The Secret Landscape of Grudges

"Separation" by Sulamith Wulfing

“Separation” by Sulamith Wülfing

A couple of years ago, I really offended—or hurt—a good friend of mine. The problem was, I had no idea that I had done this, and it took me a long time to puzzle it out.

My friend and I didn’t communicate daily, and we only managed to get together every few months. I might only see her a couple of times a year, but that didn’t matter. We had a great time whenever it happened. But because of the nature of this relationship, it took a long time for me to understand that I was getting the cold shoulder. It’s true, I didn’t get any emails, but then, everybody gets busy. I was busy.

Eventually, I contacted her via email and got no response. Again, was she busy? Could be. Hard to say. But as the lack of contact continued, I realized I must have really upset her. But how? What did I do?

I thought about it, and I think I figured it out. I had done something that was meant to be helpful to her, but which instead was received as hurtful. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. My good intentions misfired pretty badly. I think.

The problem is, I can never know for sure because she has never told me. If she had told me at the time that I had hurt her, she would have had a very quick apology. As it was, it took me a long time to know that there was a problem, and it took even longer to make a good guess at what that problem was. I did my best, however.

I sent her an email and apologized and told her that I very much valued her as a friend. There isn’t much else I can do. As of yet, I haven’t gotten a response. I’m guessing I won’t get one. This is okay. I’ve released my investment in the friendship. It will be, or it won’t.

By not telling me her truth (her feelings were hurt) and opening a dialogue, however, she acted passive-aggressively, which is common. My parents reacted this way, and I have, too, so I understand this pattern very well. It goes something like this:  Someone hurts you, and you become angry. Instead of talking to them about it, you give them the silent treatment, because you believe that they know (or should know) what they’ve done to upset you.

It’s very easy to live inside of your head, as though everyone around you has insight into what you’re thinking and feeling without having to say anything. The problem with this assumption is that it is almost universally wrong. Even those closest to you may not understand what, exactly, has upset you, or what your feelings are. How can they, if you don’t tell them?

Grudges are part of our secret, inner world, where we have constructed a story around an offense, which may be real or imagined, or somewhere in between. We may keep this story secret from the offender by simply not discussing it with them, and we may even keep parts of this story secret from ourselves, particularly if we don’t fully comprehend why the perceived slight bothered us so much. Is it because the offense reminds your inner child of earlier situations? Is it because the offense makes you feel vulnerable in some way? Often, we avoid conflict because we’re afraid of revealing something about ourselves.

Behind every grudge is a host of assumptions, as well. Sometimes, the assumption is hateful intent:  “You intended to hurt me.” Sometimes, the assumption is based in a misunderstanding, or a misinterpretation of words or actions. Clear the misunderstanding, and the cause of the grudge evaporates. Most hurts are unintentional, but that can only become clear if there is a dialogue. It’s perfectly okay to say, “Wow, that feels really hurtful. Did you mean it that way?” Chances are, they didn’t.

Of course, some people are deliberately offensive, and that is another matter. As a gift to yourself, it’s always good to avoid mean or unpleasant people when you can, but even if you can’t, avoid carrying a grudge and just let it go. Such behavior always says more about the person than it does about you.

Grudges can be heavy burdens. Some grudges are slight; some are huge. But they all add up, and ultimately all of the old anger that they contain hurts the carrier—not the person who did the offending. I could have gone on for years without realizing that my friend was upset with me—and I can only assume that is the case, since she will not respond to me. I am sad that I have lost a friend, but I am sadder still that I was never given the chance to apologize immediately and discuss it with her.

Are you carrying old grudges? If so, give yourself a gift this holiday season and release it. This does not mean that you have to renew contact with the person—or maybe it does. Maybe it’s time for a dialogue. Or maybe it’s just time to forgive that person so that you can move on and be a little lighter and freer.