How to Overcome Resentment

Nathan Cobb

© Claire Communications
Adapted With Permission by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych

Some of us can spend hours dwelling on the wrongs that have been done to us, and ruminating on the injustices that we have received at the hands of others. Sometimes, as we begin to think about a particular instance where we were mistreated we can find ourselves swallowed up in the same feelings that were triggered by the original occurrence. We feel angry all over again. We hold onto our resentments with the tenacity of a free climber hanging onto a high rock face.

The word “resent” comes from the French word sentir, that is, to feel or to experience. To feel resentment toward something or someone is to feel again the fear, the anger, the hurt, the humiliation, or the pain of the original experience. Carried along with us, we tuck these emotions away in a bag labeled “grudges” where other people are wrong and at fault. After a while, such a bag can make for a very heavy load.

“Of all the futile and destructive emotions to which human beings are prey, perhaps the most universal is resentment,” said Theodore Dalrymple in his essay, “The Uses of Resentment.” Resentment eats away at self-esteem and peace of mind. It replaces hope with bitterness. It exchanges opportunities for growth with stagnation. When we blame others it keeps us from taking responsibility for ourselves.

Of course, we do not always have control over what happens to us when we`ve been mistreated. Victims of crime are not asking to be robbed or used, for example. We do, however, have control over how we choose to respond today to our experiences, and whether we will live our lives now or in the past. After all, at the end of the day, even if the person who harmed us was 100% wrong, we can still ask ourselves the question, “How do I want to live my life now? What do I want to focus on? Do I want to focus on what isn’t fair about this situation? Or do I want to focus on how I can adapt and make use of my gifts and strengths to become a better version of me?

A life filled with resentments chains us down to a victim mindset, and stifles us from making changes that could make life more fulfilling, more productive and joyful. “Resentments,” as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, “keep us from the sunlight of the spirit.”

Getting rid of old resentments isn’t as easy as simply saying, “Resentment, be gone.” Judgmental attitudes, the need to be right, not taking responsibility for certain actions or behaviors, a feeling of being special or entitled, vindictiveness, turning a misunderstanding into a personal attack, or an inability to forgive — these all impede our ability to release our resentments.

From one perspective, any time we let resentment take up emotional space in our heart, it indicates that there is something unresolved that needs our attention. Something we can do to help ourselves is to slow down and try to see what part of us we need to address.

What follows is an exercise that might help you begin to work through and release your resentments. Part of this exercise is borrowed and adapted from a similar exercise that members of Alcoholics Anonymous engage in as part of Step Four of the Twelve Steps. In this exercise, write down each question in a notebook, leaving room to list your answers. Work through each question as honestly as you can.

  1. Who do I feel resentful toward?
  2. What did this person/group of people do to trigger my resentment?
  3. List the ways that these actions were hurtful to me or did not seem fair.
  4. List the reasons why these actions have caused so much resentment in me.  (List your own sensitivities and raw spots rather than what you might perceive to be the failings of the other person or group of people involved.)
  5. What part did I play in these injuries happening to me? (As appropriate: the victim of a crime, for example, does not “play a part” in that crime). How was I not being fair also?
  6. List the things I have done to keep my resentment alive (my actions, my attitudes, etc.)?
  7. What are my fears related to these resentments?
  8. What are my needs related to these resentments?
  9. How could this other person make amends to me?
  10. What can I do to help make amends with the person I resent (as appropriate)?
  11. How can I make myself the hero of this story rather than the victim?
  12. What can I do to strengthen my resolve to live my life fully and with joy today, to change what I can change and to accept what I cannot change?

Letting go of resentment is letting go of a great burden. We don’t always choose our feelings. Sometimes we feel flooded with feelings, when we didn’t necessarily ask to feel them. But we can choose what we focus on in our lives, what we dwell on and what we think about. We can choose to acknowledge our feelings, to express them appropriately, and we can choose how we will react to them.

By focusing on what is within our control and by focusing on what we are responsible for today, we can let go of painful feelings like resentment that hold us down. Sometimes this “letting go” can happen surprisingly quickly. More often forgiveness and letting go of resentment is a process, rather than a single event.

We may need to choose a different response many times before our brain gets the message and we start to let go of old patterns. In the end, however, letting go of this burden can bring greater inner peace, calm and happiness into our lives.

Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications

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