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Why We Hold Onto Grudges, and How to Let Them Go

03/16/2015 10:24 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015
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Karen, 65, is furious at her ex-boyfriend. It seems he asked her best friend out on a date, a few days after breaking up with Karen. He was her boyfriend in high school.

Paul, 45, can't forgive his sister, because, as he sees it, she treated him like he didn't matter when they were children.

Shelly talks continually of her resentment toward her mother, whom she is convinced loved her brother more than her. While her relationship with her mother eventually changed, and offered Shelly a feeling of being loved enough, the bitterness about not being her mother's favorite remains stuck. These people are not isolated examples or peculiar in any way. Many people hold grudges, deep ones, that can last a lifetime. Many are unable to let go of the anger they feel towards those who "wronged" them in the past, even though they may have a strong desire and put in a concerted effort to do so.

Often we hold onto our grudges unwillingly, while wishing we could drop them and live freshly in the present, without the injustices of the past occupying so much psychic space.

Why do we hold grudges when they are in fact quite painful to maintain, and often seem to work against what we really want? Why do we keep wounds open and active, living in past experiences of pain which prevent new experiences from being able to happen? What keeps us stuck when we want to move on and let go? Most important, how can we let go?

To begin with, grudges come with an identity. With our grudge intact, we know who we are -- a person who was "wronged." As much as we don't like it, there also exists a kind of rightness and strength in this identity. We have something that defines us -- our anger and victimhood -- which gives us a sense of solidness and purpose. We have definition and a grievance that carries weight. So too, grudges can provide the boundaries that were perhaps violated in the original wounding. But to let go of our grudge, we have to be willing to let go of our identity as the "wronged" one, and whatever strength, solidity, or possible sympathy and understanding we receive through that "wronged" identity. We have to be willing to drop the "I" who was mistreated and step into a new version of ourselves, one we don't know yet, that allows the present moment to determine who we are, not past injustice.

But what are we really trying to get at, get to, or just get by holding onto a grudge and strengthening our identity as the one who was "wronged"? In truth, our grudge, and the identity that accompanies it, is an attempt to get the comfort and compassion we didn't get in the past, the empathy for what happened to us at the hands of this "other," the experience that our suffering matters As a somebody who was victimized, we are announcing that we are deserving of extra kindness and special treatment. Our indignation and anger is a cry to be cared about and treated differently -- because of what we have endured.

The problem with grudges, besides the fact that they are a drag to carry around (like a bag of sedimentized toxic waste that keeps us stuck in anger) is that they don't serve the purpose that they are there to serve. They don't make us feel better or heal our hurt. At the end of the day, we end up as proud owners of our grudges but still without the experience of comfort that we ultimately crave, that we have craved since the original wounding. We turn our grudge into an object and hold it out at arm's length -- proof of what we have suffered, a badge of honor, a way to remind others and ourselves of our pain and deserving-ness. But in fact our grudge is disconnected from our own heart; while born out of our pain, it becomes a construction of the mind, a story of what happened to us. Our grudge morphs into a boulder that blocks the light of kindness from reaching our heart, and thus is an obstacle to true healing. Sadly, in its effort to garner us empathy, our grudge ends up depriving us of the very empathy that we need to release it.

The path to freedom from a grudge is not so much through forgiveness of the "other" (although this can be helpful), but rather through loving our own self. To bring our own loving presence to the suffering that crystallized into the grudge, the pain that was caused by this "other," is what ultimately heals the suffering and allows the grudge to melt. If it feels like too much to go directly into the pain of a grudge, we can move toward it with the help of someone we trust, or bring a loving presence to our wound, but from a safe place inside. The idea is not to re-traumatize ourselves by diving into the original pain but rather to attend to it with the compassion that we didn't receive, that our grudge is screaming for, and bring it directly into the center of the storm. Our heart contains both our pain and the elixir for our pain.

To let go of a grudge we need to move the focus off of the one who "wronged" us, off of the story of our suffering, and into the felt experience of what we actually lived. When we move our attention inside, into our heart, our pain shifts from being a "something" that happened to us, another part of our narrative, to a sensation that we know intimately, a felt sense that we are one with from the inside.

In re-focusing our attention, we find the soothing kindness and compassion that the grudge itself desires. In addition, we take responsibility for caring about our own suffering, and for knowing that our suffering matters, which can never be achieved through our grudge, no matter how fiercely we believe in it. We can then let go of the identity of the one who was "wronged," because it no longer serves us and because our own presence is now righting that wrong. Without the need for our grudge, it often simply drops away without our knowing how. What becomes clear is that we are where we need to be, in our own heart's company.