Feeling Resentful? This Simple Tool Could Change Everything

Do you chronically stew or feel resentful about a person or situation? Try this.

Posted Sep 26, 2020

Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay
Source: Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay

I opened the door below the sink. A waterfall of empty tuna cans and plastic containers clattered out onto my feet and scattered across the kitchen floor. I felt the familiar irritation rise. Seriously—how can it be so hard for him to take the recycling out, just once a week?

As usual, this small frustration triggered a mental checklist of other longstanding complaints, omissions, and irritations. As I scrubbed the dishes, I went through the familiar list, my annoyance and resentment steadily rising.

Stop. I put down the dish sponge and rested my rubber-gloved hands on the edge of the sink.

I talk about this phenomenon to my patients and coaching clients all the time. So many of us, especially those who are prone to depression or anxiety, get sucked into negative rumination. In fact, certain situations may trigger rumination so powerfully, that we have to actively war against it.

My clinical work is in mental health, providing physician psychotherapy to patients primarily struggling with anxiety and depression. Based on my experience, your car may be one of the biggest triggers for negative or obsessive rumination. I’ve lost count of the times that people have told me that their mind goes wild while they’re commuting (probably because it hasn’t got much else to do).

They fume about unjust situations at work. They stew over frustrations with their spouse. They review and relive their anxieties.

We use different techniques to try to undo this “wiring,” to teach their brain a different response to driving solo. Listen to some music you love, sing, distract yourself with a good podcast, etc.

The sink is one of my biggest triggers, probably because my mind hasn’t got much to do, and the dishes remind me of differing commitments and values related to household chores. I’ve learned to catch myself when my resentment train gets going. I’ll shift my focus to what’s happening in the present. Feel the warmth of the water. Smell the lemony suds. Appreciate the satisfaction from a sparkling pot.

This time, it wasn’t enough. I recognized that my dish-triggered or recycling-provoked resentment was becoming too much of a habit. Breaking the cycle when it started wasn’t enough of a solution anymore.

To be clear, this post isn’t about solving domestic or workplace frustrations. If something is repeatedly bothering you in a relationship or situation, it may not be enough to just ignore it or distract yourself when you catch yourself thinking about it. You may need to speak up and initiate a discussion about what’s bothering you. My point here is something different.

I found a surprising way out of this pattern, that really floored me.

It occurred to me, that I could fight the growing resentment with gratitude.

That might sound like fodder for a syrupy Instagram quote, but here’s how it worked. Every night, before doing my usual “What Went Well” gratitude list (based on research by Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology), I would make a “Husband Gratitude List.”

I had to actively search my day for positive things that my husband had physically done, or positive qualities that he had displayed.

It was jaw-droppingly humbling.

Yes, he can be spectacularly forgetful when it comes to taking out the recycling. But he is so very helpful to me and our household, in so many ways. He comes up with endless practical solutions to what to me seem like unsolvable problems. He makes my life easier and better in big and small ways.

On some nights, after I finished “The List” in my head, I felt compelled to review my own day, hoping to find evidence that I had been anywhere near as thoughtful or helpful as he had. I found this quite hilarious, and eventually told him about my new habit (and my related discoveries).

I couldn’t believe how myopic and inaccurate my view of his contributions had been. I wasn’t actually on the sure path to sainthood that I’d assumed I’d been strutting along.

I’ve started helping with the recycling when it starts to overflow. And hardly ever have dark thoughts anymore, while doing the dishes.

I encourage you to try this. Is there someone who you frequently feel frustrated with, who you catch yourself obsessively stewing about? You know what I’m talking about.

Try using a gratitude list to counteract negative thoughts about any resentment-provoking person or situation. Do it as often as you have to. You may not find as much positivity as I did, but push yourself to find some redeeming, gratitude-worthy aspects.

When we get stuck in frustration and resentment, the things we resent can grow to outsized proportions. They may overshadow or obliterate the very real good that’s present. It’s usually there, and possibly in large amounts, if you take the time to look.

(Note: I don't recommend using this tool to better tolerate abusive or oppressive contexts; it applies to more average situations where we may have lost sight of the positive aspects of a relationship or circumstance.)

If you make it a habit to look for what's good, you may find that many of your resentments simply fade into the background.

© 2020 Dr. Susan Biali Haas, MD