What are resentments? What can I do about them? How can I learn from them?
Resentment is a complex emotion that we may carry with us long after the experience that stimulated it. We may perceive that we’ve been mistreated, and our resentment is often prolonged by the sense that we’re powerless to right the wrong we’ve incurred.
Let’s take a look at a couple examples of resentment:
“My parents won’t let me go to a big party on Saturday night. I’m so annoyed with them! They’re literally trying to ruin my life and won’t even listen to me!”
“I’m still bitter about my mother-in-law showing up unannounced last Christmas, and I really don’t want to invite her to the beach house this summer, but I feel pressure to be nice.”
Some psychologists have referred to resentment as a mixture of emotions, but the most common feelings underneath it are fear, anger, disappointment, and shame. So, who’s actually suffering when you hold on to the resentment? Only you! In fact, it’s most likely gnawing away at you and on a loop inside your brain, making your blood boil every time you think of the person or situation you resent.
Let’s look at how we can begin to reframe the resentments by exploring the two examples above. When we reframe resentment, we can go from stewing in a sense of indignation (but also powerlessness), to experiencing more agency, empowerment, and emotional freedom.
You’re furious at your parents, whom you think are ruining your life by not letting you go to an upcoming party.
- The resentment: They refused to let you go to a really important party that’s happening this weekend.
- Underlying feelings/emotions: Anger, rage, frustration, helplessness, embarrassment
- What you could have done differently: You probably shouldn’t have stayed out past curfew last week, as they think this upcoming party will be similar: poorly chaperoned. You could have also asked for permission to go to this upcoming party sooner.
- A pattern in your behaviors: Sometimes, you break curfew because you don’t keep track of the time. You don’t give your parents much advance notice when it comes to getting permission to go to parties and other events.
- Looking at your part in future situations: You could set an alarm on your phone that reminds you to go home before curfew. You could react more calmly when your parents express being upset about something you did, and when they respond punitively. You can ensure that you honor their rules and requests in future. You could ask for permission to go to an important event well in advance. Recognize that you can do your best to give your parents reasons to say no, but sometimes, “no” will still be their answer.
You don’t want to invite your pushy mother-in-law to the beach house this summer.
- The resentment: Your mother-in-law showed up unannounced at your house last Christmas, when you had wanted to spend Christmas with only your spouse and children.
- Underlying feelings/emotions: Anger, lack of control, not feeling respected, feeling taken advantage of
- What you could have done differently: You could have invited your mother-in-law to a gathering the day before or after Christmas. You could have asked your spouse to handle accommodating their mother, or letting her stay briefly and inviting her back the next day. You could have realized it was out of your control and made the best of it.
- A pattern in your behaviors: You realize that your mother-in-law often surprises you at the last minute, and you end up fuming and having a horrible time because you’ve let her lack of consideration get to you.
- Looking at your part in future situations: You can be candid with your spouse and mother-in-law, and set boundaries around your future expectations. (“Please ask us in advance if you can come over instead of showing up without letting us know.” “Honey, your mother can come to the summer house, but only on the day(s) we give her in advance—please be very clear about this with her.”) You can recognize that while you can’t control your mother-in-law’s behavior, you have control over how you will react to it in the moment, and whether or not you’ll let it affect your enjoyment.
There’s a 12-step adage that says when you harbor resentment toward another person, it’s a lot like drinking poison but waiting for the other person to die. Of course, there are times when being angry with someone’s behavior, especially when it violates your boundaries, is reasonable. However, you are bound to have moments in your life when things don’t go your way; if you continue to stew in resentment well after the fact, you’re effectively giving other people control over your emotions and reactions.
It’s OK to give yourself space to feel hurt, sadness, fear, and anger when you perceive that you’ve been insulted or injured. But also try to run through the reframe framework offered above. Be humble and conscious that, in some cases, you may have played a role in the upset you feel. Instead of letting it snowball in your mind, consider journaling about it, or talking to someone you trust (which doesn’t give you carte blanche to complain about it ad nauseum). Get out your resentment by working out, dancing, or doing something physical with that pent-up energy. And if you need to directly address the person you’re directing resentment toward, do it when you’re calm and have a strong idea of what you want to say. Refrain from blaming or accusing them; focus on what objectively happened, as well as how it made you feel, and make a request—knowing that they have the right to their own feelings and reactions.
Try to hold compassion for yourself—and the other person too, if it’s possible. You don’t necessarily have to forgive them if it feels premature and you’re genuinely not ready—but at the very least, free yourself from the exhausting mental spin cycle of resentment!