Stood up by a friend? Let down by your sister? Thrown for a loop by a coworker? Martha Beck says the right-size grudge can shield you from just about anything.
In 1988 Bette Midler's production company released the film "Beaches," a moving homage to friendship and forgiveness. It may seem a bit odd, then, that the Divine Miss M.'s corporate motto was "We hold a grudge." Can love, forgiveness, and holding grudges really go together? Yes, they can -- depending on how you define grudge.
Some people will hold a bitter grudge against anyone who looks at them cross-eyed. "Suzy made a 'dumb blonde' joke," a friend fumes. "Well, I'm blonde. As far as she knows. That's it, Suzy is dead to me!"
This is like donning full-on plate armor in response to a playful slap: With anger so heavy and disproportionate, you may end up collapsed on the battlefield wearing an outfit the size, weight, and consistency of a Toyota Yaris. If you're in a constant mouth-foaming rage at someone, get away and get a shrink. But if you simply find your mood dipping whenever you encounter a certain person, I suggest holding a grudge.
A good grudge is simply an acknowledgment of another person's foibles -- it keeps you at a safe emotional distance from people who could mess up your life. Depending on the person, you might hold a grudge as light as a parasol or as solid as a titanium shield. Here, in order of severity, are descriptions of people who deserve to be held at bay:
A planarian is a flatworm, one of the lowest life-forms that can be considered an animal. There are -- search your mind or your cell phone contact list, and you'll see I'm right -- human beings whose EQs stopped evolving at the planarian level. They aren't evil; they're just devoid of emotional intelligence. Once you've identified the planarian people in your life, choosing to bear a very light grudge toward them can spare you immense frustration. I was reminded of this by clients Jody and Ralph, who consulted me as a couple.
"Ralph's so insensitive," Jody complained. "Whenever I'm upset, he just says, 'Harsh, dude' and wanders away."
"What else can I do?" Ralph didn't sound insolent, just puzzled.
"You can talk to me about my feelings," said Jody.
Ralph looked at her as if she'd smacked him with a carp. "I don't understand," he mumbled.
Clearly, he didn't.
Ralph -- and I say this lovingly -- is a planarian. It isn't his fault, and it's not going to change. You can work a lifetime trying to make flatworms perceptive, intuitive, or wise, but the best they can do is, frankly, pathetic. Bearing this in mind is a form of grudge-holding that actually allows you to interact with them calmly. Instead of feeling towering rage at their emotional clumsiness, roll your eyes, mutter "planarian," and relax. Jody learned to do this with Ralph. They soon broke up but remained golf buddies. When Ralph fails to respond in a sensitive way to her emotions, Jody thinks "planarian," and takes her troubles elsewhere. This tiny semblance of a grudge will keep you from wasting your life in the hopes that people will be more evolved than they are.
My favorite therapist taught me something I call the "three strike" rule: If you not only have a bad experience with a person but also hear worrisome reports about that person from three totally unrelated sources, you need to carry a protective grudge that says, "I don't quite trust you."
For example, I was once approached by a freelance TV producer I'll call Fred, who wanted to create a life-coaching reality show. During a meeting with a network executive, I was startled to hear Fred lie. Later he explained breezily, "You have to say what you have to say." This, as my daughters sometimes put it, did not gruntle me. But despite my disgruntlement, I dismissed the incident.
Within a week, by pure coincidence (or was it?), three people mentioned to me that they knew Fred. One was a woman he'd dated, another a colleague, a third his sister's high school buddy -- and all of them delicately mentioned "honesty issues." Three strikes, plus one bad experience of my own, meant I put on a psychological Kevlar vest. I told Fred I'd decided not to work with him, and immediately felt much more relaxed.
I've learned through creepy experience that when I start inexplicably doubting myself around a specific person, it's time to hold a good constructive grudge. Me? I doubt myself constantly (rethinking impulse purchases, lying awake listening to myself wrinkle, and so on), but what I'm talking about is a much more unsettling self-doubt: the kind that surfaces when reality seems to bend and sway around a certain someone, when my recollections don't jibe with what that person claims and their stories glide smoothly around any factual inaccuracies I may point out.
Flurries of this dizzy sensation surround individuals who have secrets and hidden agendas. Psychologists use the term gaslighting to describe this type of systematic lying -- an allusion to an old movie in which a man drives his wife to question her sanity by telling her odd lies and manipulating the level of gaslight in the house so that she keeps seeing lights dim for no reason.
When this happens to you, you've officially reached a "hard hat" area. If you don't bear a protective grudge against a gaslighter, you really might go nuts.
Consider Cindy. She worked alongside Danielle for months before noticing she felt strangely ungrounded at the office. "I doubted myself in ways I never had before," Cindy told me. "Eventually I realized that I always felt most confused after dealing with Danielle." Things got so bad that Cindy (feeling sheepish and paranoid) called one of Danielle's former employers to ask how he'd interacted with her. Surprise! Cindy discovered that the job on Danielle's résumé never existed. Kicking into sleuth mode, Cindy discovered that much of Danielle's résumé was fiction.
Now, this took place in a corporate environment, which explains what happened next: nothing. Cindy's supervisor, not wanting to admit she'd hired a deceitful loser, advised Cindy to ignore Danielle's flagrant fraud. "Don't hold a grudge," said the boss. Cindy disobeyed. Thenceforth, she worked with Danielle the way a bomb squad works with explosives, always questioning Danielle's fishy-sounding versions of the truth rather than her own sanity. When Danielle (inevitably) did get fired, the manager who hadn't wanted to deal with the problem caught a lot of heat. Cindy, thanks to her light but resilient grudge, was scorch-free.
Still wearing that hard hat? It's time to add work gloves and safety goggles, and perhaps jump in the reinforced driver's cage of a bulldozer. We're about to discuss the most dangerous people of all: les pitiables. According to Martha Stout, PhD, an expert on sociopathy who taught at Harvard Medical School for more than two decades, the key to recognizing sociopaths is that they consistently mess up other people's lives while actively soliciting pity. Most people don't want to be pitied, but sociopaths adore it. If you consistently feel pity for someone who causes you many problems, develop and bear a protective grudge. Now.
For example, Lucy's sister Sue was a walking disaster area. When she borrowed Lucy's car, it got rear-ended. When she babysat Lucy's children, the kids set fire to the curtains. When Lucy gave her sister money (Sue was always broke), the cash got lost or stolen. Through it all, Sue's misery made Lucy's heart ache with pity.
Can you say "huge red flag"?
Sue was plying the sociopathic trade of getting Lucy to pity her for the very things she did to mess up Lucy's life. Finally, Lucy learned to hold a healthy grudge: She stopped buying into Sue's woeful stories, leaving children with her, or giving her money. She still loved Sue, but she wasn't willing to risk having her house go up in flames.
The Hyde Transformers
A final reason for holding a grudge is what I call a visit from Mr. Hyde. Your instincts will tell you to react to such events by putting emotional distance between you and any person who displays the capacity to be truly monstrous -- even if, most of the time, these people are jovial Dr. Jekylls.
Kelly's new boss, Cheryl, was funny, charismatic, and smart. True, she often showed up late for meetings, or seemed not to remember promises, but Kelly admired Cheryl in spite of those things. So she was shocked -- actually, everyone was shocked -- when Cheryl suddenly lost it during a staff meeting.
"We were discussing something insignificant," Kelly remembered. "I don't even recall what it was that set her off." But Kelly will never forget Cheryl's behavior. "She started screaming at us, saying we were all working together to 'bring her down.' Her face was bright red. She was sputtering. Then she turned on one woman who'd recently had a miscarriage, and said, 'You put that lump of tissue in your uterus ahead of me.' Our jaws were on the floor. That was just way beyond the pale."
On this bizarre note, Cheryl dismissed the meeting. A few hours later, she walked through the office chatting, so charming and relaxed that Kelly began to wonder if the tantrum really happened.
Kelly tried to rationalize Cheryl's behavior. "I thought maybe she had a brain tumor or something." But Kelly couldn't explain it away. Cheryl hadn't been just moody; she had been extraordinarily cruel. "Even in my worst mood," Kelly told me, "I would never have said something like that."
Wisely, Kelly held a grudge. She regarded Cheryl as she would a wild animal, one that could be calm and playful one moment, savage and destructive the next. There may be infinite explanations for such erratic behavior, but an explanation is not a reason to drop your armor. On most days, for example, Jeffrey Dahmer didn't kill or eat anyone. But the times he did made society hold a grudge against him. Forever. If someone in your life is genuinely monstrous part of the time -- even once -- be leery all the time. Wear your grudge armor. It could prevent catastrophe.
Having laid out the kinds of people who are best managed with caution, alertness, and the dexterity of a rattlesnake wrangler, I still think unconditional love and forgiveness are saintly qualities, ones we should all cultivate. If you need to be reminded of this, rent Beaches and watch it with your best friend. You'll cry your eyes out. Then dig in and talk about the human planarians in your life, the people who've struck out three times, the gaslighters, the pity mongers, and the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformers. Such talk keeps your grudges light and strong, the way God intended. Or at least how Miss M. intended. Which is divine enough for me.
Martha Beck is the author of six books. Her most recent is Steering By Starlight (Rodale).