To Justify or Not to Justify

We can break the chains of resentment or strengthen each link.

Posted Oct 26, 2020

Justifying resentment is like justifying hunger; you never need to do it.

Of course, some people seem compelled to justify their hunger.

“I’m really hungry; I didn’t have lunch.”

Almost everyone feels compelled to justify resentment by explaining how unfairly they’ve been treated.

Some feel that resentment helps them “right a wrong,” although they’re far more likely to commit another wrong when trying to right one while resentful. The wrong they’re trying to right was most likely done to them by someone who was resentful. Resentment breeds resentment.

Everyone has been treated unfairly at some point, and everyone has treated others unfairly. We’re hypersensitive to the former and all but oblivious to the latter. It’s extremely difficult to evaluate our own behavior while resentful and even more difficult to see someone else’s perspective with anything close to accuracy. Resentment naturally polarizes.

In any case, you have an absolute right to your resentment. You don’t need to justify it or ask yourself:

“Is my resentment justified?” 

The more important question about resentment, as with hunger, is:

“Do I want to feel it?” 

If not, you need to understand that justifying resentment strengthens and prolongs what you don’t want. 

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. What we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t focus on. What we don't want becomes more important than what we do want. 

Repeated focus 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 can easily become the 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 having 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 continually to unfair or unreliable behavior, which overshadows the most positive experience.  

The other problem with adrenaline is that we build a tolerance to it; 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 negative perceptions. The stronger the resentment, the more justification it seems to require. And the more it’s justified, the stronger it grows, forging 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'd rather not feel.
  • Vulnerable emotions—guilt, shame, sadness—are seen as punishments rather than motivations to heal and improve.
  • Narrow and rigid emotional range—you’re either resentful or numb, with very little interest or enjoyment.

Feels Different From the Way It Looks

The negative reactions we always get to our resentment make us feel more misunderstood or more like a victim. That's because resentment feels different on the inside than it looks on the outside. We feel wronged, but we look mean and unfair. We feel like victims but look like victimizers. Try glancing at a mirror when you’re feeling resentful. 

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.

How Do You Want to Feel?

When we experience an emotion, the brain loads into implicit memory other times we felt that way. We’re likely to select behaviors from those memories and, if the emotion is negative, make the same mistakes over and over. 

When we focus on how we want to feel, the brain loads into implicit memory past instances that evoked similar feelings. We’re likely to select a behavior from those more desirable memories, which probably occurred when we were more open, flexible, compassionate, kind, or loving. The prefrontal cortex focuses on how to achieve the desired state rather than justify the undesirable one. 

The Urge to Justify

We justify resentment by citing evidence of unfairness and how badly other people behave. The more adrenaline we need for justification, the more subject to confirmation bias we become. 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 discounts evidence that contradicts them. 

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 or behavior is 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 acted humanely—it wasn’t the real me!”

Once again, you have an absolute right to your resentment. I believe you have a more compelling right to a live value-filled life, which is impossible with chronic resentment.