Justifying resentment is like justifying hunger; you never have to do it. You never have to ask yourself, “Is my resentment justified?” The more important question is, “Do I want to be resentful?” If you don’t, you need to understand that justifying resentment strengthens and prolongs it.

There’s a neurological explanation for this. Resentment keeps us focused on a perception of unfairness – we’re not getting the help, appreciation, praise, reward, or affection we deserve. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies, whatever we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t focus on. Repeated focus over time forms mental habits. Justifying resentment strengthens the neural connections underlying it, and over time makes it more or less automatic, the default perception of consciousness. Resentful people complain and criticize out of habit.

Resentment is likely to become a bedrock of ego-defense, due to its low-grade adrenaline, which temporarily increases energy and confidence. We feel animated by the perception that we’ve been wronged, which feels better than the self-doubt and low energy that often occurs when we feel vulnerable. The problem with adrenaline is that it borrows energy from the future. After a bout of resentment, a crash into some form of depressed mood is inevitable. Worse, adrenaline enhances memory – experience marked by adrenaline is, in general, recalled more easily. (It’s often hard to get it out of your mind.) When you resent your partner, you’ll remember every perceived offense since you started living together. Instead of experiencing negative feelings as temporary states, it seems like you’re reacting to unfair or unreliable behavior that will not change and that overshadows most positive experience.  

The other problem with adrenaline is that we build a tolerance to it so that it takes more and more of it to get the same level of energy and confidence. That means we have to justify more by amplifying and magnifying more. At that point resentment becomes chronic, the lens through which we see the world.

Characteristics of chronic resentment are:

  • External regulation of emotions – other people seem to control your emotional states – they “push your buttons” or make you feel what you don’t want to feel.
  • Vulnerable emotions – guilt, shame, sadness – are seen as punishments to be blamed, denied, or avoided, rather than motivations to heal and improve
  • Narrow and rigid emotional range – you’re either resentful or numb.

Characteristics of chronic resentment in relationships:

  • High emotional reactivity - a negative feeling in one triggers chaos or shut down in the other
  • Power struggles – the goal is to win and be right rather than reconcile and connect
  • Criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt.

The Urge to Justify

We justify resentment by citing evidence of other people's unfairness.But the adrenaline we need for justification makes us subject to confirmation bias. The human brain is highly susceptible to confirmation bias under the influence of emotion arousal; it automatically looks for evidence that confirms its assumptions and ignores or discounts evidence that disconfirms them. Many studies have shown that whatever the brain looks for, it tends to find, in reality or in imagination.

The urge to justify is essentially self-talk, that is, we justify our feelings more to ourselves than to others. The urge to justify tells us that the emotion is probably not good for us, or else we wouldn’t have to justify it. You probably don’t have to justify an emotion that’s more conducive to health and well-being, such as compassion. You don’t go into work and say, “I was under so much stress last night and my partner pushed all my buttons and I lashed out with compassion, I took her perspective and felt more humane – it wasn’t the real me!”

You have an absolute right to your resentment. And you have a more compelling right to a live value-filled life, which is impossible with resentment. 

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