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Five Keys to Getting Over Resentments

How old wounds keep us from the peace and serenity that comes from forgiveness.

Source: violetblue/Shutterstock

Every year of life impacts us, but nothing is as crucial to the personality’s development as the first six years. It also contains many of the hidden seeds that spawn stubborn resentments later in life.

Some resentments may stem from the caregivers and family that took care of and surrounded us during our most vulnerable and dependent state, while other grievances are reserved for those that abandoned their parental and familial post. Still other resentments experienced later in life, when stripped away of the superficialities, bear a striking resemblance to the initial hurts experienced in the formative years of life.

The problem with nursing hurts is the poison ingested from resenting others can be fatal for the wounded. It’s akin to a kind of infinite jeopardy, as the person consciously and unconsciously replays the offending event in their mind over and over again on an endless loop without resolution. They are stewing in the problem and wreaking havoc on their well-being.

Conducting a psychic excavation of the resentment(s) can lead to (1) understanding the source of the pain; (2) learning the defensive-mechanisms, or protective layers of feelings, associated with a resentment; (3) recognizing how old resentments get triggered so that dramas can re-play themselves in our lives (“unfinished business”); and (4) having the solution that allows you to free yourself from biting the bait of bitterness and replacing it with a genuine sense of peace.

1. The Source of Initial Resentment

An entire library could be written on this topic as the experiences and schemas formed in childhood are as vast and diverse as life itself. Nonetheless, there a few common scars shared by multitudes of people (cross-culturally and generationally) that occur in childhood and shape attachments, resentments, and how one relates to and protects oneself in the world.

Abandonment, abuse and neglect.

The scales of abandonment, abuse, and neglect range from brutal and abhorrent accounts—like mutilation; an infant being left to die in a field; starvation; living in war; homelessness; living in squalor; exposure to drugs with addicted parents; living through a natural disaster like a hurricane, flood, earthquake, or fire; witnessing death, rape, abuse, and torture; being raped and tortured—to less severe accounts that still sear the memory with threat—like witnessing parents fighting; not having needs met in timely manner, such as being left in dirty diapers for prolonged periods of time, not being fed in time, not being soothed, not being hugged and reassured; losing one or both parents; frequent moves; exposure to persistent loud noise and other extreme sensations; being hit by siblings and/or playmates; left alone for prolonged periods; not having proper medical attention in timely manner; being dismissed, ignored, and belittled; not having healthy boundaries and consistent caregiving; or not being taught rules and lessons to develop emotional maturity.

There are plenty of things in anyone’s life (rich and poor) that can be extracted from childhood as proof of injury—and to validate one’s scorn.

To help discover sources of your pain, take a moment to write down any hurts you experienced, even things that seem innocuous. Give yourself permission to feel whatever feelings come up. Honor them and, if you can, try to imagine your adult self responding to your wounded child self—and taking care of him/her as you would have wished you could have been cared for in the various memory scenes that surface. For instance, perhaps you are holding your child self and soothing him/her. You might be feeding him/her or thwarting an abusive parent or sibling from doing harm. Whatever the scenario, try to imagine changing the scene and providing the comfort, love, and care you needed as a child. Don’t be afraid to tackle this a little at a time.

*It’s easy to offer self-help exercises, yet some of the material from our past can trigger trauma and put us in potentially harmful situations if we do not have adequate support around us. Please seek help if you are struggling and without any resources. There are free community clinics in many areas and Psychology Today has a therapist directory that gives you profiles of professionals in your zip code. Click here to conduct a search: Please call 911 if it’s an emergency

2. Common Defensive Mechanisms to Resentment

Like inflammation around a cut, many feelings and reactions act as a protective response to pain. Defense mechanisms are feelings and reactions typically employed to protect us from pain—and many times the protective feelings occur in layers.

For instance, a common initial defense mechanism is denial. It acts like a numbing balm that maintains there are no problems and that everything is fine. Denial can be positive and protective yet can also run the risk of causing perpetual distraction from fully experiencing the moment and the associated deeper feelings and sensations that can arise in the here and now.

When fully present, the layers of feelings begin to reveal themselves and it becomes easier to recognize how we protect ourselves to cover up deeper feelings. Some use humor to dismiss discomfort with jokes. Feeling irritable, cranky, and/or easily angered are other defensive veils. When pushed to feel, the feeling of anger and irritability may escalate and blaming may ensue. However, underneath these defense mechanisms are generally feelings like hurt, fear, and pain.

One gestalt technique for accessing the deeper, and more honest, feelings is tuning in to what your body is telling you: Are you repeatedly fidgeting or nodding your head or scratching at your arm? If you can catch yourself in the act and ask what your body or body movement would say, the immediate answer that comes to mind may reveal your hidden feelings.

It might help to know that any hurt, fear, and pain could be in response to a current event yet could also signal an echo of a pain from childhood when it’s acute and unshakeable.

In fact, many patterns of relationship distress and conflict, career and financial habits, and some aspects of addiction stem from a continual activation of old wounds. This can sometimes be referred to as unfinished business.

3. Unfinished Business

The upside of experiencing the pain from old wounds is the opportunity to recognize that a pattern of previous hurts is repeating itself—and take steps to heal it. Referred to as unfinished business, the theory is that patterns will continually repeat themselves until we heal the original wound and finally respond differently to the pattern (or until we “finish the business”).

One of my first clinical supervisors described her experience with the concept by recalling her relationship with her mother: A tall and confident woman with dark hair who seemed so self-assured and composed that she bordered on intimidating, except that she had a caring air that made those around her feel comfortable and understood. I had imagined that she had a stellar childhood, so it surprised me when she described how her mother was cruel and had degraded and demeaned her since she was a child. She expressed there was nothing that she could do to receive any positive praise from her mother, no matter how hard she tried or how accomplished she became. Her excellent grades and degrees from Ivy League schools, her numerous publications, and the masses of people she helped were met with ridicule and contempt—and left her perpetually feeling “not good enough.”

After undergoing deeper work, she recognized a pattern of unfinished business when she identified that every boss and relationship partner she ever had were eerily similar. While they looked different on the outside and had varied personalities and issues, the core pattern was that she was met with constant criticism and never had any of her contributions acknowledged. After her revelation and some inner work that resulted in gaining self-confidence and losing the fear that she wasn’t good enough, her subsequent bosses and her marital partner have been supportive, loving, kind, and affirming. The conflict and old patterns of criticism melted away and she has ceased being drawn to critical people for validation.

4. Empowering Steps to End Unhealthy Patterns

Begin by being fully present in the here and now. As feelings emerge, pay attention to any defense mechanisms you employ to stave off uncomfortable feelings. Be patient with yourself through the process: Emotional evolution takes time. Part of being human is living with our—and other people’s—imperfections, emotional wounds, and defense mechanisms. The key is being fully present to life, to yourself, and to employing healthy boundaries to best take care of you, for that is how you are most able to emotionally and compassionately show up for other people.

For example, I discovered (and continue to learn) that I have a people-pleasing pattern. I would feel anxious when the people around me weren’t happy. Instead of going through the layers of my deeper feelings, I escaped myself by working harder and harder to make everyone happy. Of course, that only set me up for resenting the very people I was trying to help. It was a vicious cycle. After doing some inner work and recognizing that I get anxious when others around me are unhappy, I was able to identify some of the initial patterning from my developmental years. My parents would get into horrible fights that were frightening. Sometimes my father would harm my mother and she would cry. I remember feeling scared and wanting to take care of my mother, so I would do anything to make both of them happy. I tried helping with housework, fetching items for them, trying to cook, hugging them—anything to make them happy. I recall showing them a photo where they were kissing each other and asking them to please hug and kiss each other like they did when they were in the picture. The full weight of my unfinished business in this area hit me when I was an intern working with clients who were recovering from their traumas and conflicted marriages.

Healing my pattern didn’t mean quitting my job and not helping people anymore. Instead, it meant being present and recognizing the defense mechanisms that were covering up my own anxiety. I learned to fully feel the layers of my feelings and to listen to what my inner self was saying. So often, we ignore our internal voice and miss the opportunity to attend to our essential needs and hear the wisdom of our inner truth. That’s why counseling can be so reparative. It provides a safe space where we can speak freely and allow our inner voices to emerge. A trained professional can be a fantastic guide to differentiating between the dialogue of defense mechanisms and irrational fears to the purer voice of your most authentic self. Journaling, meditating, documenting dreams, and other activities that allow inner feelings to surface can prove invaluable on the path to emotional evolution.

5. Emotional Evolution Leads to Forgiveness

When we become aware of our core feelings and inner truth, the resentments and dysfunctional patterns tend to melt away. There’s no longer a proverbial dog in the fight when the unfinished business is completed. Compassion for self becomes compassion for others as we realize that every person is working on their own emotional evolution and simply are where they are. As such, they may not inflict harm on purpose as it could be indicative of their own defense mechanisms. We can detach from taking their behavior personally while also disengaging from the drama because we no longer need our defense mechanisms. Moreover, we can even feel grateful for the people and situations that activated our old wounds and served as wake-up call for our own growth. A feeling of genuine gratitude and peace replaces the old irritability and resentments. We are free because we stopped silencing ourselves and can no longer blame others for aiding in our own self-silencing, self-abuse, and self-imprisonment.

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