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The Psychology of the Grudge

Why some people can never just let it go

No matter how you slice it, it’s not a good look.

Our president is known for never forgetting a slight, and his latest move was to pardon his grudge-holding pal, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. More broadly, current politics is full of people acting out the grudgiest of grudges, a series of rises to power that hinge entirely on enacting revenge—from Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s appointment by Trump, which came from ratting out of former boss President Obama, to Steve Bannon, who built a media empire on selling out his former socialite colleagues. And then there’s Chris Christie, who schemed up a traffic jam by closing toll lanes to get back at a mayor who didn’t endorse him.

It’s not exactly new: The Clintons are said to keep a spreadsheet of everyone who has ever wronged them. And it’s not just politics. From the NRA to Taylor Swift, there is no industry immune from the karmically obsessed list-keeper who tracks every misstep, waiting to right the wrong or snub the snubber.

But you don’t need to be famous or powerful to hold a grudge. And they can take many forms. Psychology and self-help literature is littered with advice on how to let go of a grudge at work, in families, or in personal relationships, ranging from still being mad at your sister for being mean to you as a child to never forgetting that your third grade teacher was a total jerk to you.

I’d argue there’s a pretty significant distinction between remembering a bad thing that happened whenever the memory resurfaces, and actively charting every slight — real or perceived — holding all that terrible energy at the ready at all times. While all of us is likely to have held a grudge at some point or another, some more understandable than others, here’s what psychologists tell us about the grudge-holder personality — the sort of person more inclined than others to never let something go.

They’re angry.

Holding a grudge is typically associated with having anger issues where you can’t seem to stop yourself from reliving the bad feeling and resentment of the issue over and over again.

They are simplistic thinkers.

Psychologists say people who hold grudges are people who do something called “splitting,” which involves seeing the world and the people in it as either all good or all bad — with no gray zone in between. If you’ve ever heard someone use a phrase like, “You’re either for me or against me,” then you’ve got a classic splitter, and probably a grudge-holder, on your hands.

They’re childish.

Psychologists say the worldview that supports splitting and grudge-holding originates in childhood, when we tend to see the world and people as good or evil. But children lack the wisdom, life experience and developmental capacity for a more nuanced thinking. What’s our excuse?

They like the identity of “being wronged.”

“With our grudge intact, we know who we are — a person who was ‘wronged,’” Nancy Colier, a licensed social worker, writes at Psychology Today about why we hold grudges. That identity gives a wronged person a sense of definition and purpose through victimization, which is tough to let go of because it requires adopting a new identity that’s less simply defined.

Their hormones are all jacked up.

Grudges increase the stress hormone cortisol and lower the “love hormone” oxytocin. Clinging to a grudge, then, creates a kind of feedback loop of high stress and low tolerance someone is carrying around all the time when holding a grudge. As shitty as that might feel for some people, it’s still better than vulnerability.

They’re just the grudge-holding type.

Psychologist who study attachment theory argue that some people are just more likely to hold grudges because of a combination of personality, experiences and learned responses to bad feelings.

They are emotionally imbalanced.

We might all want to get someone back when they hurt us, but the sheer energy and devotion it takes to maintain a grudge over the long haul is inevitably going to balance out the better angels of your nature.

They may lack the tools to resolve conflict.

Someone who never learned how to talk through or work out a problem is more likely to resort to holding a grudge. “Sometimes we hold on to grudges because we lack the self-confidence and conflict resolution skills to effectively work through our negative emotions,” licensed psychologist Tony Ferretti writes about the issue. “We may choose to lash out or shut down rather than communicate assertively.”

Grudges are much easier to keep than let go of or ignore, which is why the advice on how to let go of a grudge all sounds far easier said than done — acknowledge the problem! Talk about it! Let it go! Just like the equally simplistic advice on how to deal with a grudge-holder: Don’t dwell! Accept their perspective! Apologize! Let it go!

But if there’s any obvious take away here, it’s that grudge holders are gonna grudge. The Trumps and T. Swifts of the world are not only going to hold grudges; they’re going to be really, really smug about it, making their defiance part of their personal brand, wrapping themselves and all their grudges in in the comforting cloak of self-righteous empowerment. For women, that can look like an anti-victim stance of the I am woman, hear me roar variety. For men, it can look like a take-no-shit alpha move.

Such people will certainly have their fans. But if we use history as a guide, really heavy-hitters never call out their enemies publicly — they enlist their enemies as friends to do their bidding. There’s a reason why Godfather movies, and all mobster philosophies and war strategies more broadly typically advise the same thing: “Keep your friends close and enemies closer.”

Another form of this shows up in the book The 48 Laws of Power, a study of ruthless power plays throughout history. In it, author Robert Greene refashions this as law number 2: Never put too much trust in friends; learn how to use enemies. Greene argues that not only will enemies be surprised when you befriend them, but even having enemies can keep you alert and on your toes. They are also likely to be very grateful when you pardon them.

This might not work on everyone who has wronged you; most of us simply aren’t that ruthless and power-hungry. We accept that being alive means sometimes getting hurt, and sometimes hurting others; it’s best to move on and not waste too much time or energy on relationships that ultimately do nothing for you. Refusing to forgive, the saying goes, is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die. So we should all try to remember that even if a grudge feels good. This is a simple numbers game: It should never hurt you more to dislike someone than it hurts them.