Holding a Grudge vs Setting Boundaries

boundaries effective communication emotional health perspective Apr 07, 2024
Holding Grudge Boundaries

Recently, the teenage daughter of a client of mine accused her mother of holding a grudge against her grandmother (my client’s mother). My client had a difficult relationship with her mother and had, over the course of her therapy with me, set up various rules she enforced frequently because of her mother’s intrusive behavior.  For example, she wouldn’t let her mother watch her daughter, wouldn’t let her mother help her out financially, and wouldn’t tell her mother details of events (like family gatherings, vacations, or medical procedures) beyond what was necessary for logistics. She didn’t invite her mother over for dinner unless it was a big family gathering with many people present. My client’s daughter loves her grandmother and would get frustrated with my client’s rules. She said her mother was being unfair, holding a grudge and should “just get over it.”

I had several conversations with my client about her daughter’s accusation. It cut deeply and caused my client to question her decisions. She didn’t want to deprive her daughter of a relationship with her mother but, at the same time, she had these rules in place for a reason and needed to guard her own mental and emotional health.

In our conversations we explored the difference between a grudge and a boundary. On the surface, they look very similar. In both cases the person holding the grudge or the boundary is putting in place rules, boundaries, and limitations that sometimes don’t make sense to others and they are refusing to give in. The reason for the grudge or the boundary is usually over how one person has treated another person such that the grudge or boundary holder feels they need the rules for some reason. 

Understanding the Difference: Holding a Grudge vs Setting Boundaries

The difference between the two comes down to the motivations and feelings behind the grudge or the boundary.

When a person holds a grudge they are coming from a position of anger, resentment, blame, etc. They may feel offended or hurt by what the other person did and hold the grudge to “show” the other person, get back at the other person, prove a point, get their power back, or to express how they feel. They hold onto their feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, or bitterness and blame the other person for how they feel. After all, if the other person had not hurt them, they wouldn’t feel this way.

In contrast, when a person holds a boundary they are coming from a position of acceptance and an understanding of the other person and their emotional maturity, capabilities, and behaviors. They see that the person is doing their best but they also know that that person’s best doesn’t work for them. They have set the boundary to protect themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically. They do not use hurt, anger, resentment or bitterness to reinforce the limits they have set, instead they use acceptance and understanding. They adjust their expectations according to what the other person can or cannot do.

The person holding a boundary has usually gone through several rounds, likely over many years, of working with the other person in an attempt to share their feelings and experiences to see if the other person is capable of accepting responsibility for and changing their behavior. After failing to see sustained changes, they accept the other person is not going to change no matter how much they work with them. Instead of continuing to adjust to accommodate the other person, they accept what the other person is capable of and set a boundary so they are no longer subject to the hurtful relationship dynamics. 

If you find yourself in a difficult relationship and don’t know how to set and hold a boundary, you may end up holding a grudge instead. Anger and resentment are powerful emotions and can create separation and distance between people, effectively keeping you “safe” from difficult interactions. But holding that anger and resentment hurts not only you, but others, too. Others see that you are angry and don’t want that anger directed toward them, so it may create distance with others, too. There is also the possibility that holding a grudge, instead of a boundary, teaches others, especially children, to do the same. It hurts you because it sets you up as a perpetual victim of the other person. Being the victim in one area of your life will likely set you up for feeling victimized in many other areas, too.

The difference between a grudge and a boundary comes down to the perspective and feelings behind them. A boundary is a perspective of acceptance. There is no blaming the other person or sense of being victimized. While a grudge comes out of anger or resentment and puts the grudge holder into a position of being the victim. 

My client had come to a place of acceptance of what her mother was capable of and the likely reason why she was the way she was. She had learned not to take her mother’s behavior personally and she had adjusted her expectations of her mother accordingly. Once she did that she was able to see what boundaries needed to be in place to protect herself from her mother’s intrusive and hurtful behavior. It took some time to explain that to her daughter, but eventually her daughter understood and learned a powerful lesson in the process.

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