Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Anatomy of Resentment: Why and How to Manage It

We all feel resentful at times. The common sources and what to do.

Pixabay / No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay / No Attribution Required

Sara recently got a dog. Actually, it was a replacement for Henry, the family's former dog who died two months before. While Sara missed Henry, she actually liked not having a dog—giving up the responsibility, the freedom to travel more easily—and though knew she would want to get another dog at some point, she was looking forward to an at least a year break.

But her husband, Jeff, had a different agenda. He started talking about a new dog right away. Sure, the children were excited about the idea but surprisingly seemed less emotionally driven than Jeff seemed to be. When Jeff s aid he'd found the perfect dog and wanted Sara to see it, she did. The dog was fine—friendly and cute—and so Sara said sure, let’s get him.

Now, three months later, she's resentful. Why? It’s not because the dog turned out to be a lot of trouble, but because she lost the chance to be petless for a while. If you ask her why she then consented to get the dog she says that it’s because she wanted to make Jeff happy. Good intentions. But why the resentment?

The anatomy of resentment

Resentment is a strange, complex emotion. It can sneak up on you and then linger and gnaw — for some constantly, forever, becoming the stuff of the unforgivable, unforgettable grudge. Other times it comes in waves—triggered by stress, perhaps, or someone's similar misdeed; it flares up, then dies down. It is driven by imbalance: If you do what you want to do because you want to do it, you don’t feel resentful. Resentment comes when this equation falls apart.

Here are some of the common sources:

You are trying to avoid conflict

Sara knew she didn’t want to get a dog but could only imagine major blowback from Jeff if she spoke up and was honest. To avoid a conflict that she feels she can’t win, she says nothing and goes along with him. But she is resentful because what she really wants gets pushed aside.

You are confusing shoulds with wants

Here Sara gets into trouble because she is conflicted. She "knows" she should be a good partner and do what she can to make her husband happy, but this is different from what she, Sara, emotionally wants. These shoulds are likely different from her own values, her own vision of how to be a supportive partner. Instead, she is leaning on some rule, some social expectation of how to be, but doesn’t come from her own heart. When combined with her avoiding conflict, it becomes easy for her to rationalize why she needs to let this go and get the dog.

You have expectations

If you are truly doing what you want to do, even choosing to make the sacrifice because you choose to do so, this becomes its own end. You are living according to your values, being the kind of person you want to be, and what happens next isn't so important. Your actions are not tied to any expectations.

But if you're coming from a place of accommodation—of should, of anxiety—it is pretty difficult not to have some expectation built into the equation. You are essentially being a martyr. You are, for your sacrifice, expecting something in return, though you often never verbalize it. Relationship problems arise because the other person thinks you are doing what you want to do—they are taking you at face value, that Sara is happy with a new dog—but they aren’t aware of your accommodation psychology. Sara may be expecting to be heavily appreciated by Jeff, or that the family will step up and leave her with no responsibilities for the dog. But when these things don't happen, she feels resentful. They haven't read her mind.

You are disconnected from your life

The problem isn’t about the dog but is more the tip of something larger. The larger is that your everyday life is off-course, is not fulfilling. You feel stuffed into a box of a life that no longer fits, that feels confining, claustrophobic. Your everyday life is about largely going through the motions.

The dog problem isn’t about the dog but really about Sara feeling that her wants and needs are being dismissed by Jeff all of the time. Or the problem isn't the dog but that Sara's not speaking up is finally catching up with her. While she's managed to avoid a lot of conflict by her go-along-with-it stance, she's paid the price: Her life may not be "bad," but it feels watered down, less her own, far from the one she envisioned having 5, 10, or 20 years ago.

What to do

Let's start with what not to do: Telling yourself that you shouldn’t be resentful. You may be able to tamp down your feelings for a short time, but this eventually only makes things worse when your resentment eventually bubbles to the surface. Your periodic explosions may shell-shock others into being more sensitive to you for a short time, but more likely the medium becomes the message, your rant is emotionally dismissed as merely some rant and the real point — about your unhappiness, your needs — gets lost. And if you tend to be self-critical, you likely castigate yourself for exploding, which ends up fueling self-blame, depression, low self-esteem.

What does work

Your resentment is symptom, a red flag, a clue that there is something not working in your life. You need to address these underlying problems. It may be a "you" problem — that you need to speak up, talk about your expectations, learn to tolerate conflict, reconnect to your larger life. But usually there are relationship problems as well — that you need to be heard and not dismissed, that your needs and visions and wants need to be considered by those close to you. The key here is to avoid this all-or-nothing, be resentful-or-not thinking.

Instead of trying to control your resentment, step back and figure out what your resentment is telling you: Sara realizes that she needs to speak up and not go-long-with-it; that she is trying too hard to avoid conflict; that she feels constantly dismissed by Jeff. If you have trouble figuring this out, write out your thoughts or talk to a close friend who you trust, or a therapist to help you find the underlying message, the how and why your life may no longer be working.

And then step up. Don't keep sweeping your resentment under the rug, but consciously work on being more assertive in your life. Tell the other person what you need. Don't get stuck in the weeds about the dog, but instead focus on the larger dynamic, what the story of the dog was really about.

Act. Now, not later.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today