Why Resentment Lasts—and How to Defeat It
Resentment could linger for the rest of your life unless you confront it.
Posted March 25, 2017 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
“I resent that!”
Philosophers have made the case that such statements are good (MacLachlan, 2010). It shows that you respect yourself and will not let others take advantage of you. Resentment shows that you are a person of moral character who knows right from wrong and, therefore, knows when wrong is done against you.
In contrast, psychologists can get worried about resentment because they mean something different. To psychologists, resentment over a long period of time can be an unhealthy response to injustice, sometimes an injustice that won’t quit—such as continual demeaning comments from a partner or the unreasonable demands of a boss who just doesn’t “get it.” Resentment in cases like these represents a development in one’s anger from mild to deeper—and it lingers. This kind of resentment can lead to unhappiness, continual irritability, and psychological compromise, including excessive anxiety and depression (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015).
If we could keep the philosopher’s resentment and banish the other, that course of action might be best. Yet it's not so easy, especially because the psychologist’s kind of resentment all too often is not a polite guest. It seems to never know when to leave. In fact, if left unchecked, it can take over the psychological house within you. Why is this? Consider three reasons.
First, we have all felt the initial euphoria created by a response of courage after another’s offense. We will stand up for ourselves. We will resist. Resentment can give you a feeling not only of euphoria but also of strength. Nurturing such a rewarding feeling can become a habit.
I know of one person who, upon having his morning cup of coffee, would replay a previous injustice and feel the inner strength as a way of getting ready for the day. He did this until he realized that over the long-term, such a routine was leaving him drained before he even left for work. His temporary adrenaline rush was turning on him. This is a case of positive reinforcement for something that shows itself, in the long run, to not be so positive.
Second, once we realize that our short-term euphoria is turning against us, we just don’t know how to get the resentment to leave. How do I turn off the resentment? What path do I take to have some inner quiet? Taking up jogging might do it—but sometimes, once you have recovered your energy from the run, the anger returns. How about relaxation training? Same issue: Once the muscle relaxation is over, there is resentment, with its perverse smile, looking back at you. “I just don’t know how to rid myself of the resentment!” is a cry I hear too often.
Third, and this is the most sinister of all, resentment can become a part of your identity, a part of who you are as a person. At this point, you move from showing resentful behavior to being a resentful person—and there is a large difference between the two. Once you start feeling like a particular kind of person, it can change your identity. So often people will live with an identity—a sense of self, a sense of who one is—that is compromising for them because they are afraid of change. The familiar is better than the alternative—even if the familiar includes pain and unnecessary suffering.
What to do about the unwanted guest? Try these 5 approaches:
- Try to see the inner world of the one causing the disturbance. Might he be carrying an extra burden of resentment himself, perhaps from times past? Might she be living with bitterness that is spreading to others, including you? Can you see the woundedness within the person who is wounding you?
- Commit to doing no harm to the one who is harming you. This allows for a new kind of inner strength to develop.
- Stand in the pain so that you do not pass it to innocent others. This, too, can strengthen you.
- Science has identified a powerful resentment-buster: forgiveness. To forgive is a way of offering goodness to the one who gave you the unwanted present of resentment. Rather than the strength of the clinched fist and jaw, the strength from forgiveness shows that you can soften your heart toward the one who infected yours. This can bring you inner relief.
- Finally, be open to your new identity. I am someone who can stand in the pain. I am someone who can forgive. I am even someone who can ask resentment to leave—and it leaves.
Which is the better identity: a life lived with an unwanted inner guest or a life free to be a conduit of good toward others and yourself?
Enright, R.D. (2012). The forgiving life. Washington, D.C.: APA Books.
Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
MacLachlan, A. (2010). Unreasonable resentments. Journal of Social Philosophy, 41. 422-441.