Resentment is a sneaky emotion. It may start with genuine anger, hurt feelings, or disappointment — sentiments that likely made perfect sense in their original contexts. But if we’re still feeling them weeks, months, or years after the original pain, some-thing’s gone wrong.
Conflict-resolution expert Christian Conte, PhD, author of Walking Through Anger, describes this feeling as a “long-term commitment to anger.” In 12-step programs, nurturing resentment is sometimes described as drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die.
Sticky and awful as resentment is, it can also feel good. When we believe we’re victims of injustice, resentment can enable us to feel superior, even righteous. At the very least, we may feel protected, as if holding a grudge makes us less vulnerable to being hurt.
Still, it costs us. “The toll is enormous,” says renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness. “The very energy of resentment is so toxic that it brings us down and makes our lives very small and constrictive.”
Resentment can foster distrust and conflict, damaging our close relationships with friends and family, leading us to cross people off our lists one by one. And Salzberg observes that our current political climate has only amplified the resentments among us.
We used to spend more time with people who didn’t share our political views, she notes. We might have gotten annoyed if we disagreed with one another, but we’d still meet up later for bridge or bowling.
Today, fewer of these interactions occur. “As people are more alone and cut off from one another,” Salzberg says, “the resentment builds.”
Resolving resentment requires looking within, explains Byron Katie, author of A Mind at Home With Itself and Loving What Is. Yet our inability to look at ourselves has become a rampant problem.
When we feel resentment, Katie says, we need “to take a look at what we are thinking about others, the world, and ourselves.” Most important, she says, “we have to question what we’re believing.”
Shifting the focus from blaming others to examining ourselves takes courage. So does laying down the shield of resentment, and that can leave us feeling far too open and exposed — at least at first.
But releasing resentment has many benefits, whether or not we’re able to reconcile strained relationships. It reduces stress and allows us to cultivate healthier relationships with loved ones and strangers alike.
When we recognize the telltale signs of resentment, we can prevent it from taking hold — and start freeing ourselves from its grip.
6 Signs of Resentment
1. Reliving the Past
When we’re unhappy about an interaction, we might find ourselves obsessively thinking or talking about how things should have been different: It shouldn’t have happened that way. They shouldn’t have treated me like that. “That’s probably the biggest telltale sign of resentment,” says Conte.
“We can’t change the past. But as long as we focus on it, we can talk all day about what could have happened differently,” he adds. The more we think about it and talk about it, the more attention we give to it — resulting in an exhausting cycle of indignation
2. Tunnel Vision
Resentment is painful, and it tends to trigger survival behaviors. When we’re in a fight-or-flight response, complex thinking shuts down and impulse takes over.
“If I’m in the presence of somebody I might harbor some resentment for, there’s this flood of feelings in my body,” says Salzberg. “I realize I’m not listening to the person. There’s this veil that has descended.”
That makes it very difficult to see or hear anyone else with any accuracy. “I’m not really taking them in,” she adds. “So were this person perhaps to have changed, I’m not even going to notice.”
Many people describe resentment as heavy, Conte says. “Literally, it feels like you’re being weighted down. You’re carrying a proverbial psychological log.”
Yet we often adjust to this weight and assume that this is just how life has to be. “Most people have been carrying it for so long they don’t realize they don’t need to be carrying it,” he notes.
Maybe you find yourself making a list of your partner’s flaws — secretly mumbling about how self-centered he or she is — weeks after an unresolved argument. Or you realize you started seeing your coworkers as lazy and selfish when you cleaned up after the company party without asking any of them for help.
“You feel that what they’ve done is unfair and you don’t have the power to change it. Therefore you’re going to judge the people that you feel are putting this upon you,” says communications expert Monica Berg, author of Rethink Love. “But the moment you catch yourself judging someone else, resentment’s usually there as a close companion.”
Resentment is often sparked by feeling that someone has treated us unfairly. “We feel persecuted and misunderstood,” says Katie.
Chances are we have no idea how the other person really feels, yet grudges usually involve feeling victimized — so we defend ourselves.
When we’re stuck in a grudge, we often blame someone else for our discomfort. “The chief characteristic of resentment is a feeling of powerlessness,” says Berg. “We’re the innocent victim and everybody else is the perpetrator.”
This leaves us with zero responsibility for our own feelings, as well as zero power to change them. (For more on how to move beyond blame, see “How to Avoid Drama”.)
5 Ways to Release Resentment
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.
“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.
“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.”