In last week’s post “The toxic (and intoxicating) effects of resentment” I introduced the idea that resentments can be difficult to let go of because they not only have negative effects but also they can serve the purpose of feeling powerful. Resentments can range from small ones, such as the person who cut you off in traffic or the bigger ones such as the person who abused you or the coworker who had you fired. Sometimes our resentments are not directed at any one individual but rather an institution such as a company, university, government agency or even an entire religion.
When I tell people I am a psychologist there are a few predictable responses: “You should use my family as a case study”, “that must be interesting” or “how can you listen to people whining about their problems all day, don’t you just want to tell people to just get over it?” So below is an exercise you might want to try to make a step towards finally getting over it! You can do this with one or many resentments you might carry. But like is commonly said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. So pick one, an easy one, and take it from there.
So here it is:
Write down who or what your are resentful towards. Then go through and write down what you’re angry about, how does the resentment affect you and those around you, what does it do FOR you, and then write down what the benefits would be of letting go of those feelings.
Here’s an example from my own list:
I am resentful at: Sarah (not her real name)
The reason: She said, “Congratulations! I didn’t know you were expecting!” I was actually four-years postpartum. (that outfit has long been retired)
What does the resentment do to me? It makes me irritated because every time I go to my son’s school, I get self-conscious about what I am going to wear. That makes it more difficult to get myself out of the house, which then causes me to rush the kids and bark orders, making me not a very nice mom.
What does holding on to it do FOR me? It helps me feel better than her “Can you believe she said something like that? I would never say something like that.” (Oh, and that makes me a liar as well!)
What are the benefits to myself and those around me of letting this go? I can move on, have more peace in the household, not be obsessed with my body, feel like I am setting a good example of forgiveness and be more likely to teach my kids how to really get over things by practicing it myself. (and, I’ll feel a little less hypocritical when I give professional advice!)
We give too much power to the people we resent. We let them rent so much space in our head, when we could be using that space to be inspired, focus on our dreams or just enjoy the amazing sight of the dawn.
Let’s consider some important steps on the road to forgiveness:
- Acknowledge your true feelings. Recognize you are indeed resentful/angry. People sometimes think they are somehow “above” these feelings and don’t recognize them. I don’t care how spiritual or Zen you are, how much yoga you do or how much green tea you drink – you are still human. That means you are vulnerable to the range of human emotions, including the negative ones.
- Recognize the cost. Think about how much this resentment is hurting you and how much energy you are expending on it. So often patients will tell me that they don’t think about it consciously, so they don’t really think it is a problem. Really? This is why we talk about this thing call the “unconscious.” We are naïve if we think that things we are unaware of can’t affect us. Have you ever had someone ask you why you are being short-tempered when you hadn’t even realized you were? Or, you realize you’re irritated but have no idea why? Things we don’t get can still get us.
- Focus on the payoff. If you have been holding on to a resentment for a long time, it can feel scary to not be angry. If anger makes you feel powerful — ready to protect or defend it at any moment – then you can worry that without it you are defenseless. But prolonged anger isn’t useful in keeping us motivated in the long term. In fact, the more time you spend stressed and angry, the less likely it will be that you will have the resources to deal with another issue that needs attention.
Don’t despair if it doesn’t work immediately. It doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. We are each unique and the process of forgiveness takes what it takes. Maybe the first name at the top of your list should be YOU!