Resentment is often compared with taking poison and expecting it to harm the offender rather than yourself — an unwise choice no matter how you look at it. The negative effects of resentment are numerous, and range from physical ailments to emotional and social impairments. It is almost like treasuring nuclear fallout rather than eradicating it; allowing it to spread its cancer instead of disposing of it properly.
It’s natural to initially feel angry and hurt when you’ve been treated unfairly; but to move forward in a positive and healthy way, it is essential to process these emotions and let them go. If you are a chronic grudge-holder, you may see this as a tall order; but with the correct solvents, even the most stubborn resentment can be removed. Rationality, empathy and faith are your allies in this battle. Let’s look at how to activate them.
When someone hurts you — emotionally, physically, financially or socially — your initial concerns are most likely self-centered. You feel offended, angry or humiliated; and you resent that person for “making” you feel that way. Rather than being led down a dark path by your negative emotions, you can actually take the reins and guide them toward the high road of forgiveness. To see why, let’s review some of the negative impacts resentment can have on your health and well-being.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, anger and resentment are the emotions associated with the liver — the internal organ integral to digestion and the continuous, rhythmic flow of energy and blood throughout the body. Irritability, digestive complaints, PMS, dry eyes, headaches and tendonitis can all be symptoms of liver imbalance, which is generally attributed to anger, resentment and repressed frustration.
Western medicine also recognizes the impact of anger and resentment on our health.
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It may seem obvious that harboring strong negative emotions like anger, bitterness and resentment will impact your mental health. Resentful people are likely to experience more anxiety, stress, aggressive behavior and depression; all of which can, in turn, impact your physical health.
Chronic stress is known to impact many bodily functions; including the digestive, immune and reproductive systems, sleep, and cardiovascular health. Asthma, headaches, insomnia, poor digestion, and heart disease are common complaints among those with high levels of stress.
Excessive anger has also been linked to cognitive impairment, with possible degraded decision-making abilities, memory, and perception of reality — making for difficult social situations.
A resentful person is hard-to-please, and may exhibit antisocial behavior. Even if they don’t, having shown oneself to be a grudge-holder may cause others to minimize contact for fear of unintended offense. Resentment can also wreck a good relationship.
Taking all this into consideration, is resentment something worth holding on to? Imagine it as a taxing burden that you’re carrying around needlessly. Realizing that the only rational thing to do is to let it go is a big step in the right direction, yet resentment may be so deeply ingrained that you’re unclear how exactly to release it.
It’s easy, albeit depressing, to wallow in self-pity when we get hurt. Perhaps we hope to gain some attention or instill guilt, but the results are never as good as offering forgiveness. The ability to forgive frees you from the continual, nagging influence of the offense — making life more tolerable for everyone involved, especially yourself.
Say someone stole from you, cheated on or lied to you, damaged your reputation, or physically abused you or someone you love. Overwhelmed with emotion, you might find these serious offenses impossible to forgive. Yet this difficult task becomes natural when we learn to empathize with others. After giving yourself time to acknowledge and process your own feelings, try setting them aside to explore the other person’s perspective.
What makes him or her behave the way they do? Do they even realize that they hurt you? Chances are, their offense was not meant to do harm, but even if it was — try to find a reason behind it. Do they have emotional difficulties themselves? Might you have done something to cause them to act that way? Did they encroach on boundaries that you never made clear; or neglect your needs that were never expressed?
While you don’t want to get caught up in self-blame, it is important to look at all the possibilities so you can really understand the object of your resentment. Keep probing until you have at least an inkling of how they might feel. Empathy softens our inclination to take an offense personally, and opens our hearts to forgiveness.
Remember that, while you should hold yourself to a high standard, you cannot control others’ behavior. Understand your own expectations, and make them clear. You may still be disappointed, but try to accept the disappointment as an opportunity to improve your tolerance.
Keep in mind that we all have our faults and make many mistakes — big and small. Abandon the wish to punish. Imperfect as we are, we can leave judgment and punishment to the higher powers that govern the universe.
Find your faith
Resentment is a sort of primitive, backwards attempt at self defense. Out of a fearful wish to avoid repeating a painful situation, we hold onto that pain as a form of protection — not realizing that what manifests is a cycle of self-destruction. All this is based on a narrow understanding of our existence. When we take a look at the broader picture, the insignificance of our personal slights becomes clear and we can find our place in harmony with the universe.
Consider, for instance, the infinitely complex nature of all the myriad beings on Earth; the beauty and mystery of the universe around us; and the collective consciousness of lives everywhere. What immense wisdom and universal laws govern all that is? When we put our faith in a higher power, we abandon fear. When we accept what the universe has arranged for us, we have no use for resentment. When we look upon everything with wonder and awe, there is no room for anger.
All great sages and upright faiths advise us to avoid acting in anger or harboring resentment. The Bible addresses this topic many times, perhaps most explicitly in Romans 12:17-21 ESV:
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Buddhism sees anger as one of the three poisons responsible for all suffering on earth. One must purify oneself of the three poisons in order to enlighten to the Truth.
In the Tao De Ching, Lao Tzu described the virtues required for unity with heaven:
A good soldier is not violent.
A good fighter is not angry.
A good winner is not vengeful.
A good employer is humble.
Confucius said, “If you expect great things of yourself and demand little of others, you’ll keep resentment far away…The demands that good people make are upon themselves; Those that bad people make are upon others.”
Knowing full well that resentment needs to be eliminated doesn’t necessarily make it easy. It may be a long and difficult process to overcome deep-seated resentments, but it can be done.
For the sake of your physical and mental health, to save your deteriorating relationships, and to restore a life of joy and fulfillment, take tackling resentment as a serious endeavor and go about it systematically to eradicate it once and for all.
Acknowledge your resentments and break them down
The following exercise, adapted from the effective twelve-step program developed for the recovery from self-abusive behavior, can guide you through the process of dissolving resentment. All you need is a pen and paper, a willing heart, and the determination to follow through.
- Make a list (it could be long) of all the people/entities you feel resentment towards, and record what caused the resentment. List each resentment separately for any characters with multiple offenses. Be sure to list everything, even if it seems trivial or makes you feel despicable. Give yourself room to tack on additional resentments that might be recalled later.
- Now, acknowledge how each resentment affects your life. Reflect on how the injustice made you feel, and what you are subconsciously trying to protect against through these resentments. Did a betrayal cause a lack of trust? Did humiliation cause you to become overly self-conscious? Did you stop talking because you felt you weren’t heard? Examine exactly how each resentment has shaped your identity and impacted your ability to feel positive emotions like confidence, love, hope, security and joy.
- Next, employ empathy and consider the offender’s perspective. If it possible, write down several positive things associated with them, and recall the ways you treasure your relationship — possibly the reason for this exercise. This should open the doors to forgiveness.
- Finally, you will need to take a critical look at the part you played in each offense. Consider how you might have handled things differently and arrived at a better outcome. Did you fail to communicate your needs? Were you disrespectful or unkind? Were your expectations unreasonable? Is it possible you misunderstood their words or actions? Or have you spent years blaming yourself for something that was not your fault? This is where resentments should really start to crumble.
Working through this assignment in earnest may be painful, but it will not only facilitate the release of old resentments; the process will also help you identify and curb your thoughts and behaviors that lead to new resentments. Whether you decide to forgive your trespassers in person or simply in your heart makes little difference, but be sure to do it sincerely. You may choose to keep the exercise as a reminder of your hard work, or burn it to complete the process of letting go.
Exercise self-compassion throughout the process, and be patient. Several years of built-up anything is rarely dissolved overnight.
Remember to look at every situation rationally, communicating your expectations and disappointments as necessary; open your heart to understanding and forgiving others; and have the faith to accept what is, and to relinquish the desire to control what you can’t. With determination you can look forward to enjoying a better you — one filled with contentment rather than resentment.
Please note: Forgiveness is a positive state of mind that can help restore health, vitality and relationships, but it does not mean ignoring and accepting abusive behavior. You should be discerning whether a relationship is healthy or toxic, and rely on rationality rather than emotions to make important life decisions. Even when a relationship should be terminated, it’s important to forgive the person in your heart — resentment should not be the cause for separation.