Why Resentment Lasts—and How to Defeat It
Editor’s Note: As a regular blog contributor to the online version of Psychology Today, Dr. Robert Enright (founder of the International Forgiveness Institute) has repeatedly received special recognition for his posts. Yesterday, his latest blog was given “Essential Topic” status meaning that it receives prominent placement on their website along with being featured on the first page of blog topics like“Education” and “Therapy.” Here is that blog:
Posted March 25, 2017 – Psychology Today
Let us keep the philosopher’s resentment and let us banish the other.
Yet, the psychologist’s kind of resentment all too often is not a polite guest. It seems to never know when to leave. In fact, if left unchecked it can take over the psychological house within you. Why is this? Consider three reasons.
First, we have all felt the initial euphoria created by a response of courage after another’s offense. We will stand up for ourselves. We will resist. Resentment can give you a feeling not only of euphoria but also of strength. Nurturing such a rewarding feeling can become a habit. I know of one person who, upon having his morning cup of coffee, would replay the injustice and feel the inner strength as a way of getting ready for the day. He did this until he realized that over the long-term, such a routine was leaving him drained before he even left for work. His temporary adrenaline rush was turning on him. This is a case of positive reinforcement for something that shows itself in the long run not to be so positive.
Second, once we realize that our short-term euphoria is turning against us, we just don’t know how to get the resentment to leave. How do I turn off the resentment? What path do I take to have some inner quiet? Taking up jogging might do it……but once you have recovered your energy from the run, the anger returns. How about relaxation training? Same issue: once the muscle relaxation is over, there is the resentment with its perverse smile looking back at you. “I just don’t know how to rid myself of the resentment!” is a cry I hear too often.
“Resentment could linger for the rest of your life unless you confront it.”
Third, and this is the most sinister of all, resentment can become a part of your identity, a part of who you are as a person. You move from showing resentful behavior to being a resentful person and there is a large difference between the two. Once you start saying that you are a particular kind of person, it sometimes is threatening to change the identity. So often people will live with an identity—a sense of self, a sense of who one is—that is compromising for them because they are afraid of change. The familiar is better than the alternative even if the familiar includes pain and unnecessary suffering.
So then, what to do about the unwanted guest? Try these 5 approaches:
- Try to see the inner world of the one causing the disturbance. Might he be carrying an extra burden of resentment, perhaps from times past? Might she be living with bitterness that is spreading to others, including you? Can you see the woundedness within the person who is wounding you?
- Commit to doing no harm to the one who is harming you. This allows for a new kind of inner strength to develop.
- Stand in the pain so that you do not pass that pain to innocent others. This, too, can strengthen you.
- Science has shown on many occasions that there is a resentment-buster in the name of forgiveness (Enright, 2012). To forgive is a way of offering goodness to the one who gave you the unwanted present of resentment. Rather than the strength of the clinched fist and jaw, the strength from forgiveness shows that you can soften your heart toward the one who infected your heart. This can bring you inner relief.
- Finally, be open to your new identity: I am someone who can stand in the pain. I am someone who can forgive. I am even someone who can ask resentment to leave……and it leaves.
Which is the better identity: a life lived with an unwanted inner guest or a life free to be a conduit of good toward others and yourself?
Posted March 25, 2017 – Psychology Today
Enright, R.D. (2012). The Forgiving Life. Washington, D.C.: APA Books.
Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
MacLachlan, A. (2010). Unreasonable resentments. Journal of Social Philosophy, 41. 422-441.