1. Be in the Present
The first step to freeing yourself from resentment is to remember that you choose your thoughts. Then imagine a bucket for your thoughts and feelings, says Conte. “Whatever you put in your bucket will be in your bucket. The same is true with your mind.”
When your thoughts are fixated on past negative events, or the person you blame for them, you’re filling your bucket with thoughts that harm your present self, he explains. (See “How to Stop Ruminating” for six strategies to break free from the spiral of negative thoughts.)
“We master what we practice. So if we practice living in the past and trying to change things we can’t change, we’re going to get really good at that,” he notes.
“Instead, you can start practicing focusing on the present moment,” he continues. “When you can let go and focus completely on the present, it’s a cathartic release of all that weight.”
2. Adjust Your Expectations
When we’re stuck in resentment, we’re living in an imaginary world, says Conte. “The cartoon world is the world of should — this should have happened, that shouldn’t have happened. And the real world is the way the world actually is.”
Another adage from 12-step programs describes expectations as “premeditated resentments.” If we can accept that the world is unlikely to conform to our ideals, our expectations become more realistic. As Katie puts it, “You can always trust people to be exactly as they are.”
“As long as you align your expectations with the cartoon world, you’re going to be let down,” Conte notes. “It’s powerful to learn to align your expectations with reality.”
3. Expect and Accept Mistakes
It’s hard to admit our imperfections. “Most people like to think that they’re not judgmental, or they have good reason to have the negative opinion that they have about somebody or something,” says Berg. But adamantly denying that we might also be in the wrong will keep us stuck.
Likewise, we tend to minimize the pain we cause others but maximize the pain that others cause us. “If someone was holding on to the same level of resentment toward something we did toward them, we’d say, ‘What I did wasn’t as bad as what this person did to me!’” says Conte. “The fact is, we’ve all probably hurt others, even if it was unintentional.”
It’s important to remember that our mistakes don’t define us. As part of his conflict-resolution work in prisons around the country, Conte helps people understand that they are not the mistakes they have made. We are all more than one moment in life.
“It’s the same for somebody struggling in pain and resentment,” he says. “Yes, that moment hurt you, but it doesn’t define you. It’s not who you are. You’re so much greater than that moment.”
4. Question Your Story
When we find ourselves caught in the grip of resentment, Katie says, we’re believing a story that isn’t true. “Once we understand how simple it is to identify and question what we’re believing, we have a tool to end all suffering and stress,” she explains. She calls this method The Work. (Free resources and downloadable worksheets are available at www.thework.com or www.byronkatie.com.)
She suggests writing out your judgments about another person and then asking four questions:
- Is it true?
- Can I absolutely know it’s true?
- How do I react when I believe that thought?
- Who would I be without the thought?
Finally, turn the thought around — create its opposite, then imagine how each opposite might be true.
For example, if you feel someone disrespected you, you might try this: I disrespected me (by not standing up for myself). I disrespected that person (by keeping my true feelings from her). That person respected me (by saying what she thought). This can be a surprisingly powerful tool for breaking resentment’s spell.
Once you’ve questioned your story, Katie says, it may do more than just free you from a long-held grudge: It can reconnect you to the person you were ready to shun. (See “How to Let Go of Grudges” to learn how to set yourself free from this self-destructive thought process.)
“When I think of that person,” she says, “I’m left with a friend, not an enemy.”
5. Take Responsibility
To free ourselves from resentment, we might assume that we need the person we resent to apologize. This is an illusion, says Katie.
Another person may have indeed done something hurtful, but nurturing a grudge is something we do, and only we can undo it. “That person isn’t causing my resentment. What I’m thinking and believing is,” she says.
The same is true when someone resents us, even after we apologize. “While it’s good to right our wrongs, we can’t predict how others will respond,” says Conte. This is the equivalent of putting our peace in someone else’s hands.
Berg concurs. “It’s your life, and at the end of the day, you’re going to have to live in your body, with your feelings, and with your emotions,” she explains. “You get to decide how much time and space you allow resentment in your life.”
“If there’s ever going to be peace in my heart, I have to look to myself,” says Katie. “I only have one person in the world to work with, and that’s me.”