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Debunking Bad Advice About Resentment

Before accepting psychological advice, test the hypotheses in your own life.

Key points

  • Resentment feels different from the way it looks.
  • Resentment can be narcissistic, in that it relegates other people to mere sources of feelings.
  • Resentment is often a catalyst for unfair treatment from others, not a deterrent.
  • Resentment lowers self-value by trapping those who suffer it in devalued states, obsessing about how they've been wronged.
This post is in response to
Embracing Bitterness: The Benefits of Resentment

One of the worst psychological pieces of advice on the internet is that which describes resentment as a “healthy emotion.” Contrary evidence in psychology and medicine notwithstanding, some authors argue that resentment is nevertheless healthy because it “tells you something is wrong.” So does disease, emotional disorder, and addiction. There are healthy ways to know that something is wrong and there are unhealthy ways.

Resentment is not a discreet emotion; it’s an impotent form of anger. Where overt anger motivates aggressive action, the aggression of resentment is mostly in your head, enacted, if at all, predominantly with passive-aggressive behavior, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, contempt, or sabotage. Resentment keeps the pump primed for overt aggression, but is not in itself aggressive.

Resentment Does Not Keep You Safe

Consider your own resentments and how they dominate your thoughts and consume emotional energy. Have you been hurt less since you’ve been resentful?

We’re likely to get hurt more when resentful because it feels different from the way it looks.

Test the hypothesis:

Look in a mirror and think of something you resent. You’ll likely look away from the mirror as you do; it’s difficult to hold eye contact when resentful, even with yourself. But force yourself to hold onto the resentful thoughts—how things are unfair and wrong—and look up at the mirror. You’ll see what the world sees.

Resentment feels like you’ve been wronged or ill-treated. It looks mean, unfriendly, entitled, and self-righteous.

Resentment is a catalyst to people treating you unfairly, not a deterrent. The principle of emotion reciprocity predicts that we get back what we put out, especially when we transmit negative emotions. Resentment breeds resentment.

Test the hypothesis:

Think of when someone reproached you with resentment. Did it inspire cooperation, affection, reconciliation? Or did it make you resentful and judgmental of their “flaws?”

Resentment Distorts Thinking

Resentment is a perception of unfairness: you’re not getting the help, appreciation, support, praise, reward, or affection you think you deserve. The trouble is, we’re hypersensitive to the unfairness of others, but on autopilot, hardly sensitive at all to our own unfairness. To objectively evaluate our own fairness requires effortful reflection, a process inhibited by guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, perceived need, fragile ego (easily insulted), and diminished physical resources. We automatically judge other people’s unfairness but need a weekend retreat to appreciate our own.

Resentment is narcissistic in that it’s impossible to see other perspectives while resentful. Presuming the infallibility of your own perspective, you assume the worst about other people’s intentions. For example, resentment makes you interpret a friend being late for an appointment as devaluing the “importance of your time,” when it is far more likely that the friend is disorganized, which means she doesn’t value her own time sufficiently. The narcissism of resentment makes other people exist only as a source of your feelings, rather than complex, valuable, and vulnerable people in their own right.

We sense this intuitively, which is why people feel compelled to justify their resentment with evidence of other people’s unfairness. But justification is embedded with confirmation bias—the tendency to cherry-pick evidence that supports the judgment of unfairness, while overlooking contrary evidence. That’s part of the reason why resentment is self-validating:

If I’m resentful, you must be unfair.

In many cases, judgments of unfairness do not cause resentment; resentment causes judgments of unfairness.

In fact, it may be impossible to know, on autopilot, whether you’re "wronged" or if others are reacting to you disregarding their feelings and dismissing their perspectives. The autopilot brain judges other people’s behavior, but not what they’re reacting to, namely us.

Resentment Blunts Self-Awareness

The only self-knowledge revealed by resentment concerns your ego-defenses, not your deeper emotional experience of life. Hidden behind the veil of ego-defense is the true motivation for healing and corrective behavior: sadness, guilt, shame, anxiety, fear.

Test the hypothesis:

Think of something you resent. Feel the tightness in your shoulders, the slight increase in heart rate, and then ask, “What might I also be sad about, ashamed of, guilty or anxious about, afraid of?

Resentment works like ice on a wound. It temporarily numbs the pain of vulnerable emotions but inhibits healing. You cannot heal and resent at the same time.

Test the hypothesis:

Think of when you've dealt with your resentment by controlling someone else’s behavior, and you were successful, they did what you wanted. Were you then less resentful? Or did the resentment transfer to something else within a day or two?

Emotionally intelligent people are less resentful because they’re more aware of their vulnerable emotions and better able to see other perspectives. They’re aware of relationship problems and able to address them without the blame and denial inherent in resentment.

Think of resentment as a flame and vulnerable feelings as the fuel. Until you regulate the fuel, resentment can make you judge anything as unfair.

Resentment Precludes Negotiation and Cooperation

Resentment is inherently coercive: you do what I want, or you’ll be punished via invidious judgment, disrespect, or the withdrawal of affection. Negotiation requests cooperation, resentment demands submission. Appreciation inspires cooperation; resentment provokes resistance. To get cooperative behavior from others, we must engage their reflective brain. Resentment invokes the autopilot brain, limiting response to defensiveness and counter-accusations.

Resentment Lowers Self-Value

It puts control of your emotional well-being in the hands of someone you’ve judged to be unfair or unreliable. In the unlikely event that you get a favorable response to your resentment, you will not feel more valuable, you’ll feel more powerful for a short time and empty afterwards. Self-compassion and perspective-taking raise self-value, not resentment, which is more about impression management than genuine self-value.

Test the hypothesis:

Compare your experience of resentment with your experience of perspective-taking—understanding another person’s vulnerabilities and desires. In which state do you like yourself better?

Which explanation makes you like yourself better?

My friend is late because she doesn't value my time.

Or,

My friend is anxious and has difficulty managing her time. I'll tell her that date is earlier than it really is.

Genuine self-value, as opposed to entitlement and inflated ego, arises from behaving according to your most humane values, not controlling other people’s behavior, or coercing their impressions of you. We are worthy of respect, thoughtful consideration, and fair treatment only to the extent that we are respectful, considerate, and fair.

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