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Treating Chronic Resentment, Anger, and Emotional Abuse

Untreated, they're bound to get worse.

Key points

  • Chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse function like habits, running on autopilot.
  • They often require a boot camp approach to reverse their degenerative course.
  • Treatment strategies must be multi-faceted to eradicate the lingering remnants of abuse.

Some expressions of resentment and anger are normal in relationships. They should never cross the line into emotional abuse — deliberately making partners or children afraid or feel bad about themselves to get submission to the will of the abuser. When resentment and anger become chronic, they inevitably turn into emotional abuse. "Chronic" means they occur regularly, or family members walk on eggshells to avoid resentment, anger, criticism, stonewalling, name-calling, or other devaluing behaviors.

I learned very early in my career that simple anger management techniques are completely inadequate when resentment, anger, and emotional abuse are chronic. Once they run on autopilot, like habits, they're degenerative, getting slowly but progressively worse over time. It takes a boot camp approach to reverse this destructive course, with built-in practice of new coping and interpersonal habits to supplant harmful ones.

Our Love without Hurt boot camps help clients reclaim the most important thing about them — their ability to create value and meaning in their lives. I call it, core value. A revitalized sense of core value avails them of natural states of compassion, which they experienced as young children and relived when falling in love. Most realize that they like themselves better when compassionate than when resentful, angry, or abusive. Most recognize that they have humane values that are more important to them than their egos and that their egos were constructed in large part as a defense against the shame of violating those values.

When motivated by ego-defense, people tend to violate their deepest values, insofar as they devalue loved ones. Motivated by their deepest values, their egos deflate to normal levels, along with the impulse to control, criticize, dominate, and devalue others.

At the outset, we ask clients to describe the most important thing about them — their deepest value, how they want loved ones to remember them, what they'll regret not having done enough of later in life. We experience a presage of this sort of regret when loved ones die. Even in the closest relationships, with relatively few negative feelings, faint questions come from within:

Did they know how much I loved them? Did I let them know how important they were to me?

For most people, that deepest value is caring for the people they love, with compassion and kindness.

The reward for staying true to our most humane values is authenticity, conviction, and long-term wellbeing, though not always short-term well-being. The consequence of consistently violating humane values is guilt, shame, and anxiety. Unfortunately, these are typically blamed on victims, suppressed with perceived entitlement, and expressed in relationships as resentment, anger, or abuse.

The Immune System of the Self

Core value is the immune system of the self, protecting us from self-diminishment by perceived insult or injury. It’s a place within, where we can get in touch with our deepest values, to improve, appreciate, connect, and protect, rather than blame, deny, or avoid. The boot camp helps clients develop a core value identity, that is, identifying with their ability to improve, appreciate, connect, and protect.

Treatment Strategies

The Love without Hurt boot camp has four main strategies, which I believe should be part of any treatment regimen for chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse.

Biological strategy: Increase the calming hormonesendorphins and oxytocinwhile decreasing the stimulant hormones — adrenaline and cortisol. The former feel good and increase with exercise and attachment behavior — compassion, kindness, affection. The latter feel temporarily more powerful but resolve in depressed feelings. They increase with resentment, anger, and verbally or physically aggressive behavior.

Coping strategy: Replace coping habits of blame, denial, and avoidance when disappointed or uncomfortable with habits of improving, appreciating, connecting, or protecting.

Personal healing strategy: The focus of recovery must center on personal healing. Instead of asking how to get their partners to do something, clients are urged to practice maintaining their core value, regardless of what their partners do.

Relationship strategy: Clients learn to focus on what they want, instead of what they don’t want. Chronic resentment has tricked them into focusing on what they don’t want. This is self-defeating because mental focus amplifies and magnifies their feelings of powerlessness. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy because whatever we focus on, we’re likely to get more of. Clients learn to focus on feeling lovable, not feeling loved. It’s hard to feel loved when we don’t feel worthy of it. What makes us feel lovable is experiencing the humane emotions — compassion, kindness, love.

The tricky part of treatment is distinguishing empowerment from blame. Clients learn that to feel empowered, they must stop blaming. Empowerment helps us make life better in the real world. Blaming makes us miserable because the real world isn’t the way it “should” be. It makes us focus on what we cannot do — control someone else. Empowerment keeps the focus on what we can do — control our own emotions and behavior. Blame is how my clients got into the hole; empowerment is how they get out of it.

Anyone who works with chronically resentful, angry, or abusive clients will attest to their propensity to deny and minimize the harm they cause. Preaching accountability before they know how to regulate their discomfort in humane ways will fall on deaf ears. Chronically resentful, angry, and abusive clients are so loaded with hidden guilt and shame that external demands for accountability seem like unfair punishment, like "piling on," as one client put it. To understand this, think of how easy it is now to give up denial of the stupid things you did as a teenager. It was impossible to give up denial then, but it's easy now only because you know a different way to be. Once empowered, clients become accountable for what they’ve done because they know better ways to be. The final homework assignment of the boot camp is a compassion statement, in which they enumerate all the hurts they've caused, along with the effects of their behavior on loved ones. They must describe the circumstances in which the harm was perpetrated and state how they will behave from their core value under similar circumstances in the future. Shame of what they were is replaced by pride in their new skills. It's the "Saving Grace" principle — "I once was lost but now I'm found."

Recovery from chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse is a long and difficult path. But the alternative — continuing to blame, deny, avoid, and harm — is a longer and infinitely more painful slide into oblivion.

Caveat: The treatment strategies described here are the same for domestic violence offenders but should not be offered in a boot camp format. Once physical violence occurs, abusers need ongoing monitoring for safety’s sake.

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