actually turning the light on. He didn’t apologize. Nor did he seem to notice my shocked gasp and duvet clutching. “I thought Hobart might be in here with you,” he said. “I can’t find him.”
He came closer, knelt down and stuck his head right under the bed. When he emerged, he said with a sigh, “No, he’s not under there.” He then opened, one by one, every cupboard door and drawer in the room.
I can’t remember what I was wearing. I am the opposite of a nocturnally glamorous person, so it’s likely to have been an old, frayed T-shirt. It wasn’t anything too revealing, which I was relieved about—though of course if Hobart had gone missing, that was more important than Michael possibly seeing me without many clothes on.
As I was thinking this, I heard Linda call out, “Found him, Michael! He’s in here, on the sofa.” “Here” turned out to be Michael’s study.
As I heard these words, I had the strangest feeling: as if something had opened up in my mind, or broken in, and rearranged all my thoughts. “This is a significant moment,” I said to myself silently, even though I hadn’t yet fully worked out why.
Without a word to me, Michael set off to verify Linda’s claim, turning off the light in the guest room and closing the door on his way out. His study was the room next to the guest room, where I was—separated from it by only a thin partition wall. This too struck me as important.
Once he was gone, I picked up my phone to check the time. Only half past midnight. I was determined to extract as much sleep from the rest of the night as I could, so I said to myself, “Now isn’t the time to work out what this means, but I am going to try to work it out soon, because it’s important. I mustn’t forget that it happened.” Having made that resolution, I soon fell asleep again and, thankfully, there were no more surprises for the rest of the night.
The next day, I thought about Michael being upside down in the doorway as I drove back to West Yorkshire, where I lived at the time, and I’ve thought about it many times since. It’s a grudge I hold that involves Michael, but I wouldn’t say I hold it against him, because it didn’t stop me from liking him, and it didn’t end our friendship. (As I’ll explain in Chapter 2, we should hold grudges about people, not against them. A grudge shouldn’t have any “against” in it.)
While I didn’t enjoy being woken in the night, I pitied Michael more than I blamed him. He was plainly not capable of rational behavior where Hobart was concerned. I’d known this for years, even though that night was when I saw its most extreme expression. In a moment of neurosis, he’d felt compelled to burst into the room where I was sleeping. I don’t think he meant me any harm—in fact, I know he didn’t. Opening the door without knocking might well have been his attempt to avoid disturbing me. Perhaps he thought that if he didn’t knock but just walked in, and then tiptoed around, I might not wake up (despite his having turned on the light).
Still, I hold a grudge about this incident, and it’s one I want to keep. And this is a special grudge—one that deserves pride of place in my “grudge cabinet” (to which I will introduce you later). Why, when Michael’s behavior was neither malicious nor especially damaging to me, am I determined to remember this episode? It’s partly because it’s the first grudge I was aware of as a grudge at the very moment it came into being. Previously, my grudge-holding followed a different pattern: something would happen, and I would realize afterward that I was angry or upset about it. Then sometime later I would find that, yes, it was still there and showed no sign of shifting.
With this incident—which I still think of as Michael Upside Down in the Doorway—I give all my grudges titles because it helps with cataloguing and classification—I was aware while it was happening that here was a grudge forming in real time, one that would stay with me forever. Also, I noticed that, once I’d recovered from my initial shock at being woken so unexpectedly, I was neither angry nor upset. Instead, I was curious—certain that an important event had occurred, and eager to know what it meant.
It was a strange feeling, and also a turning point. Previously, I had formed all my grudges spontaneously and unintentionally. This was the first one that I consciously resolved to create because I sensed, in the moment, that some kind of inner exclamation mark or mental bookmark was required—in other words, a grudge, according to my definition of the word (though that wasn’t how I put it to myself at the time, and it was only later that I fully came to understand what my definition was). On the night in question, all I knew was that this was a story that I needed first to polish, so that it was in its best possible form, and then to remember, and then to tell. The strangest thing of all was that I knew the main person to whom I needed to tell this story was myself.
That was thirteen years ago. Since then, I’ve got into the habit of doing this (let’s call it “mindful grudge creation”), and it’s rare that I don’t recognize a grudge-sparking incident as it’s happening—but Michael Upside Down in the Doorway was my first. I didn’t understand then why I needed to get the story right (and by “right,” I mean as clear and accurate as possible) or that it was a newly formed grudge. If you’d asked me then whether I held grudges, I probably wouldn’t have admitted it, because I hadn’t yet realized that grudges are really, really good for you.
Let’s go back to Michael for a moment. When I thought about the Upside Down in the Doorway incident, several important features stood out:
1. Michael hadn’t looked for Hobart in the rest of the house before interrupting my sleep. If he had, there would have been no story and no grudge. Michael’s study, where Linda found Hobart, was next to the room I was in, and no one was sleeping in it. Why hadn’t Michael checked there first? Why hadn’t he checked the whole house before walking in on me? Why didn’t my need for sleep and my privacy matter at least that much to him?
2. Waking me wasn’t the only thing he risked doing by coming into the guest room unannounced. He also risked scaring me (which he did) and embarrassing me. For all he knew, I might have been sleeping in the nude.
3. He didn’t, at any point, apologize. When someone wakes you up unnecessarily in the middle of the night, gets down on his knees by your bedside and then doesn’t apologize, it’s hard not to notice the missed opportunity. The next morning before I left, Michael didn’t say, “By the way, sorry about intruding on your sleep last night.” No light, no cheery “Sorry about that!” was forthcoming. And I knew that wasn’t because Michael was pleased that he’d made my night a bit worse than it needed to be. He simply hadn’t thought then, and wasn’t thinking now, about my needs or feelings. In his eyes, if I wasn’t bleeding from the eyeballs or dangling out of a fifteenth-floor window, I was obviously fine . . . and that left him free to think only about his own needs.
I knew that Michael wasn’t going to worry even for a second about having been a bad host, or that I might not be keen to stay chez him in the future. I also knew that he would have jumped in front of a bullet to protect me if he perceived me to be in true danger. In many ways, he is a noble and self-sacrificing person. If I had been subject to a form of harm that he recognized as harm, he would have put my welfare before his own, I had no doubt—he’d have done so for me or for anyone he cared about. The trouble was (and this was one of the things that struck me as I drove back to Yorkshire, and I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to figure it out) Michael had a worrying tendency to define other people as being perfectly all right and not suffering any sort of adverse effects whenever it suited him to do so.
I realized that he was someone who would always be willing to cause me minor inconvenience, fleeting annoyance, mild alarm and low-key unhappiness if he needed to do so in order to alleviate his own anxiety or to get something he very much wanted, without stopping to question whether it was correct or fair. I understood clearly, after being only subliminally and vaguely aware of it for so many years, that I would always matter far less to Michael than he mattered to himself in any day-to-day life/noncrisis situation; he would always sacrifice my welfare for the sake of his own when it suited him to do so, as long as I seemed “basically fine” to him. And he would always find a way to justify his behavior, if challenged, and to make me feel terrible, because he was absolutely certain that he was a Very Good Person.
That feeling of significance I’d had in the middle of the night had been my subconscious saying, “It’s time you realized how this man will always behave.” Other stories sprang out from the recesses of my memory to join this newly minted one. Some related specifically to nights I had spent at Michael’s house in the past. When I first knew him, his favorite thing to do in the morning was play loud music. If I was staying with him and still asleep, tough: I would be woken by loud Queen or Led Zeppelin songs. I didn’t notice or mind particularly in those days, because I didn’t yet have work I cared about, or children, and so excessive tiredness wasn’t an issue for me. But thinking about it after the Upside Down in the Doorway incident, I remembered that whenever I asked Michael if he could wait to play his music until I was awake, he made it clear that this put him out quite a bit, and had a tiny tantrum about it.
On one occasion, instead of just going in a huff, he set out his case for me, like a defendant representing himself in court. “Look,” he said. “First thing in the morning, while I’m getting dressed and ready to go to work, that’s my favorite time in the day. And listening to music—at a decent volume, so that I can actually hear it, is one of my favorite things to do. Why should I have to deprive myself of that just because you happen to be in my house?” When I asked him how he would feel if I were to play the Oklahoma! soundtrack really loudly while he was trying to sleep in my guest room, he looked confused and said, “Well . . . obviously I’d hate it.”
“Well, then!” I said.
“Hmph,” he said, and remained grumpy for the next hour. Neither of us mentioned the fact that I had never done and would never do this, whereas he regularly did.
Michael only stopped playing very loud music first thing in the morning after I’d asked him to (and after he’d had a small, grown-up version of a tantrum) about four times.
On the journey home, the day after Upside Down in the Doorway, I thought of at least ten or twelve Significant Michael Stories. These were the first stories that I officially and proudly installed in my grudge cabinet!
Let me guess—you don’t have one yet, and you had no idea you needed one? Well, you do. You’ll soon understand why. A grudge cabinet is the only physical object you will need in order to practice enlightened grudge-holding of the sort I advocate, and the good news is: it doesn’t have to be an actual cabinet whittled from the finest oak. It can be a shoebox, an old handbag, a jewelry box, a bedside cabinet drawer . . . Any container will do. You will be using this container to store all the grudges you want to keep in order to enhance your life. If, like me, you’re the proud owner of lots of great grudges, you’ll need a larger box/bag/drawer.
Your grudge cabinet should take whatever form feels right and most appealing to you. If you love the idea of whittling an actual cabinet out of wood, please do so. If you want to buy a brand-new designer handbag to be your grudge cabinet, great! Or, if you’d feel happier using a modest cardboard shoebox, that’s wonderful—whatever works for you. (I’m sure you’re wondering, so I’ll tell you: I am still in the process of figuring out what I would like my grudge cabinet to be. I’m tempted by the designer handbag idea, but the words “secret drawer” are also calling to me. For the time being, my grudge cabinet is this book and a file on my computer called “Grudge Book Notes.”)
Practitioners of Buddhism follow the “Eightfold Path” to enlightenment. I know enough about what this means to know that it’s a path I could never personally follow. I follow, instead, the Grudge-fold Path (which I explain in detail in Chapter 7), and, once you’ve read this book, I hope some of you will too. If you have only eight grudges, then your Grudge-fold Path might happen to be eightfold as well, but I have named my path so that it doesn’t specify a number. It is versatile, therefore, and can work for you even if you have 347 grudges.
The “fold” part of the Grudge-fold Path’s name does not refer to the number of grudges that go toward making up the path. It refers, instead, to the physical act of folding. In Chapter 8, I will tell you all about why and how to write up your grudge stories, and you will see that the folding is an important part of the grudge curation ritual for Grudge-fold Path followers.
• • •
The Upside Down in the Doorway night wasn’t the last night I spent under the same roof as Michael. There were several occasions afterward when avoiding it would have been too difficult, but I never again willingly and freely chose it, and I felt protected and less likely to suffer once I had my grudge fixed securely in place: a story that gave me official permission to link it to other Michael stories and say to myself, “Remember: Michael is this sort of person, likely to behave in this way.”
I learned from Michael Upside Down in the Doorway—and the other Michael stories that flocked to join it—that, while continuing to pursue the friendship and be nice to him, and while not resenting him or feeling anger toward him, I should be aware and on my guard in his presence, and not let him do me any harm, according to my definition of harm, which I gave myself permission to believe was every bit as important as his.
The forming of the grudge—identifying and clarifying the story, and interpreting what it meant—gave me something practical to do in the moment that the annoying incident was taking place, so that I didn’t feel angry or upset. I was too busy doing something far more constructive. It felt like being an observer of one’s own life, thinking, “So what’s the story here? Does it remind me of any other linked stories containing the same main characters? And how should she respond? What’s she thinking now?” “She,” of course, was me.
The Michael Upside Down in the Doorway story still feels very relevant; there is still a live charge associated with it in my mind. I see this charge as a helpful little bell that rings in my memory (there’s another visual image of what a grudge might look like), reminding me that I might need to protect myself from Michael in the future.
How might this little bell benefit me? Psychotherapist Helen Acton says: “It’s a familiar trope within psychoanalytic thinking that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ as most famously stated by philosopher George Santayana. It is Sophie’s determination to remember and preserve her grudge-sparking incidents that offers her protection from the risk of finding herself in a similarly painful position again. Such vigilance ensures she is condemned to repeat nothing. Or at least she’s offering herself the best chance in an uncertain and unpredictable world.”
I value and love this grudge, as I do all the grudges I deem worthy of keeping in and adding to my grudge cabinet. I’m grateful for my grudges because they have taught me, more than anything else in my life, the way I do and don’t want to live.
Helen Acton agrees: “For me, Sophie has here put her finger on the most valuable aspect of the Grudge-fold Path. It is a means by which to clarify her own personal value system. We all have one, but surprisingly few of us are able to understand or articulate what it might be until a line is crossed—a line that allows us to define a value by which we wish to live and by which we expect others to live. Having an understanding of our personal value system offers a basis on which to make decisions for ourselves, and a valuable tool with which to shape our lives. A well-held grudge is a statement of our own moral code. Added to that, it increases the likelihood that we will treat ourselves with self-respect, and therefore expect and demand to be treated respectfully by others. It is a way of saying to oneself, as Winston Churchill so pithily put it, ‘This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.’?”
Over the years, I have read and loved hundreds of self-help books of the Buddhism-influenced variety, and also of the Christianity-influenced kind. The first that springs to mind is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which maintains that it’s the stories we tell ourselves about our life experiences that upset us. We could easily, Tolle argues, tell ourselves a different story. This is totally true . . . if you can do it. Let’s look at an example:
It’s your fiftieth birthday. As a birthday treat, your wife is taking you out for dinner at your favorite restaurant, which has to be booked months in advance. You agree to meet her there at seven thirty p.m. You’ve been looking forward to it for weeks. She doesn’t arrive. You sit there for several hours, then give up and go home. You find your wife in the living room. As you walk in, she says, “Sorry I didn’t turn up. I just didn’t feel like going out this evening. I’m knackered.” You ask why she didn’t ring or text to let you know, and she says, “Huh? Oh, sorry. I’ve been caught up in this TV series I’m hooked on.”
Based on my many careful readings of Eckhart Tolle, I’m certain he would advocate telling that story to oneself in the following way, in order to avoid unnecessary unhappiness: “A man goes to a restaurant, sits there for a while, then returns home. A woman stays at home and doesn’t go to the restaurant.” If you frame it in that way, Tolle claims, then you avoid all the suffering you would inflict upon yourself if you instead told the story as follows: “She knows I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, the selfish cow! And it’s my fiftieth! A landmark birthday! She obviously doesn’t give a shit about me.”
Tolle believes we can eliminate all suffering from our lives simply by not telling ourselves upsetting stories in which people have behaved like dicks and hurt our feelings. Other self-help books I’ve read—the majority—would concede that, if you wanted to tell a true version of that story, you would need to acknowledge that some pretty selfish behavior was involved. But (those same books would argue) we shouldn’t allow other people’s inconsiderateness or even their cruelty to make us unhappy and affect our inner peace. We should simply tell ourselves that their bad behavior is their problem, not ours.
Brooke Castillo, whose weekly podcast, The Life Coach School, I find completely addictive—teaches something called “the Model,” in which Circumstances (the wife not showing up at the restaurant for the planned birthday dinner) are seen as inherently neutral, connected to Feelings and only able to cause Feelings (hurt, unhappiness/bitterness) via Thoughts (How could she do that to me? The selfish bitch!).
Castillo argues that no one can hurt our feelings or make us suffer unless we let them. No one, she claims, can make us feel any way at all, positive or negative, because we are in charge of our own feelings, and we always have the power to change those feelings by changing our thoughts about particular circumstances. This approach is similar to Tolle’s (he says “story we tell ourselves”; she says “thoughts,” but effectively they mean the same thing). Castillo acknowledges Tolle as one of her main teachers and influences.
On one level, they’re both absolutely right: if you can change your thoughts, or tell yourself completely different stories, then yes, of course you can change the way you feel. The problem for most of us is that when we try to think the new, hurt-avoiding thought—It’s great that my sister shagged my husband! I’m so thrilled about it!—we might not succeed entirely in convincing ourselves.
I was once told by a boyfriend’s mother that if my life was in danger, she probably wouldn’t try to save me. Not definitely; only probably. Then she shook her head, pondering it anew, and concluded, “No, I just don’t think I would.” She said all this completely out of the blue—just in case any of you are imagining I prompted it by saying, “Hey, bitch, bet you wouldn’t lift a finger to rescue me from a burning building, would you?”
Now, I could tell myself that story as Tolle would advise me to: “A woman made a comment to another woman, and there’s no way of knowing what she intended when she said it.” I could think a thought that would avoid hurt, as Castillo might suggest: My boyfriend’s mum can’t make me suffer because her words and thoughts are her problem and responsibility, and I know my life is valuable no matter what she says.
However—and it’s quite a colossal “however,” not a little one—I’d be willing to bet everything I own that it will always be true for the vast majority of humans that, when people say hurtful things and do appalling things to them, they will be hurt and appalled as a result. In that context, the more neutral, less painful story you’re trying to tell yourself might not “take” because, not to put too fine a point on it, it feels to you like a whopping great lie. And if you’re not convinced by it, you won’t feel better. You risk feeling much worse, in fact, if you start to think of your attempt to lie to yourself as yet another shitty thing you’ve suffered.
Helen Acton says: “Here we find the crucial distinction between the “ideals” of the positive psychology movement and people’s actual lived experience. It is only by attending to her actual lived experience of the feelings an experience has caused—feelings of betrayal, offense, wounding of any kind—that Sophie will find a way to move past it and it has any chance of losing its painful emotional charge. To simply slap a smiley sticker over the truth of the experience is to deny the truth of the human condition, which is that we are social animals, we live in a relational world and we are impacted and affected in every moment by others. As Sophie says, the smiley sticker feels like a lie, because it is a lie. The existential philosophers would say it is a way of living in ‘bad faith.’?”
In her podcast, Brooke Castillo admits that she has to do regular “thought work,” as she calls it, in order not to suffer the hurt and anger that would otherwise result from events like someone trying to defraud her, which is one of the examples she gives.
I too have tried to do endless thought work over the years. At a certain point, I realized that, though I knew all the theory off by heart—I’d have got 100 percent in any Enlightened Guru Miscellanea exam—I nevertheless couldn’t put into practice what any of my favorite gurus were advising. I’d tried to think only positive thoughts all the time, and to tell myself that my inner peace would henceforth be unaffected by the dreadful or callous behavior of other people, but I knew, deep down, that it was an act, and quite impossible from a practical point of view.
For about two years, I was able to fake it and appear marginally enlightened (though maybe I’m kidding myself here. My sister frequently said to me, “You’re not really enlightened, are you? You still want to bitch about people, don’t you?” And goddamnit, she was right! I did). As I pretended to be all-forgiving, my grudge stories got louder in my head.
Then one day—around three months before Michael Upside Down in the Doorway—I had a breakthrough: it wasn’t that I couldn’t give up my grudges. It was that I didn’t want to—because they were wondrous things.
I realized that my grudges were the very route to positivity and well-being that I was after! They weren’t harming me or anyone else. I had no negative feelings associated with them at all; they were simply a collection of stories that were important to me, and that I wanted to keep. More than that: I suddenly saw how our grudges could be not just good for us, but great. And if that was true, then what the hell were all these gurus doing encouraging us to give up our gorgeous grudges? Do they want us unarmed when the toughest things happen to us? If so, why?
I had always enjoyed telling other people about my grudges; now I wondered why. If grudges are so bad for us, where was this contentment kick coming from? The whole subject of grudges, I realized, was desperately underexamined and much misunderstood.
As I researched the topic, I learned that I was not, as I’d previously suspected, too bitchy for enlightenment. A contradiction that I’d been aware of in myself suddenly no longer needed explaining, because it wasn’t a contradiction. There is no one—not one single person on earth—to whom I wouldn’t give a second chance. I also have more grudges than anyone I know, and a greater interest in and appetite for them. These two statements do not contradict each other. They fit together perfectly once you understand that holding grudges is the ideal route to being a more forgiving and happier person.
To go back for a moment to the wife who didn’t show up for the fiftieth birthday dinner . . . In that scenario, or a similar one, thinking only neutral and positive thoughts in the hope of avoiding suffering is not the answer. We can’t avoid suffering, so let’s not waste time trying. Hating and feeling bitter and full of rage is also not the answer. Constructing a grudge, holding it (in a safe, responsible and uplifting way) and then forgiving the person—which is much easier once you’ve got a solid grudge in place—is the answer. This book will explain exactly and in detail how that’s possible, and why it’s the way forward.
The Grudge Quiz
“Forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them more.”
Before we get going on the theory, here’s a quiz. Let’s find out what kind of grudge-holder you are! These questions are aimed at illuminating your present attitude and approach to grudges. At the end of the book there will be another quiz, to see if your views about grudges have altered at all.
1. You notice that your best friend has liked several “I have great news!” posts on social media by someone you loathe. Your friend has always claimed to dislike this person too, and to be totally on your side—yet here they are, favoriting posts that celebrate your enemy. Do you:
a) End the friendship and cut your friend out of your life.
b) Ask your friend why they have done this, and if they have lied to you about sharing your dislike of this person.
c) Assume they must still be on your side despite this new evidence, and tell yourself they must have hit the “like” button by mistake, or done it in an ironic, not-really-liking way.
d) Continue with the friendship, say nothing and hold a secret grudge.
2. You have always praised your friend Bob enthusiastically whenever he has done something impressive. Then you achieve something amazing and Bob doesn’t give you anywhere near the same amount of praise. He says, “I can see you put a lot of effort into it,” without saying whether he thinks the effort was worth it or if he enjoyed or hated the end product. You realize that he has never praised you properly, or enthused about any of your achievements—it’s just something he never does. Do you:
a) Decide never to praise him again.
b) Tell him that his reaction hurt you, and explain why.
c) Praise him even more than you would normally, in order to lead by example, hoping he takes the hint.
d) Pity him—how awful not to be able to express enthusiasm!—amend your opinion of him in the downward direction and tell yourself he hasn’t gotten away with anything because you will never feel the same way about him again.
3. Which of these pairs of quotes appeals to you the most?
a) “I don’t hold grudges. We good. You may not hear from me ever again, but we good.” —anonymous/many Internet sources/“I have a limit, and when you reach it I dismiss you from my life. It’s that simple.” —anonymous/many Internet sources
b) “At the heart of all anger, all grudges, and all resentment, you’ll always find a fear that hopes to stay anonymous.” —Donald L. Hicks, Look Into the Stillness/“Before I took a stand, I was always . . . confused about my rights and about what was real.” —psychotherapist Sandy Katz
c) “I forgive people, but that doesn’t mean I accept their behavior or trust them. I forgive them for me, so I can let go and move on with my life.” —anonymous/many Internet sources/“I don’t hold grudges. I remember facts.” —anonymous/many Internet sources
d) “They say it’s good to let your grudges go, but I don’t know, I’m quite fond of my grudge. I tend it like a little pet.” —Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies/“Can I petition to make holding grudges an Olympic event? Cause I’ve been in training my whole life.” —Anna Kendrick on Twitter
4. You tell your friend Beatrice that her sister Jane (also your friend) has scratched your car and lied about it to avoid paying for repairs. Beatrice reacts aggressively and says, “It’s a crap, hideous car anyway.” Do you:
a) Think of both Beatrice and Jane as “dead to you,” and banish them from your life.
b) Understand that Beatrice must have been horrified to hear that her own sister was a lying car scratcher, and so probably lashed out at you without meaning to. Once she calms down, you’ll talk to her again and give her the chance to react more appropriately.
c) Decide that Beatrice was only mean to you because she was so upset herself, and almost certainly regretted dissing your car a second after she had done so. You forgive her instantly, no questions asked—you know she didn’t mean to be cruel.
d) Make a mental note that neither Beatrice nor Jane cares about justice or your feelings—so from now on you won’t care quite so much about their feelings or any unfair treatment they receive, though you might continue with the friendship and enjoy their company sometimes because if you were to ditch or boycott them, it might cause problems among your wider circle of friends.
5. You try to reserve a table at a restaurant, Fred’s, for seven p.m. Fred, the manager, tells you that this is impossible because they have two sittings: six until eight and eight until late. You explain that you want a table at seven, not six or eight, and that seven is a reasonable time to want to have dinner. Fred won’t budge. Do you:
a) Tell him you think he’s unreasonable to put profit before customers’ wishes and needs, resolve never to go to his restaurant again and tell everyone you meet what happened in the hope of putting others off going there too.
b) Suggest that perhaps Fred should reconsider his policy because it’s not ideal for customers, and then book a table for six or eight p.m. instead, or go somewhere else.
c) Decide that, actually, there are advantages to going at six—you’d have time to see a movie afterward. Or see the early show and eat at eight. All’s well that ends well!
d) Don’t argue or protest, but resolve to boycott Fred’s restaurant in the future because of the unreasonable policy.
Mostly As—you are The Cut-Off Queen (or King)
The Good News: You know how to protect yourself. You are therefore likely to be treated better and taken advantage of much less often than more tolerant, lenient people. You recognize your own worth and rightly expect good, kind, reasonable behavior from those around you. You trust your judgment as much as anybody else’s, and you’re clever enough not to waste time and energy on those who don’t deserve it.
The Bad News: You might be a little too defensive. There may be times when a more nuanced approach is called for. Be careful that your willingness to cut people off doesn’t lead to you losing people you would benefit from keeping in your life. Don’t become too cut-off happy, and take care that you don’t start to feel proud of cutting people off. Also, check you’re not, deep down, motivated by fear (of the continuing relationship, and what it might require of you emotionally or psychologically—for example, facing up to the fact that there might be another side to the story as valid as your own). Often we make decisions based on fear and disguise it as a principled stance. Strange but true fact: the more you are motivated by fear, the more others will be afraid of you, and you don’t (or shouldn’t) want that.
Mostly Bs—you are The Empathetic Analyst
The Good News: You are analytical and keen to give everybody a fair chance. You’re interested in learning the psychological motivation for a person’s behavior and, until you understand, you don’t condemn. This means that when you do hold grudges or cut someone out of your life, it’s likely to be after careful consideration of mitigating circumstances and nuances, and some form of cost-benefit analysis. This is a responsible, mature approach.
The Bad News: Not everyone is acting in similarly good faith. You might be too tolerant and open to those who will harm you. Be especially careful of repeat offenders.
Mostly Cs—you are The Easy-Lifer
The Good News: You hate causing trouble, for yourself or for others. This is great! You have peaceful instincts, which is a brilliant quality to have. Wherever possible, you will find a way to plow on through life without making a fuss that anyone has to deal with, which means your life might well be stress-free and fun most of the time.
The Bad News: You can be naive, and spend long periods hibernating in a state of denial. The danger here is that, in spite of your conflict-avoiding instincts, someone close to you could bring trouble into your life, and you wouldn’t recognize the danger and develop an appropriate defense. It might be worth facing facts and your feelings more squarely, and making sure you’re not lying to yourself about anything.
Mostly Ds—you are The Grudge Guru
You are a natural and expert grudge-holder! You can probably skip the next chapter, in which “grudge” is defined, or just cross it out and write your own definition, which is bound to be at least as good as mine.
The Good News: You are capable of protecting yourself, while extracting maximum enjoyment from your grudges and seeing the funny side of them wherever possible. At the same time, you don’t cut people off—so if someone’s behavior changes or improves, you can forgive or amend your opinion.
The Bad News: You often need to be “two-faced” and pretend to be perfectly okay with people you secretly can’t bear. This can be tiring, and you risk losing touch with your own inner truth. Also, you might start to relish grudge-holding a bit too much. Be careful that it doesn’t become a hobby. You don’t want to find yourself creating unnecessary grudges to feed your addiction. Only make a grudge out of something that deserves and needs to be one.
I am type D: the Grudge Guru. This should surprise nobody. Whichever type you are, you can use the Grudge-fold Path to make sure that you reap all the rewards available to all great grudge-holders, and avoid all the pitfalls.
Table of Contents
1 Grudges Can Be Great! 5
Michael Upside Down in the Doorway 13
The Grudge Quiz 29
2 What Grudges Are, What They Aren't and What They Should Be 37
The Taxi That Didn't Move 58
3 The Many Different Kinds of Grudge 63
The Famous Author 91
4 How to Grade a Grudge 95
The Painting in a Haystack 104
5 Grudge Is All Around Us 113
The Baby in the Heart-Shaped Frame 120
6 Why We Hold Grudges-and Why Some People Don't 127
The House in Amsterdam 142
7 The Grudge-fold Path 149
The Fat Comment 163
8 How to Convert Negative Grudge Energy into Positive Grudge Energy 169
The Scared Parents 183
9 Bad and Invalid Grudges 193
The American Prosecutor 198
10 The "Grudget": Managing Your Grudge Budget 205
The Ignoring of the Big News 211
11 How to Be a Responsible Grudge-Holder 217
The Death Wish on the Doorstep 231
12 Other Grudge Stories-a Very Short Anthology 237
The Grudge-fold Path Quiz 252
The Experts 257