I hear about resentment ALL THE TIME. Whether it’s from clients working through a 12 step program in recovery, people digging through the rubble of a break-up or friends struggling in a horrible job situation, resentment isn’t simply having bad feelings or being caught in a rough spot. Resentment is a SITUATION, friends. It’s a situation in which we re-injure ourselves again and again, a cycle of self-suffocation under the weight of an original pain. It’s picking a scab over and over, a festering infection we then blame on someone else. We ignore our opportunity to heal and instead, we tread in the pond of fetid despair and rage. It’s downright Shakespearean.
When you break the word down, it means “to feel again”. To re-feel, re-sent. So we have an original thing, for example, a close friend betrays us, deserts us in our hour of need. Or maybe someone lies to us. Performs underhanded business practices or acts with divisive and sleazy intentions at work. Regardless of the wrong done to us, harboring the injury, a fugitive lugged around town in our gut like a sweaty culprit with a knife, there is a point at which we have to make a change.
Because the wrong has been done, and now here we are with our life. As Mary Oliver would say, “Our one wild and precious life” and we are now spending it in our minds plotting revenge or looking for pity or triangulating with other people and basically functioning in a fictional land of seeking a justice that will never come. It is a mythic justice we imagine again and again, hours on a hot pillow in a cold dark that digs acidic paths in our collective soul. Like somehow, if we raise the stakes, we can win something. Some kind of prize like redemption or vindication.
On a larger level, we call this war. Here: Take a second and put your Resentment goggles on and read the front page of any newspaper other than the New York Post or National Enquirer. All of the death and war and destruction you see there is rooted in massive cultural and historic resentment. It is the worst case scenario of YOU ARE WRONG AND I DESERVE TO BE RIGHT AND I SHALL BE VICTORIOUS AND YOU WILL PAY. Sure, sometimes resentment starts as “I just want my side to be heard”, but when we replay the hurt over and over, water the garden of pain with the fertilizer of being wronged, the only possible fruit is larger, deeper pain. More constant, more robust, and frankly, boring as fuck. That entire swath of real estate could be swapped out for something fun. Or kind. Or loving. Or hell, even neutral. That poison whose effects serve to reduce your humanity can be served an eviction notice. Often the oldest residents take the longest to pack up their shit and leave, but why not clear the deck of our lives? And the more we practice, the better we can do with all the opportunities for resentment that are sure to arrive any second. Because we will continue to be hurt and feel wronged. But we do not have to be driven by those experiences entirely.
What do we do?
Well, I’ve studied a ton of different views on this feeling. The common opinion is that resentment is one of the greatest toxins we have in this life. Even if our bodies are ripe and fit, our bank accounts wild with Benjamins, and we are surrounded by people who want our attention and love, the bitter obsession can grow to trump all of it, placing its blinders on our eyes and obstructing our way to seeing everything we have that’s phenomenal.
The world of addiction recovery has a formal process for members to work with resentments. Those in recovery believe that resentment is a path to relapse which is ultimately a path to death. The suggested work in recovery is this.
1. Make a chart with four columns. In the first column list all of the people, institutions, places ideas or principles you feel angry at or injured by.
2.In the second column, write out why you feel hurt. What happened? Be specific and exhaustive.
3.The third column is where you identify which part of you was injured. Was it your heart? Your fiscal health? You emotional security?
4. HERE’S THE DIAMOND: The 4th column is where you say what YOUR part is in the situation. What is you RESPONSIBILITY in this resentment? What might you have done differently?
Now, within a program of recovery, it is suggested that people work on this with a trusted guide, a sponsor. If you are not in a program of recovery, you might want to do this with a trusted friend, a spiritual teacher or peer, or whomever you feel emotional safe with. The writing of these lists, which are called inventories in recovery, can bring a kind of clarity to where we get to take some responsibility for our own part in this hell. And when we get honest, vulnerable, and clear, we are able to soften some and regain our humanity, relinquish some shame, and walk toward healing.
For some people, this kind of formal work might be too structured. Maybe writing a journal could be helpful. Something more in line with someone’s style, but rather than a catalog of the wrongs, it’s IMPERATIVE that we engage with this externalization process in a way that we participate with agency. At its core, resentment is something we are DOING. So the lynchpin of moving past it is regaining our vision of self as an agent of choice. We can admit, if only to ourselves, that place where shame hides in hurt. We can let ourselves take responsibility for our part in something, which seems so terrifying, so of course it’s exactly the thing that sets us free.
Another path is one in the tradition of lovingkindness. In this tradition, we use our thoughts and our hearts to practice sending our good thoughts to those we are wronged by. I know that sounds awful. Who wants to send chocolate to a demon? But part of the process undoes the idea that the person is, in fact, a demon. We begin by sending these thoughts of peace and freedom to those we love the most. That’s easy. And as our hearts open, we then send these feelings out to kind acquaintances, people we like, have warm feelings about. Then we make offerings to strangers we have never met, the billions of people we have no baggage with yet no particular love for either. And once we get here, our hearts are a bit softer, more willing. We send thoughts freedom and peace to irritating people, harmless folk who bug the shit out of us. And then to jerks, but not our special jerks. Maybe famous jerks or our friends’ jerks.
Here we are.
Our hearts are open and we attempt to send these kind thoughts to those who have harmed us.
It may be awkward and we may feel full of shit, but we try.
we do this for ourselves.
We wish ourselves peace.
We wish ourselves freedom.
As time goes on, we begin practicing living in ways that short circuit resentment before it begins. We try to cultivate behavior that invites honesty and integrity in the moment so that these situations do not arise so much later.
1. We try to give without expectation. When we throw a party for a friend’s kid because that friend has connections we think we need or because we want to feel important to that person and we then don’t get the reaction we desire after we’ve worked so hard, there is a recipe for a resentment to begin. But if we are honest, and we throw a part for a friend’s child because we love to throw a party and because that friend is overwhelmed and we actually have time, then the results are in line with are true intentions. And then, we have a killer party.
2. We practice gratitude. When we take time out from our daydreams of resentment and revenge, and we consciously make choices to notice all that is going well in the world, in our bodies, with our loved ones, something happens in our bodies, with our very chemicals, that heals old wounds and prevents some new ones. Like the world might be going to hell in a hand basket and our boss is a slimy creep and our lover is sick but goddamn if the view from here isn’t gorgeous anyhow. We make a conscious choice to look at what’s good, most especially in the face of the worst.
3. We go outside. We are citizens of the planet. Whether our place is among the incredible streets of a city teeming with a billion stories of a billion people or we are living in a shack on a beach watching the massive tide of saltwater wash animals we never see onto the shore, being in touch with the sense of being both in the enormity of our life experience and simultaneously the experience of being so small, such a piece of elemental minutiae in the universe and in history, that sense of life matters.
Look, I’m not coming from a place of total idealism. I am not out here in the woods swimming in a secret cove with lavender waterfalls among miniature dolphin friends and sunning myself in the light of patchouli rainbows. I’m not delusionally having mai tais with Sapphic ponies blessed by shamanic eagles.
I am all for every feeling you got.
I understand the transformative power of rage and despair.
I know what it’s like to wander through the city streets,
devastated. I know what it is to be in fear and loss and betrayal and often,
All at once.
I have been petty and vindictive and small and mean and stupid.
I’ve been wasteful, entitled, brooding, unkind and wallowy.
I’ve been feverish with revenge, with disgust and with blame.
Which is to say,
I’ve been human.
But this last week, In looking with so many people at the last year and forward to this one, the theme of resentment has come up over and over and over again. Some with the scales larger than others. So I wanted to offer some things to work with. See what you are willing to do.
Oh, and even though I haven’t actually been being blessed by Shamanic eagles, I did meet this guy yesterday. And I put him at the top of my gratitude list.