The dictionary definition of forgiveness is "to cease to feel resentment." Living with resentment is like taking poison and expecting and hoping that the other guy get sick. Resentment refers to the mental process of repetitively replaying a feeling, and the events leading up to it, that goads or angers us. We don't replay a cool litany of "facts" in a resentment; we re-experience and relive them in ways that adversely affect us mentally, emotionally, physiologically and spiritually. The inability to overcome resentment probably constitutes the single most devastating impediment to repairing close relationships.

Although they may be provoked by recent, specific angry conflicts between two people, resentments usually encapsulate an enmity that goes much further back. Your sister may accuse you of a recent snub or slight ("how could you not have called me last week on my birthday?"), but the venom is more than likely fueled by years of other imagined or real snubs and slights, for which the recent accusation is just the trigger. The strong reaction of resentment almost never appears to be warranted by what sets it off. It's always the product of a long history of backed-up unhappiness.

What causes the unhappiness that underlies resentment?

• What we feel people did to us that was unnecessarily mean, hurtful, and thoughtless.

• What people in our lives did not do for us that we feel they should have done.

• When we feel the people in our lives have not done enough for us.

• When someone's behavior is hurtful or cruel (like "backstabbing" behavior, unflattering comments, breaking a confidence or commitment)

• When someone doesn't live up to an expectation, or doesn't care for a person the way they should have. (neglectful parents, for example)

• When people disappoint in significant ways. (like forgetting a birthday or anniversary)

Resentments embody a basic choice to refuse to forgive, an unwillingness to let bygones be bygones. When we hold on to resentments, we mentally relive all the injustices perpetrated upon us as if they happened yesterday. We review and rehash our painful pasts, even as we profess to want to let go of them. We do so because we believe the illusion that by belaboring our resentments, we can somehow achieve the justice we believe we are due. We cling to a futile need to be "right," which overrides the capacity to be at peace. We cling so hard to resentments because we don't know any other way of coming to grips with painful feelings of hurt, rejection, and abandonment. We need to learn to let go of resentments, because living with resentment can only bring us chronic punishment and pain, and prevent us from building up loving, nurturing and supportive relationships. Clinging to your angry, hurt, and outraged feelings about others, whether they are family, friend, neighbor or work relationship, will only hinder your capacity to move on in your life and learn to deal with the wounds.

Fortunately, there are ways to get out of resentment's crippling grip. Resentment is a mental process in which an offending situation is played in one's mind over and over again. An offense is remembered, maybe even obsessed over, and the feelings that occurred as a result of the situation are recalled as though the offense happened yesterday. With resentment, events are re-experienced again and again, and this causes repeated mental, emotional, physiological and spiritual trauma. Sadly, this is a trauma that is inflicted upon oneself.

Choose to Let Go
Holding on to resentment is a choice that's related to the need to be right. People often cling to a need to be right because there doesn't seem to be any other way to deal with painful feelings like rejection or abandonment.  This need to be right gets in the way of one's ability to feel peace and contentment; if allowed to continue, it can even become an obsession.

Ten Tips to Letting Go of Resentment
Following are some steps one can take to let go of resentments:

1. Approach resentment like the addictive state of mind that it is. Deal with it like it's a problem, and work on finding solutions to the problem.

2. Realize that resentment is often used to re-create family drama and maintain a connection with those dramas, so that maybe they can produce a healthier result. Sadly, the past is the past and it cannot be changed. Most people realize this consciously, but their subconscious holds on to the hope of somehow changing the past.

3. Take a look at how the resentment might come from confusing people in one's present life with people in one's past. A boss might remind a person of one's parent, for example.

4. Acknowledge that no one has control over anyone but themselves. All the resentment in the world won't change anyone's behavior; the only one hurt is the individual holding the resentment.

5. Recognize that resentment only gives the illusion of strength. Instead, people should highlight and validate their real strength and power.

6. Learn to identify what it is that triggers the resentment. That way, when it happens, one can choose to consciously not allow the resentment to be triggered. Journaling about it, or talking with a therapist, often helps with this process.

7. Practice cognitive behavioral techniques to stop indulging in resentment. In other words, make a decision to consciously stop thinking about the resentments.

8. Acknowledge one's part in allowing hurtful behavior to continue, and make the decision not to let it happen again.

9. Consciously decide to be at peace with one's family of origin. Take the good, and leave the rest.

10. Forgive when it's possible. Remember, forgiveness does not let anyone off the hook for past wrongs; it is a gift people give to themselves.

Holding on to resentments keeps people stuck in unhappiness and trauma. Making the choice to let resentments go is like dropping a heavy rock that's been carried for months, years or even decades. It's a mindful action that leads to greater happiness and emotional freedom. There's a great deal of discussion in our society today about forgiveness and the psychological, physiological and spiritual benefits of clemency and forgiveness. A wealth of medical studies have shown that holding onto resentment and an incapacity to forgive will cause blood pressure to go up, weaken the immune system and provoke cardiovascular degeneration. Refusing to forgive, or at least forget, floods the body with stress hormones that cause symptoms ranging from headaches to colds and flu, impaired circulation, premenstrual tension, fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, migraine, fibromyalgia, among other stress-related afflictions.

I believe firmly that life is better when people can forgive each other and move on in our relationships. However, when forgiveness is not merited, it's still possible to find a place for our feelings that will not consume us or plunge us into a state of toxicity. Religious leaders of all faiths advocate forgiveness, as do health care providers citing the extensive cardio-vascular and immunological benefits of doing so. The Dalai Lama has said, "I believe one should forgive the persons who have committed atrocities against oneself and mankind," yet he goes on to caution about the importance of not forgetting. "But this does not mean one should forget the atrocities. One should remember these experiences so that efforts can be made to check their reoccurrence in the future." Watch his inspiring message in this video called "The Dalai Lama's Tactic for Developing Forgiveness." 

About the Author

Mark Sichel

Mark Sichel is a psychotherapist in New York City and the author of Healing from Family Rifts.

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