Dealing with Resentments

Here’s a Gospel According to Patti: Resentments are hardened chunks of anger (anger you’ve carried around so long it’s become hard and difficult to chip away). I’ve never known a resentment that was truly justified. We try to rationalize it, but the reality is that when we resent someone or something, it only hurts us. (An old-timer in the AA program once told me, “If you find yourself living with a resentment towards another person, drive by their house at 3:00 am to see if they’re up worrying about it.”)  The reality is that the other person might not even know they did something to upset you.

Anger is often a smokescreen emotion, meaning it’s sometimes used to cover up other emotions that make us feel more vulnerable, such as hurt, fear, embarrassment, shame or guilt.

I don’t believe any emotion is negative, but of those that suck to feel, anger is a little more socially acceptable to express (at least more so than the others), because it doesn’t make us feel vulnerable.  Anger gives us a powerful rush of adrenaline. But while it can feel empowering, it usually stems from a sense of victimization or inequity – or it comes from someone or something not meeting our expectations (possibly ourselves).

At the psychological level anger, resentment and blame can also be used as defenses to ward off those feelings of vulnerability, which we perceive as weakness.  Giving up our anger can feel like giving up a piece of ourselves or a piece of our perceived power. We can experience it as a loss of self – if so much of us is invested in it that it’s become a part of our identity.

And if we feel deeply wounded, it can feel like our anger, resentment and blame are all we have that’s ours to hold onto – to keep us from falling apart – to protect us from possible future attacks.

I’ve sometimes encouraged individual clients to visualize their resentments as an invisible bullet-proof vest they wear. When they come into therapy, I ask them to take off that vest for the duration of the session, so we can talk about – and allow ourselves to feel the anger or the emotions under the anger. Then they can put it on again as they leave to protect themselves if they need it. Eventually, they need the vest less and less, as they get in touch with the human/vulnerable parts of themselves, and recognize they have done themselves a disservice.

Sometimes I believe anger is justified and healthy to feel – especially when it’s about an injustice committed towards you or others who might not be able to stand up for themselves as easily as the perpetrator(s) (ie, social injustices). Or if someone’s been extremely depressed and not caring for themselves well, often anger emerges once they begin the process of recovery. This is healthier than holding it in; it usually means there’s a surge of energy that wasn’t there before. It’s a sign of progress, but it needs to be a temporary hangout until the person can move on to experience other emotional environments that allow for more freedom and peace.

But again, anger is not necessarily resentment. It’s a root of resentment; so when a person begins to work through the issue, (s)he might need to process the original anger that spouted before recovering to a more peaceful existence. Resentments not only keep us from connecting with others, they keep us from our own truth.

As long as a man bears resentment in his heart, peace will never be his.