Handling Resentment

Resentment is one of the negative emotions that can sneak up on a person.  Like all parts of the subconscious mind, if fed it will eventually dominate every part of your being; and being a negative, and negatives being easier to cultivate, it will grow quickly.  Unfortunately, it is not an easy thing to let go of, and understandably so; resentment is usually borne from the misdeeds of another toward you in your past, and those things aren’t always forgiven easily.  Sometimes, that anger can fester and demand release, and it is inevitably at the worst possible time. At such times, there may be company over, or a child may be too close for the ensuing argument or fight, and in doing so it may cause the situation to spiral out of control.  The question remains, how do we overcome resentment and help it to diminish, while cultivating positive thought processes to take the place of the negative ones?

That’s not an easy question to answer, and resentment of all negative emotions is possibly the most insidious.  It’s rooted in anger, fear, and disappointment, that has burned down to a smoulder. Most days, the temperature of the anger is so low, you don’t even feel it; much as you barely notice any heat coming from a wood furnace that has been allowed to burn down to coals.  They may even look cool to the touch; but stir them with a poker and let air get to them, and they burn brightly yet again, and a new fire may come to life. To make matters worse, unlike a wood or coal fire, the fire of resentment fuels itself on unresolved issues; although feeding the fuel may be slow, and the oxygine supply may be low, any sudden change can open the valves and ignite the resentment into outright rage.

We all have resentments; there will always be people that wronged us, and we can’t get over it.  Sometimes it wasn’t even of the person’s own volition; the number of children that are resented by their parents due to some perceived contribution to divorce or other family problems is uncountable.  Often times that resentment is carried long past the child, who has already suffered trauma at the hands of the resentment whether it’s obvious or not, coming to adulthood. Acknowledging those resentments, and curtailing the fuel we feed them, must therefore be our aim.  We may never be able to let go of the resentments completely, although that is ultimately the most noble goal, but if we can work to acknowledge (and therefore not bury) them, then find thought patterns that curtail the fuel flow, it will prevent such thoughts from dominating our lives.

Of the three pieces that make up resentment, anger is the easiest to handle.  Anger is the hot fire that we feel when we are wronged, or perceive that we have been wronged, and often dominates our personality when it comes forth.  While giving our anger free reign to release itself when it is presented seems to feel good, what it ends up doing is dominating our subconscious mind and looking for reasons to express itself.  Note the person that gives free license to their anger and how their lives are compared to those that work to not suppress their anger, but instead control it and use the energy toward more constructive means.  Anger is one of two possible instant reactions to being challenged, yelled at, having an unexpected event happen, and pain. It is the “fight” in the fight or flight reaction, and is our body’s primary tool to handle chaos.  After all, chaos is the unknown, and the unknown must be either fought, or fled from. Using the energy of anger in a constructive manner is difficult as well, as anger embraces the chaos and tries to dominate it. Controlling the anger impulse, while acknowledging the reason it comes up, is critical in controlling resentment.

Fear is the second easiest to control, and it is the “flight” emotion of the fight or flight reaction.  While anger seeks to dominate the source of chaos, and in doing so embraces the chaos itself, fear seeks to flee back to a state of order that you are familiar with.  Fear is a natural reaction to the unknown, and is presented in the discomfort we feel when trying new things. It is also presented when someone we know and trust does something wholly unexpected that negatively impacts our environment.  This is most often felt when a trusted partner has an affair, or a normally even-tempered parent suddenly loses their temper at a minimal provocation. The order we see our lives in is suddenly shattered, and you don’t know what to do about it.  You flee toward the first familiar thing you can find, which can ironically be as toxic for you as the original cause of the fear. Like anger, fear is best controlled through discipline, as any soldier can tell you. While it is often difficult to control, especially since it is almost universally directed inward, unlike anger which is generally directed outward, it is vitally important that you acknowledge the fear, and not let it control you.  Anger is far easier to get under control once released than fear is; once fear is allowed to run rampant over you, more and more things will bring it forth. Do not let this happen.

Third, and the hardest to overcome, is disappointment.  Disappointment is a bitterness felt toward a person for not meeting their perceived end of your social bargain.  While both anger and fear relate to a specific action, disappointment is related to the outcome.  You aren’t angry at the result of the action, though you may be angry that the action was taken; you’re disappointed that the action resulted in a negative outcome.  Most importantly, unlike actions, which can be corrected and new habits formed, therefore eliminating the source of anger, the outcomes of past actions are almost universally permanent.  Although you can mitigate any damage done, or repair it, is immaterial; the outcome stands, and had an effect on your life. Of the three emotions heretofore described, it is possible that disappointment may not be overcome outright, but instead must be tolerated and eventually snuffed out as the subject of your resentment stops repeating the actions that created the negative outcome.

One of the keys to overcoming resentment is acknowledging it exists and who or what it exists for.  Sometimes it’s painful to admit that you might resent a parent, child, lover, or close friend; but you won’t be able to let go of that resentment unless you do.  When you find yourself angry or disappointed at someone, especially over things that happened in the past, you should take out your journal and do the following exercise:

Write out the name of the person you resent.

Describe the actions and outcomes that caused the feelings of resentment.  Try to narrow it down to a specific event and outcome; after all, you can repeat this exercise for each instance.

Describe what made you angry about what happened, and why.

Describe how what happened made you feel afraid, and why.  This doesn’t have to be an outright fear, either; it could be fear that it could repeat itself.

Describe why you felt disappointed at the outcome, and why.

Think about what could be done to correct the situation, if anything can.  Write down how you could let go of this resentment; after all, resentment holds you back more than the person you are feeling resentment toward.  If nothing else, come up with a plan of action to make sure you control the underlying emotions of the resentment so that it doesn’t dominate your life.  Even if it means you have to vent your frustrations into your journal every day until it doesn’t frustrate you anymore.

Finally, start reading books focused on positive attitude and emotion.  The best way to release the negative emotions within us, including resentment, is to not feed them.  There are any number of books on developing a positive attitude, but my favorite one is The Little Yellow Book of Yes! Attitude by Jeffrey Gitomer.  You can find it here.

You can find most of the source material I used for this article in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, which you can pick up here.  I also used information from Wikipedia, and my own experiences.

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