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Sophie Hannah's guide to dealing with Christmas grudges



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Crime author Sophie Hannah knows how to hold a grudge - in fact she has made a whole podcast series about it. Here she reveals some hard-won strategies for getting through Christmas with even the most passive-aggressive relatives.

Sophie Hannah Christmas grudges. Picture: Keith Heppell. (23558016)
Sophie Hannah Christmas grudges. Picture: Keith Heppell. (23558016)

It is a fact universally acknowledged, at least by anyone who has an extended family, that more grudges are formed at Christmas than at any other time of year. The weather is typically terrible, and you are confined in a house for much longer than is usual with all the people who have known you the longest and find it easiest to push your buttons.

Whose house, though? That issue alone can cause bitter fights.

And even once the location has been agreed, there’s the fraught matter of who gets to set the Christmas Day agenda; grandparents want to watch the Queen’s Speech while their grandchildren seem determined to play loud YouTube videos in the same room at the same time.

Then come the many Christmas-present-related controversies: the person who’s spent unequally on different branches of the family; the person who’s bought you something that makes them look clever and brilliant rather than something you wanted, the hyper-critical relative whose gift to you is a thinly-veiled criticism of your being and lifestyle: ‘The Get Fit Quick Guide for Hideously Lazy Couch Potatoes’.

Christmas can bring out the family grudges
Christmas can bring out the family grudges

My good friend Nic Aubury, who is also the ‘Poet Laureate’ of my How to Hold a Grudge podcast, has a grudge about Christmas-present-explainers— the gifters who give you a present and then deliver a five-minute speech, as if they’re a visiting lecturer, about the thought process that led them to choose that particular item. In these situations, Nic explains, one of two things is always true: either it’s a great present and no explanation is needed, or it’s awful, and their trying to justify it doesn’t improve the present in any way. Nic’s recommended antidote to festive friction is to avail yourself of a ‘grudge ally’: someone you trust, with whom you can retrospectively dissect all the dreadful behaviour of the day, once it’s over.

My advice for how to approach Christmas grudges is to realise that they can be a great thing - a joyous occasion for celebration. That’s because I firmly believe that grudges can be great if used wisely. Most people look shocked when they hear me say this. That’s because we’ve all been taught to believe that grudges are a force for harm in the world. Nobody wants to be accumulating or doing harm, especially during the festive season.

I used to dread the festivities and the new grudges Santa might bring. I would find myself, in the run-up, thinking, ‘I hope nothing happens that means I have to spend Christmas feeling upset or annoyed.’ This all changed when I realised that, far from being a barrier to inner peace and contentment, grudges are in fact the best and quickest route to both. Now I enthusiastically collect festive grudges. As the world’s only Grudge Guru, I enjoy and celebrate them. ‘But…why?’ I hear you ask. ‘How can a grudge possibly be a good thing?’

Sophie Hannah Christmas grudges. Picture: Keith Heppell. (23558017)
Sophie Hannah Christmas grudges. Picture: Keith Heppell. (23558017)

It’s this kind of thinking that has led many people to tell me, proudly, that they never hold grudges. As a self-help addict, I agree that forgiveness and letting go are both vital. Yet something else is also true: people often behave in ways that wound or infuriate us…and that matters. We are allowed, when that happens, to honour our own psychological experience of the incident — and it’s crucial that we do. Allow me construct a fictional scenario to demonstrate what might happen otherwise…

Your Uncle Cedric decides that you’ve over-cooked the turkey on Christmas Day, and spends two hours yelling and screaming at you about how useless you are. You are, understandably, wounded by this onslaught of verbal aggression — but you also like to think of yourself of a compassionate, forgiving person, so a little voice pipes up in your head: ‘Don’t be angry. Don’t hold a grudge. Let it go. Forgive Uncle Cedric.’

When we give ourselves such pep talks in the wake of immensely grudgeworthy behaviour, what we are effectively saying to ourselves is, ‘It doesn’t matter that you were treated appallingly. Your feelings don’t matter as much as Uncle Cedric’s. Forget about it. Act as if it never happened.’ We end up judging ourselves for feeling angry, and we try to carry on as if the incident never happened. We repress or negatively judge our our negative reaction, when it fact there is nothing wrong with thinking, ‘Uncle Cedric treated me abysmally, and that’s not okay, and it matters, and I’m not going to forget about it.’ We then feel empowered, and are ready to start using our discernment to improve our lives.

When we allow ourselves to decide that someone’s behaviour towards us was grudgeworthy, and respond by holding a grudge in a responsible and enlightened way (of which more later!), we acknowledge to ourselves that we deserve to be treated fairly. We honour our own formative emotional experiences, and we give ourselves permission to do two very important things: first, to think differently about, and behave differently towards, our Uncle Cedric equivalent, and second, to feel, until we’re ready to stop feeling them, the entirely natural and justifiable feelings that arise in us in response to the grudgeworthy incident. We can and should consciously allow ourselves to construct and hold what I call ‘a good grudge'. This means: a grudge that brings only positive benefits into your life, and does no harm to others. Any grudge that inspires you, for example, to swear at Uncle Cedric or punch him on the nose is not a good grudge.

Holding a grudge can be healthy
Holding a grudge can be healthy

So how can grudges bring us positive benefits? Well, holding a grudge does not mean we must cling to rage or pain forever. Every dictionary tells us (and most people believe them) that a grudge is a feeling of resentment. I disagree. My definition is as follows: a grudge is simply a story that we choose to remember because it’s useful to us. It can protect us (from Uncle Cedric, whom we can now choose not to invite for further Christmas dinners), it can inspire us to consolidate our own highest values and principles.

Perhaps most importantly of all, a grudge can act as a symbolic justice object. Often when we have difficultly forgiving somebody, it’s because we feel as if they behaved badly to us and got away with it scot-free. This feels unfair, and humans are justice-seeking creatures. By giving ourselves official permission to deem the behaviour grudgeworthy in the tiny courtroom of our own brain (where nobody need agree with us or rubber-stamp our verdict!), and to create and then keep our grudge, we demonstrate to ourselves that our ‘grudgee’ (that’s official terminology for ‘the person about whom we hold the grudge’) has not escaped consequence-free. Our grudge is the consequence of their action. It is our judgement in our own favour, and it validates our experience. Once we have that commemorative justice object in place, we are far better placed to move on emotionally.

Sophie Hannah Christmas grudges. Picture: Keith Heppell. (23558019)
Sophie Hannah Christmas grudges. Picture: Keith Heppell. (23558019)

Because here’s the thing: holding grudges in a way that does no harm to your grudgee is actually an aid to forgiveness, if by forgiveness we mean moving on emotionally and not still being incandescent with rage ten years later. Here’s what happens: the grudgeworthy behaviour occurs, and you’re furious. Instead of trying to deny or resist your anger (which only makes it stronger and more repression-resistant), you say, ‘Welcome, anger. I totally understand why you’re here - please stay as long as you want and need to. I’m happy to feel you for as long as you need to stick around.’

By giving a positive welcome to our natural negative emotions, we can accept and allow ourselves to feel our anger and pain — emotions that are neither bad nor wrong. They’re natural human responses, and, if we stop judging them negatively, we can feel them, process them and then and only then will they move on, once they’ve played themselves out.

Did you in-laws give you a card with a picture of a pig on weighing scales again?
Did you in-laws give you a card with a picture of a pig on weighing scales again?

Sometimes we imagine we need to cling to our anger and keep it alive because, without it, where is the evidence that a wrong was done to us? Arming yourself with a good grudge takes care of things on that front! Remember, a grudge is nothing more than a story you choose to remember in order to protect, inspire and validate yourself.

Emotionally, I have forgiven everyone who features in one of my grudge stories. Yes, I was angry/hurt in each of those moments, but I allowed myself to feel those feelings fully. I processed them, and they dissolved. I don’t need to be angry about those grudge-sparking incidents any more. They’re dealt with: I have my grudges to prove it, and I love and learn from them all. Grudges are great, folks - at Christmas and all year round."

Sophie Hannah's book How to Hold a Grudge is out now and her podcast is available on iTunes or Spotify.



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