Eight Questions for Understanding and Healing Resentment
Resentment is a long emotion and deserves attention.
Posted August 26, 2022 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
I recently heard psychologist Thema Bryant-Davis (president-elect of the American Psychological Association) say that resentment prevents connection, and causes others to meet us in our wounds, not in “who we truly are.”
This is a wonderful encapsulation, but the soundbite left out the fact that it is actually disconnection and woundedness that breeds resentment to begin with. “Disconnection is at the root of suffering, and the opposite of suffering is belonging,” is the key insight of relational cultural theory.
Disconnection and resentment are a perniciously vicious cycle, and I’m sure Dr. Bryant-Davis knows that. Reconnection must begin with empathy for and understanding of resentment, not in categorically labeling it as a “bad” emotion.”
Audre Lorde wrote that “anger is loaded with information and energy.” Resentment is similarly loaded with information, energy, agony, history, identity and meaning. Resentment, like any difficult emotion, is not the real “particle of concern,” so to speak. The real particles of concern are our needs for understanding and our journeys of identity, belonging, wellness, and meaning. Resentment can cloud our journeys, and it can inform.
To help a person bearing resentment on their journeys, the therapist (or friend, partner and community member) has to first empathically connect with the whole person, including their woundedness, resentment, and bitterness. Resentment makes it hard to connect – but if we can connect to the vulnerability, the loss, the unfulfilled need, the grief, and the pain underneath the resentment, anger, and bitterness, we can actually meet the person where they’re at, so to speak, and begin the process of healing. We must remember that the person expressing resentment is a vulnerable human being with unmet needs and unresolved pain.
Resentment is also part of our common humanity, particularly at this stage of American and global history. Resentment might very well define our zeitgeist. Who doesn’t resent the particular difficulties of our time, or feel like someone should or should have cut them a break, and didn’t?
Who hasn’t resented the fundamental unfairness of life, or the ways others have impinged on our sense of self, safety, or well-being, or even betrayed us or our ideals? Resentment is a ‘long emotion.’ It sticks around. Marginalized peoples in particular have historical reasons for resentment and grievance – and many have developed deep cultural responses and wisdom that could help the broader culture, as we all face a seeming wall of collective difficulty.
In the same program (see references), I heard Dr. Kelly Wilson, psychology professor emeritus at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, relate his own story of resentment and forgiveness of his father who abandoned him.
He says that on the other side of resenting someone is a longing for love. I would add to that there are also longings for safety, protection, belonging, understanding, respect, justice, and the fulfillment of other basic needs. Resentment can map out to not just the interpersonal world, but also the culture itself, in that the culture often fails to understand or meet basic needs, particularly of more vulnerable populations. In a previous post (see references), I called these longings “universal human transmissions.” They are the cries of disappointment, disaffection, and resentment that can be heard throughout our human voyage in time.
Resentment splits self against other, and discloses internal splits that might not be easily negotiated. Resentment sometimes reveals a propensity to split and blame, and can feed jealousy, competitiveness and antagonism. Resentment might also be a necessary split in a hostile environment, to protect one’s identity or preserve an important memory or sense of self against a threatening, unempathic, and subordinating environment.
Resentment, like anger, hostility, and jealousy, are emotions of power, which spring from our vulnerability. Only with awareness, compassion, and relationship can they turn into insight and lose their steely grip on our psyches.
People may feel resentful when their self-concept feels threatened or they feel disempowered. The last few years have showcased the resentment and hostility of many in the dominant culture against minorities and immigrants, and against political, socio-cultural and demographic change. Vulnerability, dissatisfaction and resentment can be stoked and weaponized by malicious actors, propelling dangerous intergroup and interpersonal sentiments and actions.
In resentment, people can also carry half-baked, fictive, distorted, or even delusional narratives about themselves and others which are not actually true. We all ultimately see the world through our own eyes, and thus we might downplay and devalue perspectives that would change our own. We could all do with a little “walk in other people’s moccasins.” Resentment can be a narrowing of perspective, a focusing on the objectionable to the exclusion of other salient information. We need to regularly take stock of where resentment is leading us.
There are corollaries in other animals for resentment. Rats who see litter mates getting more tasty food become aggressive towards them. Capuchin monkeys who see other capuchin monkeys getting grapes when they get cucumber slices become quite enraged. However, rats who see unrelated rats get tasty food do not become aggressive. It’s interesting, and reminds me that we are sometimes most resentful and envious of those who are closest to us in relationship or ambition. We have not fully promoted visions for equity in American society, and resentment seethes out of the gap between what we want and what is available. Facebook and social media often stoke social comparison and resentment – Facebook and Instagram can be “proof” that other people are having more fun and are seemingly more popular than us in that particular moment!!
But we are endowed with human consciousness, so most of us have more choice about our emotional journeys than rats or capuchin monkeys. As long as we limit our social media time!
One can imagine that in pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer, and indigenous communities, where we built our egos around IRL relationships with people and interdependence with nature, there was a more natural and spontaneous sense of fairness and equity, and more interpersonal soothing (emotional co-regulation). I imagine the potential for resentment was kept more at bay. But now, in our less-related world, our egos revolve more around property, houses, possessions, status, achievements, wealth, beauty and looks – all very contingent, precarious and superficial pathways to an unsteady self-esteem, thus leading to dissatisfaction, disconnection, and resentment intrapsychically as well as interpersonally and in society.
Our egos also revolve too strongly around ideology, fixed opinions, and connection to a faction, causing disagreements to become catastrophic disconnections, thus deepening resentment. Resentment becomes an ideology in and of itself. We can become attached to it as a marker of personal and group identity.
We are still quite irrevocably wired for connection. A new experience of relatedness with ourselves and others will quite naturally ease resentment. But with that new experience must come a deeper understanding of the causes of harm, and commitment to non-harm, human dignity, respect, allyship, and compassion, for vulnerable populations and for our own vulnerability.
I don’t think resentment is always totally resolvable in one’s own head. Therapy, relationship, and cultural learnings are necessary. But when you feel resentment, you might ask yourself these eight questions:
- From what wound does the resentment spring?
- If the resentment could speak, what needs does the resentment wish could have been filled?
- What do you wish could happen to resolve your resentment?
- Is it possible to forgive? In other words, can you conceive of letting go of your own bitterness, grudge, and resentment, but not necessarily the wish for accountability?
- If you can’t forgive – can you be merciful?
- Can you at least offer yourself self-compassion for carrying this difficult emotion?
- What work in the world could you engage in to ease the causes of resentment, in yourself and others?
- How might you value all of yourself, and hold this wound with care, so that it doesn’t impair your growth?
Best wishes to you on your healing journey!
(c) 2022 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.
For further reading and viewing:
Lorde A. The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. Available in Sister, Outsider and online.
Mindful Self-Compassion workshops at SF Love Dojo (September 2022) and ongoing at Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.
NICABM’s Practical Strategies for Working with Deep-Seated Resentment
Chandra R. Jesus, The Three Wise Men, and Universal Human Transmissions. Psychology Today, December 30, 2021
Chandra R. Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 15.2: Lama Rod Owens and the Emotional Body of Asian Americans (on anger and belonging) East Wind eZine, August 24, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness.