Grudges and Resentment in School Life.

How to work with grudges and resentment in school life…

Schools are hubs of humanity in all its glory, in all its hope, and in all its frailty and fallibility. They are busy, busy places where despite good intentions – often the best of intentions – mis-matches and mis-attunements can and do occur.

Sometimes, resentments occur between children and teenagers. A wrong happens to a child, by a child, and the hurt has such potency, it is hard to get past and leaves them stuck, revisiting and rehashing the wrongs done to them. Sometimes even fantasising about or seeking out revenge. It’s what they talk about with friends or any peer that will listen to the well worn tale. It can become something defining, part of their identification, and a prevailing mood that means that rather than come to rest, they rest in anger and hurt.

Sometimes, this happens in group dynamics, sucking other young people in to ill-will and resentment. Sides are taken, and the list of misdemeanours on each side grows alongside deepening rage and self-righteousness. I have worked with toxic groups to mediate and try to find completion or at least containment of the grudge.

Resentment can become obsessive. Anger can make an all too pleasant distraction from the every-day business of work and the comparative helplessness of growing up and the reality of vulnerability. It can also be something that bonds young people together – to have a common enemy, or even to gain status and feel power from ‘othering’ others from a position of self-righteous anger.

Grudges and resentments among children and teens…

There’s a lot more fuel that can be heaped on the fire of resentment, thanks to the ruminatory quality of social media where grudges can be played to an audience of avid by-standers. Commentary, online abuse, jibes, flaming, shaming, side-taking, and piling on can all add to one’s stock of social capital. A well-timed witty interjection can win you friends when you take part in an online pile-on.

It is frightening and disturbing to hear of – for instance- seemingly kindly Year 8 girls advising each other on their utter worthlessness – and the precise means by which they should ‘end themselves’. Unbelievable when you think of them as the sweet individuals in your classroom pronouncing on the wrongs of racism and inequality, whilst all along off-stage and online, their inner fascism knows no bounds.

And it’s not just girls. The press has documented well the ways in which packs of boys operate online on social media, in pursuit of peer-group blood in ways that would make William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies, look tame. As much as we all read about it, I hear about it from parents seeking support for themselves, and their children from the sort of relentlessness that not only has its interpersonal dynamics, but spreads and creates a notoriety and stigma of shame shared across a child’s whole social network such that even a fresh start at a new school can be tainted.

Sometimes grudges can come into being for such flimsy reasons that there is no ‘consummatory’ moment which identifies the time when it all began, and the suffering of the person on the receiving end of the other’s anger and resentment is compounded by the nebulous, mysterious origins as to why they find they are targeted…

I can remember coaching a young person who was still seething with resentment three and a half years after a mishap with friends meant they were given a detention – in their view unfairly – and so almost the entirety of their secondary school career was blighted by bitterness at both her peers, the teachers, and the school. She just couldn’t drop it. It ate her up, and became her way of being. The spell of it only broke when she left for a new school.

Because of the interruptions to education from the pandemic, schools report that arguments that would have most probably run their course in the normal run of things have endured. Extended by the separation, and intensified sometimes by parental involvement or online factions hardening around the drama.

Grudges and Resentment – Parents.

Sometimes, the sense of a young person’s victimhood, is augmented by the parent dynamics. Bonding over the drama of wrong-doing, a slightly dysfunctional closeness can emerge between parent and child.

I remember one time working with a parent who was insistent that their teenager’s football coach was a bully. They had made – probably – a bad call on an injury that they thought was playable. This recast them in the parent’s eyes as an abusive sadist who was feared by the team and needed to be stopped.

Investigation after investigation took place, attempts to console and repair were rejected. There was no evidence for the colleague in any way pushing children beyond reasonable limits. The parent alleged that children were terrified and had gathered their own ‘evidence’ behind the scenes, speaking to them and their parents. The teacher, understandably, highly stressed by the ongoing and implacable nature of the complaint, remained hugely popular with the children, offering residential trip opportunities that were over-subscribed. There was no evidence of them being a fearful figure.

What started as a complaint became a witch-hunt. One which only collapsed after the teenager at the centre of it all gathered the courage to say they did actually want to stay on the team, with the same teacher at the helm, and that things had got a bit carried away.

Ultimately, in my final meeting on the subject, I asked what was so important to the parent about the whole issue. They paused, and started to tell me about their own experience of living in fear of an overbearing and deeply unprofessional sports teacher as a child themselves. Growing up, their self esteem was profoundly wounded by the influence of this experience.

Somehow, finally speaking about it and being listened to, helped release their hurt and restore some balance. The shadow of childhood injury is long. It stretches not only into adult life, erupting from the basement of their felt experience when retriggered by their children’s frustrations and disappointments. Sometimes their children’s actual present and separate experience becomes psychologically entwined…

This combination can mean parents go into crusade mode – ostensibly to right a wrong to their child, but also, seeking to repair their own hurt-child unmet needs.

Ruminative anger and scenarios like these bring together huge challenges for teachers. Especially for those involved pastorally when resentment leads to chronic fault finding – by the young person, their parent, or by both. Where this takes root, it blossoms into recurring anger and resentment and anyone may find themselves on the wrong side of it – it’s like parents’ evening roulette. A relatively innocuous point of accountability becomes a flashpoint for anxiety and conflict.

Grudges and resentment – colleagues.

Writing as a former union representative, of course, resentment and grudges are not only part of the pupil or parent dynamic, they can also exist in interpersonal relationships among professionals. And where a team or wider community is under particular pressure, and operations are in survival mode, grudges and resentments can easily build.

Things may start with a blunt or punchy email, mis-read or missed communications in the busy, busy email traffic of school life, and the multiple strands of communication that proliferate and replace speech or discussion… School life can be so busy, it can be easy not to attune to each other properly. Feedback can be poorly given and poorly received. Soon enough, empathic misses turn into walking on egg shells…

Rather than speak to things cleanly and clearly – which is possible when there is a good bank of trust, things go underground. There’s sense-checking and venting behind the scenes. Ill will and toxic fall out from unchecked misunderstandings spread like gangrene and the cultural impact spreads negativity. Rather than being able to see conflict as healthy, a natural part of healthy relationships, we feel that we are operating in a field of landmines. Psychological safety is all too easily diminished- not only among the protagonists – but in bystanders also.

Few things bind people together like mutual suffering; little gangs form, playing blame games, venting and perpetuating serial narratives of negativity…Sometimes it takes mediation, or working through the complaints or grievance processes, to bring a situation to a point of choice. To stay, and work things through, or to leave and start life afresh elsewhere.

Fundamentally, in coaching work with people who are in the grips of resentment, it comes down to taking a good hard look at the benefits and costs of the status quo. Thinking through the purpose and impact that that way of being has, the core beliefs that lie underneath their sticking points, and choosing what to hold dear, and what to let go of in order to find a way forward that will serve better.

This isn’t about cupcakes and unicorns…

I’m not at all saying that anger is a no-no or that we should all live happily ever after. Life isn’t a vat of sugar-soup. We wouldn’t want it even if it were. This is not about toxic positivity – insisting on narratives of niceness… We’re taking about schools – humanity – in all it’s glory! And under all its pressures…growing pains among the kids, the strains of modern parenthood in an uncertain world, and schools which seem to be the cure-all for all of society’s wrongs.

Actually, anger is an essential emotional element and it has many compounds – some of very important practical use – giving activating energy for example. But others, like resentment, can grind on, and over time, be pretty toxic.

Quite often we are told that our anger may not be valid – sometimes those in positions of privilege and power tell others that they shouldn’t get so angry – or that anger is the wrong response. Sometimes in families and family-style groups of colleauges in close-knit teams, certain people end up with free passes to express anger, whilst others have to simply suck up their reactivity.

Access to anger – or should I say anger that gets social sanction more readily – is not equal. It’s not only gendered – explosive boys and men are much more accepted than their female counterparts who may not even shout, but when they have a go at being on their own side they get ‘Karened’.

On the playground, forceful boys are ‘leaders’, assertive girls, ‘bossy’. Or latterly, girls who are forthright are easily labelled autistic by amateurs – because they don’t play along with games of social compliance and maybe speak their truth will more directness and less hedging or tact…

And whilst I would say that many schools and good teaching practitioners are alive to this sort of unconscious bias – it is still out there and more common than it should be. There are also racial and class dimensions to the picture as well. There is a special circle in the hell of social stigma reserved, for instance for the angry black woman.

Anger, at its best, can be a vital signpost. A call to arms. Most of the equities we enjoy today, like the rights to vote, equality in the workplace, emerged as a result of righteous, justified anger. Anger – fully processed – is able to right wrongs on a macro level. And is also helpful to achieve interpersonal justice, as well as internally.

It’s really important, therefore, to take stock of our anger and take a clearer view of our circumstances, how bad they are, what’s at stake, and what is needed to make our anger – the extent of it, and the longevity of it – a choice that will serve us well.

Conversely, unprocessed anger that becomes more than a habit, but a way of being, can be extremely problematic. The problem is, that it has a really tempting high – initially. The surge of outrage, it lures us in. There are two Buddhist sayings that resonate in this respect – that ‘Anger has a honeyed tip, and a poisoned barb…’ When we get hooked on its barb, we can be trapped in toxicity because when we stay in angry activation, it wears down our health over time.

Being in a state of threat activates our anxiety circuitry. This doesn’t feel like worry, but more like hypervigilance. It prevents us moving back into a resting state where we can be more emotionally and cognitively agile, and where our social bandwidth gives us access to being more open, more generous, and able to take in other perspectives. The sort of perspectives that help us take effective action towards resolving and moving through the heightened emotional state. We lose sight of a bigger picture and our attention funnels towards the conflict. The mind marinades in the sense of wrong and the feeling of ill-will.

This gets in the way of us being able to co-regulate with other people – including those who are the source of our anger. So instead of being open to and responsive to those who might try to help us make resolution, we are more drawn to those who will co-dysregulate with us, join with out outrage, fuel the dislike and condemnation. This is totally what happens peer-to-peer when tweens and early to mid teens go to war.

Among adults also, in this state of ongoing hostile activation, impulsivity is heightened, social discernment is clouded, making us more likely to lash out or go into back-up reactive states where either we are in fight – where our inner child bursts forward and we behave in a more combative or attacking way than is optimal or necessary…or flight…In flight, we will tend to avoid acting on our boundaries in a clean and effective way. Instead, we’ll be prickly and awkward until something tips us over the edge and the suppressed ill-will bursts out in a way we are more likely to regret.

This is why the second Buddhist  saying resonates – that anger is like throwing hot coals at your enemy without gloves. It is not only destructive interpersonally, it is also damaging to our inner and outer selves, interpersonally. It erodes our integrity. It also has a physical impact – increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

So what can we do?

Grudges and resentment in children, teens and parents.

Clearly the psycho-education piece about anger being bad for us – no matter how well put and well intentioned – and no matter how true – is going to fall flat. We can’t expect success if we come at a child, a parent, a colleague who is truly angry and on the hook of resentment or grudge. Instead, we have to come alongside it.

Intermittently I get asked to come to schools to do mediation work with kids, staff or families where the attempt to draw a line under things and get people to move on has proved impossible. What I have learned, and from looking at research and clinical practice in working on grudges and resentment, is the following process is what helps:

  • Deep, active listening without judgment.
  • Allow exploration about the underlying nature of the hurt involved using dynamic, reflective questioning. What unspoken relational contracts have been broken, why they matter, and what that means…?
  • Does this link to other experiences where something similar has happened? (Quite often when there is a grudge, there’s a betrayal of trust from the incident itself, that links to past hurts. So identifying what elements from the past are present can be helpful to do some of the grounding work).
  • Affirming the injury and establishing trust in the recognition of what has happened. This is entirely different to taking sides. It is about giving due respect to the pain points, ensuring they are fully acknowledged – this is an important step in co-regulating.
  • Don’t argue with the feelings. Drop the rope of trying to argue a more balanced perspective. Help them feel heard. And show the hearing land. As Esther Perel puts it so beautifully…pause on your rebuttal button.
  • Look at the benefits first – of the status quo – being in conflict.
  • Look at the costs – to relationships, to connections. Potentially taking a leap to talk about how it has impacted on the number of conversations you have had about this so far…CPR – content, pattern, relationship…How easy is it to see the person as they truly are? To what extent is their conflict the thing that is starting to dominate how they are seen, the quality of their interactions.
  • Looking at the way the meanings they are putting to the point of conflict, the resentment is actually also writing a story they are telling themselves about who they are…eg a sense of victimisation, a sense of the world being an untrustworthy place, of people being a certain way. These enquiries are the gateway to them coming to a point of choice. This is the story of the conflict so far. It’s been a long chapter. What will it take for them to be ready to write a new chapter?

Grudges and resentment – our own

  • Look at your triggers – what are the factors that prime you for this sort of nervous system activation…where you (mis)read tone in other people’s voices or emails…where you start developing negative attributions to other people’s motivations – eg persecutory narratives about an unfair, uncaring hierarchy…Typically towards the end of term…where we feel more depleted, or when there are a slew of deadlines converging…How can we care for ourselves just that little bit better so that we have more capacity to remain open, and tack against that tendency for compression, armouring, pessimism…etc.
  • Having understood the physiological, emotional and physical wear and tear of resentment…think about reframing your sense of ill-will…recognise it as a grudge. Something that is ultimately harmful to you – it’s more likely then that you are able to unhook yourself from the lure of anger and take more effective action to draw a line under it.
  • Externalise the state of mind and give it a humorous nickname. When I have taken on too much, and get in a negative, resentful frame of mind, I see everything I am doing, and nothing that anyone else is doing…Sadly as someone who is self-employed, my workplace is my home – so I’m potentially taking it out on my unsuspecting family. I catch myself seething at my husband or teenager – typically when they are chilling out on the couch and I am rushing around doing, doing, doing the household stuff that has been left too long…And I notice the raising of my own red flags. Blood pressure, heart rate rising. Temper ON. Criticism PRIMED. And my own self-check is ‘Woah! Martyr mode…’ It stops me jumping on my own special bullet-train of anger…and helps me open up to a bigger picture and ask for help more effectively, rather than create unhelpful and unnecessary red mist.
  • Pause and turn on your inner flashlight. What’s the trigger? Look at it realistically. What’s going on right now – are you exaggerating it in any way? What are you linking it to…? Are you focusing on one bad thing when there are also a number of other good things that are also true but have faded out of your awareness? Ground yourself – recognise that your ‘angry strings have been plucked’ – as someone so beautifully put it in a recent workshop…Stop and search so that you can avoid REACTING in the heat of it, and RESPOND with thoughtfulness, balance, and efficacy. This is SO important in the workplace. And will prevent you from having to do reputational damage limitation after an event where you may have spoken from an immoderate or -potentially a less professional, more attacking, slightly unfair place.
  • Use the power of the observer effect. Label your feeling states about this situation you are in. Look at how it’s affecting you carefully. Let the emotions come and go – like any other. Develop your awareness of it and the stories you are telling around it – and whether these are adding fuel to the fire, or not.
  • Recognise your ego state. Where are you? Are you in critical parent…which implies a sense of authority in your sense of wrong, but also a harshness. When you speak from this mode, you’re going to get back the hurt child, or the provocative teen. Especially if the counterpart to the issue is quite reactive also. Are you in hurt child? Then you’re more likely to be in survival state in your encounters – fight, flight. You want to be able to speak adult-to-adult – in equality. With compassion, and a skilful invitation to problem solve. If you can climb down from critical parent into nurturing parent, that may be the gateway to a ‘win-win’ communication.
  • Have faith. You should be able to speak to your needs. As well as own your own part in problematic situations. Being strong, being self-compassionate, and being vulnerable is what it means to be in touch with yourself and in secure connection with others. Justice gets served one way or another. People pay the price for their behaviour one way or another. And if your approach is unsuccessful, there are structures in school life to deal with them informally and formally. Check out the school’s grievance policy. Consult your union rep. confidentially.
  • Have integrity. How many people can you actually tell your story to and sense check your perspective on WITHOUT having addressed the situation with the person at the source. IF you’re going to have a win-win outcome, make sure things are tidy on your side of the road. Don’t vent in the staffroom. Choose who you speak to with discernment. Not just in the pub on Friday after the last bell. A line-manager who has some greater oversight. And be really clear on your ask. Are you wanting a confidential sense-check? Be clear about expectations concerning confidentiality. REMEMBER schools are busy places and we can all have ‘fixer’ tendencies. If you are whistleblowing – be very clear in your own mind about the fears you have around doing your own due diligence and calling out boundary issues directly. Otherwise, there is double damage – the boundary issue, and the process issue of you acting in a way that may be perceived to be undermining.
  • Aim for moving into a position of forgiveness, a place of grace. Where the emotional load of the conflict is put to rest. This doesn’t mean pretending the wrong didn’t occur. Or your view on what happened. But it does mean having the generosity to accept common humanity, and the way we can all be our less-than-best selves when circumstances conspire against us. And schools are hubs of humanity, its joys, its anxieties, and its pressures. Ensuring we speak in a way that will allow us to be heard can help us move through what is past -hopefully to secure repair- and create a better future. Together.

Supporting colleagues who we suspect are harbouring grudges.

  • Active listening is all well and good. But have a boundary in your mind. How often, how long, is this reasonable to go on for – for the sake of your colleague/ friend and the sake of the staff team?
  • What is the impact on you? Is this becoming a regular or even constant topic? Is it skewing your relationship to becoming always the supporter of venting? Does it mean that packing up at the end of the day is being hijacked by repetitive venting sessions? What does this mean for you? And how you feel about your colleague?
  • Start using reflective questioning that stimulates thinking around points of choice and taking effective action.
  • As a former English teacher, I am a sucker for the rule of three. More than three strikes at the same conversation and I am out. And as a coach, that’s my bull-free pledge. I could be paid all day long to listen to people’s problems. But I would not be giving value for money. My value as a coach, as a trainer, is always about bringing forward momentum, not colluding in stagnation or avoidance. I love my clients and I champion them to the max. But I challenge them and that’s where the action and the change happens. As teachers and educators, we want the best for others. It’s all about transformation and growth.

How does this resonate with you? Or with your observations of what’s going on around you? How well do you resolve conflict when it (inevitably) arises in school life? How well is conflict handled in your school?

I hope this article is helpful and forms a good starting point for you to take stock and take effective action.

Remember

I offer:

  • One-off coaching sessions for individuals to help open up ideas about specific situations.
  • Mediation sessions.
  • Ongoing half-termly or monthly coaching to provide bespoke professional development for managers or team members who want to work on inter-personal skills – especially handling difficult situations, having difficult conversations.
  • Workshops or training experiences of different kinds around having conversations that matter, handling conflict.
  • Consultancy work to strengthen psychological trust and relationships in teams or groups.

Please pass on my details or share this article with the member of your Leadership Team who looks after staff development and training – if you think this may be useful. Feel free to share with friends and colleagues. Signing up to my newsletters is free and it is easy to unsubscribe at any time: http://eepurl.com/gORh-f

With love and gratitude,

Emma.

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