The toxic (and intoxicating) effects of resentment
Dr. Paula Bloom
Colombia is a country with frequent kidnappings, often with tragic results.
Such was the case of a father who reported his 11-month-old son kidnapped, then joined in the frantic search for his missing child. The outcome was terrible: The child was found to have been killed by his own father.
While Colombia’s citizens are fairly jaded regarding crime, even they were outraged by this latest incident after it was revealed the father had some involvement in the kidnapping. In a country without the death penalty – or even life sentences in prison – citizens were now demanding both. Colombia’s president even spoke publicly about his anger regarding the crime.
A Colombian radio producer contacted me after seeing a television interview I had done on forgiveness. How could people handle their powerful feelings of anger and resentment? he asked.
During the interview, I struggled to balance the importance of acknowledging your feelings of anger and indignation, yet not “staying” in them. But I felt the host was confrontational, suggesting I was providing “Pollyanna” advice.
Of course the events were horrible, I responded. Of course this father should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Of course people are outraged, I said.
But behind the outrage, I pointed out, is typically a sense of fear, a sense of powerlessness.
Anger is not really a primary emotion. It can be what is “easiest” to express. What is often under that anger is fear. By acknowledging your fear, you get to the root of your feelings.
The reason I shared the story about the Colombian kidnapping is that one of the key things to remember about anger is that many people see it as a great motivator. If you forgive for a transgression – such as the murder of a child or perhaps hurtful words – then does that mean you will forget what happened? Absolutely not.
At the same time, I think people often are reluctant to forgive because they somehow feel that if they forgive, then they are excusing the bad behavior. It’s as if we’re saying that by forgiving someone, it justifies what that person did. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Resentment is like drinking poison – and expecting the other person to die. The only one who is made sick is the one harboring the resentment.
Of course, it’s often easy to let go of minor resentments such as when your mother-in-law asks for the third time: “Are you sure the baby is warm enough?” It’s annoying, but you just mumble to yourself and move on. But what happens when something much more terrible happens in your life? Will you be able to move on?
Resentment and anger are not only toxic, but often intoxicating. Anger can sometimes act as an antidote to feeling powerless: You can feel really powerful when you are indignant. But, like many drugs, the feeling is artificial and fleeting.
Forgiveness is really a choice we make. If we wait for the feeling to fill our hearts, inspiring us to forgive, we could spend our lives waiting. It is a decision – a conscious decision. While we don’t have control over events that occurred in the past, we have some say over what role those events play in our present. You may find that you may not necessarily feel immediately better after you forgive, but as with many things in life, action often precedes motivation
When I work with people who are depressed, I tell them that if they wait until they “feel” like doing fun things, they may wait a very long time. People with depression are notoriously bad at predicting how fun something might be and make decisions based on inaccurate assumptions. For example, if I ask a depressed patient who used to enjoy stamp collecting how much, on a scale of one to 10, they might enjoy an upcoming stamp collecting convention, they may say, “three.” But if they actually attend the convention, they inevitably tell me it was so much better than expected – a “seven.”
It is the same way with resentment. As you read this you may be thinking, “There is no way I am going to forgive the SOB who did that to me.” I understand that you may not be able to imagine how good it might feel, but can you take the leap of faith that it might feel great?
Remember: Your mind is like a magnifying glass. Whatever you focus on will expand. Do you want to focus on resentment, or forgiveness? Which one, do you believe, will ultimately make you feel (and live) better?
In next week’s post I’ll share some specific techniques for getting over resentments and moving on!
Dr. Paula Bloom Bio
Dr. Bloom is a practicing psychologist, speaker, and frequent CNN contributor.Learn More