Remember Milton from the movie Office Space? He was the poster boy for resentment. His famous line was, “I’ll set the building on fire” and that is what he did in the end, all because someone took his stapler. That is what resentment is about: a burning, seething, internal dialogue that rehearses pessimism and injustice. Resentment is a common human experience. We all feel resentful sometimes. Resentment is usually caused by feelings of injustice that we are too scared, reluctant, or unable to voice.
In couples therapy, one of the hardest thing to turn around is resentment. Why is that? It is because resentment, unlike almost any other emotion, is corrosive and insidious. Resentment damages the person who feels it as well as the person it is directed towards. Here are some reasons why.
RESENTMENT IS POISON
Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. This was a saying made famous by many people, the most popular of which was St. Augustine.
What this quote is speaking to is the fact that resentment is a toxic state of mind. It is not just an emotion, it is an emotion mixed in with negative, pessimistic, and vicious thoughts. In order to hold and build resentment, we have to rehearse pessimism on a regular basis, telling ourselves about how nasty the other person is and also negatively predict every positive thought or action we consider taking.
Resentment kills not just the joy and hope in a person, it has the potentially to actually hasten your death because of the stress and negative energy that your body carries with it.
Holding on to resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head. Ann Landers
Two monks are walking in a forest. They see a beautiful young woman stranded by a river bank trying to find a way to get across. The older monk carries the young woman in his arms across the river and gently puts her down on the other side. As they walk away, the younger monk begins to berate him for touching a woman. “We have taken a vow of celibacy”, he says. “We have vowed not to touch a woman, especially one as young and beautiful as the woman you just carried. Aren’t you worried about the sin you have just committed?” The younger monks complaints continue for more than an hour into their journey past the river bank. Finally the older monk turns to him and says, “I left that young woman behind at the river. You are still carrying her in your head”.
This is what resentment does to us. The resentful person is mentally and emotionally hooked by an issue and then allows that negative thought to hijack their peace of mind, their waking hours, or their mental attention for long periods of time. As Ann Landers says, we are giving someone we despise or feel a lot of negative energy about to dwell in our minds and thoughts in such a way that we pay a bigger price for it than the other person does. A common example is when one partner has an affair that lasts less than a month and their hurt spouse has a negative, toxic, mental relationship with the affair partner for over a year. Who suffers more here?
Resentment is a Chain Link Fence: When you rattle one link, all the links come alive.
Have you ever tried remembering why you feel resentment about something? Go ahead and try it for the next minute. What you will discover is that one resentment finds another inside your mind and hooks its claws into the other. It is almost impossible to remember just one act of betrayal or wounding. Resentment is built up over many similar experiences that are catalogued by the brain in such a way that it colors one’s perception of the character of a person.
In fact, remembering multiple incidents of betrayal or hurt is one way our brain rationalizes why it is important to keep the painful memory alive in our minds. The logic goes like this: If I am holding on to this hurt, it must be because my mind is warning me not to forget. It must be dangerous for me to forget this hurt because it symbolizes a pattern of behavior that displays rejection, indifference, contempt, or some other egregious flaw in this person that I cannot forget. I cannot forget because if I do, I might just allow this person to hurt me again or worse yet, make a fool of me for trusting them again.
How to Overcome resentment
Practice focusing on the people who love and care about you. When you notice your brain goes towards hurts, gently bring it back to a positive memory or thought over and over again, as often as your mind needs, to develop a familiar pathway filled with gratitude and grace.
Resentment focuses our energy outward in a futile attempt to change others, to attempt to control what is beyond our control, and to wait for external validation for internal self-worth.
Those who overcome resentment recognize that when we point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at us. Turn back towards the one person you can have success with, yourself. Changing oneself is about betting on a horse that has the potential to win every single time.
The most important step in overcoming resentment is to prevent it from taking hold in your mind. Just like a child who plays with fire and gets burned learns to stay away from the flames, prevention and avoidance are the best strategies for minimizing resentment.
Catching resentful thoughts early and practicing positive self-talk is a way of training your attention and your mind. Positive self-talk does not have to be flowery or hyperbole. Just find a logical reasonable argument for why your negative perceptions may not be completely accurate or warranted. Look for disconfirming evidence on purpose. Seek to appreciate, enjoy, and praise much more often than finding fault. Where your attention goes, your mind will follow.
Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D., Master Trainer for the Gottman Institute and National Marriage Seminars and Licensed Clinical Psychologist, has been a Certified Gottman Therapist and Workshop Leader since 2006. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Austin-based Center for Relationships (@ctr4relships). Follow her on Facebook at the Center for Relationships and on Twitter @TCFRAustin