The Dictionaries are wrong!

The Oxford English Dictionary says, “A grudge is a long-lasting feeling of resentment or dislike.” That definition is wrong. So are all the other dictionary definitions I’ve read. Here’s one from the Collins English Dictionary: “A grudge is a persistent feeling of resentment, especially one due to some cause, such as an insult or injury.” Urban Dictionary defines a grudge as “a bad feeling or hate that you hold against another person for something bad they did, or you think they did to you.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. A grudge is not a feeling. A grudge is a story. It can also be a symbolic justice object, a protective device, a source of inspiration, a prompt for laughter, a lucky charm of sorts, a stepping stone that points you in the right life direction — but it is never a feeling, and it’s vital that we recognize this. If we imagine that a grudge is a destructive or negative feeling, then we will continue to believe, incorrectly, that holding onto grudges is bad for us when in fact the opposite is true: Our grudges can do great good in our lives and in the world, if we hold them responsibly.

A concrete example

I don’t normally argue with dictionaries, but in this instance I can prove they’re wrong about the word “grudge.” Let me use a concrete example of one of my own grudge stories.

For many years now, my friend Steph (not her real name) has shown no interest in any of the aspects of my life that matter to me: my work or my future plans, for example. For all she knows, I could’ve been planning to give up writing on 1 January 2019 and become a plumber. She would have no idea if this were the case because she never asks me any question that would enable me to talk about what’s going on in my life/mind. I used to try to talk to her about such things, but she didn’t listen, and I eventually stopped trying.

I still like Steph a lot, as she is a fundamentally good person and has many great qualities; we have fun together, and I find her fascinating to talk to about the things that she is interested in talking about. My grudge is very specific, and can be summarized as follows: “My friend Steph has no interest in my life, and I don’t think that’s okay, and I further believe that the not-okay-ness of it is important.”

Holding onto my grudge story about Steph is my way of saying to myself, “Poor treatment of me matters, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t.” This is precisely how a grudge can act as a commemorative justice object. Thanks to my grudge about Steph, I do not feel that my continuing friendship with her constitutes her having got away with her sub-optimal behavior. I know that she hasn’t got away with it scot-free, or received no sanction, or had it escape the world’s notice; the presence of my grudge in my mind and life shows me that Steph’s poor treatment of me in this one respect has been appropriately registered and awarded Official Recognition of Significance.

When I first identified Steph’s complete lack of interest in my life, I had bad feelings about it: I felt hurt and resentful. For about six months, whenever she and I met up, I would come away feeling that my entire being had been dismissed and invalidated. I would mutter darkly, “That’s it! I’m never seeing her again!” Then I worked out that, by letting her affect me emotionally, I was colluding in the tormenting of myself. Instantly, I made the decision to remove Steph’s power to make me feel negated by simply deciding that I would feel fine no matter how she behaved. Since all my other friends asked me interested questions regularly, as I did of them, I realized that I did not need Steph to ask me a single question ever again in order to feel absolutely fine. Now, when I see her, I enjoy her company without any negative feelings, having fully accepted that she is who she is and is not likely to change.

Do I still want Steph in my life? Of course. I don’t believe in banishing people for bad behavior if they’re generally good people, and I have no doubt that she is. But do I have a grudge about Steph’s lack of interest in me? Yes, absolutely—and it’s one I want to keep, because it protects and inspires me. How am I protected? Well, if I have a personal life or career issue that really matters to me and requires detailed discussion, I will talk to my other friends about it and not mention it to Steph, and so I won’t be hurt or disappointed by her lack of interest because I simply won’t encounter it. I’ve also adjusted (downwardly) the amount of interest I allow myself to take in Steph’s life because I know that I wouldn’t find it satisfying to endorse (with my willing participation) a friendship that was heavily unequal in this respect. That doesn’t mean I can’t have a great night out with her and appreciate all her amazing qualities.


Inspired by a Grudge

How am I inspired by my Steph grudge? Since identifying the way she behaves in relation to showing interest in others, I’ve realized what one of my highest-priority aims and values is: Always show great interest in other people—friends and family, of course, but also new people, and even strangers. I am inspired and motivated, partly thanks to Steph, to nurture the side of me that always wants to ask loads of questions and hear about the lives and concerns of others in great detail.

For several years now, there have been no negative feelings associated with my Steph grudge. The negative feelings caused by the initial GSIs (grudge-sparking incidents: all those occasions when she shut me down or shut me up or asked no questions) have long since moved on, and all I’m left with is my instructive, justice-providing, and motivational grudge.

This is true of all my grudges (apart from the most recently acquired ones, which still have negative feelings attached to them because the GSI only happened last week and my annoyance hasn’t yet dissolved — but that annoyance is just a feeling, it’s not my grudge). I’ve retained the useful stories and my analysis of them — the lessons learned and the list of benefits the grudge has brought into my life, and all of this continues to help, inspire and protect me. That’s the part that improves my life. With any of my grudges that are more than a month old (which is most of thme), my pain or anger has moved on a long time ago. That’s how I can prove, beyond doubt, that a grudge is not a feeling. All the dictionary definitions are confusing the initial negative feelings that spring up as a result of the GSI with the grudge itself. Once you realize that a grudge is a story — or a symbolic justice object that takes the form of a story and the lessons you’ve learned from it — then you immediately see that keeping a grudge doesn’t have to mean hanging on to any pain or anger.
How do I feel about Steph? I love her. Do I forgive her lack of interest/questions? Absolutely. I’m certain she’s doing her best, loves me, and wants only good things for me. That doesn’t mean I’m going to introduce a Total Clean Slate policy and pretend that the one bad thing she does in relation to me is okay. In fact, it’s only my grudge about Steph that enables me to feel so positive about her, because I know that my forgiveness of her on an emotional level doesn’t mean that I’m being unjust towards myself and accepting unacceptable treatment. My grudge tells me that I will never, and should never, think that it’s okay for anyone to show no interest in a close friend. And here’s the crucial thing: When I ask myself “How does my grudge about Steph make me feel when I call it to mind?”, my answer contains only positive feelings: empowered, wise, protected, grateful.