Letting Go of the Grudge

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

by Cheri Brinkman

The following process was developed during a series with Jane, a woman who considered herself entangled in an addictive relationship. Her experience of the relationship was that her partner demonstrated a pronounced lack of reciprocity and willingness to communicate. Her sense of being repeatedly used and discarded by him led to intense feelings of sadness and despair. She described herself as addicted because, though she had tried for 8 years to break her attachment to him and move on, she felt completely powerless to leave him or to refuse any of his requests to see her, even though he repeatedly discarded her. Indeed, she believed she could not live without him.

Jane reported that she was plagued by feelings of wanting/not getting. Not only did she experience this in her relationship with this man, but she had experienced it in other contexts as well, at various times throughout her life. She claimed that she often felt that she was “banging her head against the wall;” the more she tried, the less she got what she was after, and the less she was appreciated and acknowledged for her efforts, which then drove her all the more to try again even harder. This pattern has been described by Stanton Peele, a prominent figure in the addiction field, who stated, “The process whereby people desperately pursue some feeling that becomes more elusive the harder they pursue it is a common one … it is this cycle of desperate search, temporary or inadequate satisfaction, and renewed desperation that most characterizes addiction.” ¹

While the process described below certainly has important implications for those people who exhibit dependent and abusive or otherwise addictive behaviors, it also has wider and more general applications. Many people struggle with repetitive behavior patterns which are largely self-defeating and ultimately painful, but continue to repeat themselves despite diligent and sometimes expensive efforts to change.

The entrenched nature of repetitive behaviors has mystified people for many years. Freud observed what he referred to as a repetition compulsion, and the psychiatric field has struggled to understand it ever since. The following formulation offers a way of explaining these behavioral patterns, as well as the power they appear to have over people. More importantly, it provides a method for clearing the pattern at its origin, resulting in measurable behavioral change.

The focus of the work with Jane was to identify what kept her “hooked” -- what kept her tied to a relationship that caused her such misery – what was it that stopped her from pursuing a better relationship in which her needs would be addressed and satisfied? The work that ensued has been developed and refined and is presented here as a process which Jane herself named, Letting Go of the Grudge.

The grudge. The grudge is operationally defined as: a) the feeling of resentment which is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “a feeling of indignant displeasure at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or “injury,” plus b) retaliatory behavior.

1. Identifying the Grudge

A grudge is usually triggered in situations in which a person is attempting to assert himself, get his needs met or ask for something – any situation in which he is trying to change his environment. It is generally an unconscious communication which is most often carried in the tone of voice and in the physiology. The tone of voice can be variously described in nonsensory-specific language as whining, complaining, entreating, pleading, plaintive, pathetic, self-righteous, entitled, defensive, accusatory, argumentative, spiteful or vengeful. It is manifested in the physiology in facial expressions, gestures and posture, and can be described in nonsensory-specific terms as dejected, helpless, Satir’s placating position, pathetic, pouting, sullen or morose. Gross behavioral demonstrations of how a person my be playing out the grudge include depression, procrastination, smoking, over-eating, not eating, overspending, drinking and drugging, among others.

When a grudge is operating, the person is communicating incongruently. His conscious communication is in the form of a request or a statement geared to have an impact on his world. The hidden unconscious message looks and/or sounds like: “I deserve this and you should already know that and should therefore automatically give it to me.” It is sometimes experienced by others as “passive aggressiveness,” a “chip on the shoulder,” a “fuck-you,” a “rescue me,” a “you owe me,” “stubbornness” or “getting even.” Every request is flavored with the unconsciously communicated threat that, “I’ll get back at you” for the perceived wrong or injury of not giving him what he needs. This simultaneously incongruent communication has the effect of alienating others.

When Jane was asked what feeling accompanied her pattern of trying, not getting, and then trying harder, she immediately became aware of an internal image of a photograph taken of her as a young girl. She described herself as sitting with feet and legs outstretched, hands hanging limply between her legs, shoulders slumped, head hanging and lower lip and jaw extended. She said that her mother had forced her to have her picture taken and she had not wanted her picture taken. It was remarked that she looked like she had a grievance. She agreed and replied that she had felt angry and resentful and that she had wanted to make her mother regret that she forced her to have her picture taken.

At this point in the process of identifying the grudge, the person may or may not be conscious of the feeling of resentment. He may first be aware of the internal image, as Jane was, or he may have an awareness of words or in some cases, a lack of words. Sometimes, a person has no awareness of a grudge, but you may see the grudge manifested in his physiology. You can anchor that physiology and ask for the feelings that accompany it. Although there is resentment at the root of every grudge, that may not be the predominant feeling of which the person is aware, nor how he originally labeled the feeling that accompanies the grudge. Whatever he first identifies, it is important to make sure that at some point during the process the person does become conscious of a feeling of resentment. It is also important to ascertain that the feeling is resentment rather than powerlessness, which is a feeling that is frequently a consequence of grudge behavior.

2. Finding the Reference Experience

Ask the person when it was that he first experienced the feeling(s) of the grudge. Quite often, he will identify several experiences. In general, you will choose the earliest experience with which to work, or you may choose to work with the one that you calibrate to have affected him most intensely. It may seem appropriate to allow him to use two or three experiences and to go back and forth between them as he sees fit.

Jane immediately found the reference experience. Although she described other experiences of a similar nature, she was certain that this was the experience from which the grudge originated.

3. The Structure of the Reference Experience

During this step in the process, you will be communicating with the person as he was when he originally lived through the reference experience. Usually, this is a young child. You will need to adjust your language accordingly, remembering that a child has a very limited vocabulary as well as a limited capacity for abstract thinking.

a.) Criterion

Elicit which criterion was being violated in this experience. A simple “Which of your values was being violated?” is often all that is needed to begin this step. When eliciting criteria, the person may respond with the criterion word, a feeling or a behavior. If the response is a feeling or a behavior, you will need to assist him in translating it into the specific criterion word. Keep in mind that you are communicating with a child, and he may require special help with criteria words. You may also want to seek assistance form his adult.” Once the criterion is identified, ask for its flip side or opposite. This is not necessarily a linguistic opposite as in “adequacy/inadequacy,” but may be something more idiosyncratic as in “adequacy/failure.” Sometimes the flip side is elicited with the question “If you don’t have X (criterion) what do you have (get)?

b.) Complex

Equivalence of Criterion Ask the person what it was, specifically, that he needed in this experience from the other person (s) involved. (The child at the typical age that the grudge is formed usually has an external frame of reference.) This is to determine how he would know if his criterion was being met. The child’s lack of sophistication in language skills may make this step difficult and may require your assistance.

c.) The Grudge Response

Ask the person what he did in response to the violation of his criterion. It is important that you elicit the behavior(s) with which the person responded. Keep in mind that a “non-behavior,” for example silence, is a behavioral response. Identify all of the behaviors involved.

With Jane, the reference experience was structured as follows.

1. She felt she was not being understood (criterion: understanding) in this experience. For her, the opposite of understanding was dismissal (flip side of criterion). In her experience of the situation, no one was taking the time to understand her thoughts and feelings, and therefore she was dismissed.

2. The way she would have known that she was being understood (complex equivalent of the criterion) was that someone would have explained why it was so important to take the photograph and would have listened to her objections and explanation of how it was so important to her no to have the photograph taken.

3. What she did to make her mother regret this violation (grudge response) was to remain silent and to demonstrate through her withdrawal and in her physiology how miserable she felt.

4. Separating the Grudge Response from the Reference Experience

The information elicited thus far in the process can be used as leverage in this step. The object of this step is to help the child “see” and experience the grudge response as not only ineffective, but actually self-defeating and leading him in the opposite direction of what he needed. Kin effect, the grudge response guarantees that he will not satisfy the criterion that was being violated in the reference experience.

a.) Picture the criterion

Violation in the Reference Experience Ask the person to make a picture of the reference experience which includes the violation to his criterion. Have him place the picture outside of himself and have him dissociate from it. If he has difficulty making a dissociate picture, assist him in doing so (e.g., manipulate sub modalities).

b.) Picture the Grudge Response

Ask the person to make a picture of the behavioral response he had to the violation he experienced. This is a second picture of the reference experience, but one which occurs in time just shortly after the first picture he generated. Again, have the person dissociate in the same way to this picture as he did to the first picture.

c.) Go Meta to Both Pictures

Ask the person to have the child step out of each picture and look at himself in the picture. Make sure that each child is dissociated.

d.) Observe

That the Grudge Response Does Not Get the Criterion Met, but, in fact, Gets Its Opposite At this point, you can begin to assist the child in seeing and realizing that the grudge response was counter-productive to getting what he needed in the reference experience. You will be directing your communication to the child who generated the grudge response (i.e., the child who is standing outside of and watching himself in the second picture).

What is required in this step is that he “see” that the grudge response did not further his efforts to have his criterion met; ensured that he could not, in fact, have the criterion met and led him in the opposite direction of the criterion, that is, in the direction of the flip side of the criterion.

This last point is a critical aspect of the entire process, and one that is important for the child to see. The child’s grudge behaviors elicited the very opposite response of what he needed in order to have the criterion that was violated in the reference experience met. And it set in motion a life-long pattern of getting the opposite of what he wanted at the same time that he was going for what he needed and what was important to him. The grudge essentially takes on a life of its own, separate and unrelated to the reference experience, endlessly repeating itself. It gets to be about “getting back at” rather than getting the originally desired criterion met.

Back to Jane

Jane could see that her grudge behaviors (withdrawal and a physiological demonstration to the world of how miserable she felt) did not, and could not have