Resentment and Power

It’s the dull-eyed monster that mocks the flesh it eats.

Posted Jun 10, 2011

Personal power is the ability to do what is in your long-term best interests. Values are the built-in regulators of personal power, ensuring a sense of self-enhancement and integrity when adhered to and emotional turmoil when violated. Thus personal power comes from one source: creating value and staying true to the deeper values you create.

Confusion about power comes from thinking about it apart from values. Some equate personal power with the ability to do your will or have others do it for you. You can drive your car into the side of a building. You might even be able to coerce your wife or husband into doing it for you. But would you be powerful if did? Not doing self-destructive things, no matter how strong the urge, is the sublime measure of personal power.

Resentment precludes acting in anyone's best interests and is, therefore, a persistent cry of powerlessness.

There are two major reasons it's so easy to get stuck in recurring sour moods of resentment: It explains misfortune and seems to insulate against disappointment.

Resentment as Explanation of Pain

Humans need to have explanations of their painful experience. Even a completely inaccurate explanation feels more empowering than the doubt and confusion of no explanation at all. "The world sucks," or "I'm a loser," or "I'm married to an abuser," feel pretty bad, yet they seem better than, "My God, why is this happening to me?"

Because it seems to explain anxiety, failure, and depression, resentment is often embedded within other bad moods. Consider how it explains:

Anxiety: "We can't pay our bills, because my spoiled spouse spends too much money."
Frustration: "Nothing works the way it should!"
Failure: "Nobody would give me a break."
Depression: "If I hadn't been so stupid, I'd have a decent life now. If people were kinder to me.... If my parents hadn't...."

Resentment's easy explanation of bad feelings is a large part of why it lasts so long. Without covert resentment, even a depressed brain will eventually look for ways to heal, correct, and improve. A worried brain, free of hidden resentment, will muster the resources to find the antidotes to anxiety: learning more, making plans, and increasing ability to cope. A brain confronted with frustration and failure but free of resentment will reconceptualize the problem and try something more likely to succeed.

The Devil Expected is Better than One that Sneaks up on You

Most of the time, it is extremely important for humans to predict the behavior of other people, lest they suddenly become threatening. Anxiety shoots through the roof if we feel unable to make accurate predictions, even if the unpredictable behavior seems benign. Just watch the anxiety of passersby on a city street when a homeless person approaches them, smiling warmly while wishing them health and happiness.

We loathe unexpected bad news. Somehow we swallow even the worst circumstances more easily if we see them coming. As children we learned to soften the crash into disappointment by lowering expectations - if you don't start so high, you don't fall so hard. We rehearsed a response to getting turned down for a date far more than what we would say if accepted. We started to think about the next job interview while the current interviewer was still asking questions.

Which of the following is worse?

Getting fired from a job:

  1. After several warnings and personality conflicts with co-workers
  2. The day after a favorable evaluation from a friendly supervisor.

Betrayal by:

  1. Someone you never trusted
  2. Your best friend.

The need to anticipate bad news is obviously survival-based. You don't want to focus so much on getting out of the cave for some fresh air that you ignore the saber tooth tiger lurking in the rocks.

The trouble is, left on automatic pilot, the brain is a better safe than sorry system; it would rather be wrong 999 times thinking your spouse is a saber tooth tiger than be wrong once thinking a saber tooth tiger is your spouse. As resentment distorts moment-by-moment reality, it gets harder and harder to distinguish the the saber tooth tiger from the beloved.

As long as we look for things to resent, it seems that we can eliminate unpleasant surprises. "He never cares about what I want, so naturally he'll come home with the car he wants." This sounds like a variation on "Expect the worst, hope for the best." But in the chain of resentment it becomes, "Expect the worst, resent everything but the best. And be cautious about that; it might be a trick." If he comes back with the car I want, he has something up his sleeve or feels guilty about something.

In regard to anxiety over the unpredictable behavior of others, the chain of resentment once again comes to the rescue! The behavior of other people becomes entirely predictable once you forecast unfairness, unreliability, selfishness, and bad faith.

"It's going fine so far, but she'll find a way to ruin my weekend."
"You'll see, he'll make it harder on us but more convenient for him."
"Sure, you say that now, but when crunch time comes, you won't be there for me."

The Self-fulfilling Prophesy of Powerlessness

"Expect the worst from someone and you'll likely get it." The truth of this maxim owes to projective identification. That's when people identify with projections. With an attitude like, "I can't trust you to stay within our budget," the best you can hope for, once the credit card is maxed out: "You were right, I'm no good with money."

"If you have the urge to buy that dress, just remember that the temptation comes from the devil," predicts...well, you guessed it: "The devil made me buy that dress!"