Resentment is a rather complex and painful human emotion. It can cause us a lot of suffering! But self-compassion can help. So, let’s take a look at resentment, what it is, how it shows up in our feelings, thoughts and behaviours, and then the 8 compassion focused steps you can take to let it go.
Resentment is one of the emotions that’s unique to humans. My chocolate Labrador doesn't resent me when I don’t take him for a walk or I wake up late and forget to feed him. But we humans do. Resentment is a social or interpersonal emotion that relates to a bitter disappointment coupled with anger and fear around having been insulted, wronged or treated unfairly by another person.
In a sense, it’s an important signal that there is something going on in our social world that we might need to address or correct. However, human resentment can turn into vengeance, and a burning desire to "teach them a lesson" or get some sort of "payback".
So, resentment comes along with both anger and fear. It arises out of the threat system and its associated fight/flight response, but specifically to do with a kind of social threat. If someone is oppressing us, bullying us, taking advantage of us and so on, then, at a very primitive level, this threatens our social position or status, or threatens to deplete or use us up.
Social hierarchy is so important to humans. We don't necessarily need to be at the top of the hierarchy, but we definitely don't like to feel relegated to the bottom. And so when we feel like someone is causing us to be down-ranked, then we feel angry, afraid and resentful.
We become preoccupied with thoughts of the unfairness or injustice. We ruminate, over and over, about what someone did, how they hurt us, how and why it was unfair, and often what we would like to do to them in response. And this is where we start to see that vengeful motivation creep in. We start to fantasize about how to get revenge!
And we start to see that person in black and white terms: they’re wrong and we’re right, they’re bad and we’re good, they are unjust and we are just and righteous. But there is also fear, and this can prevent us taking any action, and so sometimes resentment results in self-critical, self-attacking thoughts, blaming and shaming ourselves for not addressing the unfairness.
And then we might respond behaviourally in a couple of ways. First, resentment can become chronic. The fear and anxiety mean that we feel unable to act on the problem, and instead we stay stuck in the relationship and our resentment becomes entrenched.
Think of the person who is very self-sacrificing in their relationship, always sacrificing their own needs for the sake of meeting the needs of their partner, who in turn is more than happy to take advantage of that generosity. The person gradually becomes more and more resentful, but persists with self-sacrifice.
Second, the resentment and anger, coupled with the vengeful motives, causes the person to retaliate. Sometimes this is in subtle, passive-aggressive ways, and sometimes the retaliation can be in outright aggressive or even violent ways. In fact, resentment left unchecked can be a source of very problematic and harmful behaviours, such that the person who feels resentful from having been wronged is now doing the wrong thing by others.
Think of movies like John Wick, where, having had his dog killed and his car stolen, he goes on to destroy a whole crime organisation! In fact, do you notice how we glorify resentment and revenge in a lot of movies, creating the same dichotomy of good versus evil that actually everyday people also feel when they are experiencing resentment.
Resentment is, in fact, a very painful feeling. It can become preoccupying, overwhelming and exhausting. Chronic resentment can be a precursor to anxiety and depressive disorders, relationship distress and dysfunction, withdrawal and isolation, and sometimes aggression and violence.
So - how do you let go of resentment? Here’s 8 compassion focused steps you can take!
First, become aware.
Recognise that resentment is arising out of your threat system, and specifically in response to social threat. Try to identify the threat and recognise that resentment is a signal that this threat might need to be constructively addressed.
Second, find strength.
As with all moments of threat system activation, the first step is to create a sense of strength, stability and present moment awareness. If possible, step out of the internal "rat wheel" of resentment and find time and space to connect with the present moment.
Third, acknowledge your tricky brain.
Resentment up regulates the body through sympathetic nervous system activation, and so we want to try to slow everything down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s not your fault that you are feeling this way—our brains are designed to have these feelings and thoughts. But you can take steps to manage or change that feeling and therefore suffer less.
Fourth, bring it back to the body.
The best way to do this is to shift your body into an upright but relaxed posture, create a warm and friendly facial expression, soften your self-talk so that you are using supportive, encouraging inner voice tones, and slow down your breathing, in for four and out for four, gradually slowing down the heart rate, easing the tension in the body, and creating a calm mind.
Fifth, identify wise action.
From this place of calm, start to consider, "What would be most helpful in this situation? What could I do that would help to bring balance back to the needs of both parties? What is it that I really need right now from this relationship?”
Sixth, be assertive.
If we’re submissive or aggressive, then we are in our threat system. But when we’re assertive, we’re coming from a compassionate motivation, and we’re concerned with the feelings and needs of all involved, including our own. With assertiveness we can start to express our needs, we can start to establish clear boundaries, and we can feel confident that our voice is being heard and understood. It might not always be that the other person responds to our assertiveness exactly how we want them to, but assertiveness absolutely gets the ball rolling in a very constructive direction.
Seventh, practice forgiveness.
This can be easier said than done but remember that forgiveness is actually something you might do for your own benefit as much as anyone else's. Forgiveness is really all about deciding to let go of resentment and revenge, and instead move towards a feeling of ease and peace of mind. Having said that, forgiveness does not mean that you therefore allow the other person to continue to act in a way that’s unfair or hurtful. Sometimes we forgive, and end our relationship with that person, especially if, after an assertive conversation or two, the other person still doesn’t change.
And eighth, expand!
Resentment can cause us to be so narrowly focused...all we can think about is the thing or person we feel resentful towards! So the final step is to expand your attention and focus, open up, look around, and explore your options for meaning and pleasure in your life. Do something else! Something that allows you to live your life in a meaningful and valued way.
Sometimes resentment is a result of some very difficult patterns of living you learned early in life. For example, our experiences growing up, at home or at school, may have planted the seeds of certain behaviour patterns like self-sacrifice that make us more vulnerable to difficult relationships and the resultant feeling of resentment. Alternatively, we might find ourselves stuck in very difficult relationships, with our resentment coming from very difficult behaviours from another person.
If you’re curious about whether these factors might be the case for you, finding a therapist and discussing these aspects of your life can be very helpful.
And sometimes, the consequence of long term resentment is anxiety or depression. We can eventually feel quite hopeless and helpless about our situation, and from there we can start to feel very affected by our resentment personally, in our relationships, at work and so on. But depression can be helped, and so if you feel certain relationships in your life are creating resentment and you are starting to feel very down, again, finding a therapist and learning strategies to manage anxiety and depression is likely to help.
Just as an aside, I talk about compassionate assertiveness and compassionate forgiveness in my book, The Gifts of Compassion. And let me know if there are other topics you are interested in hearing about, especially related to living a compassionate life, inside and out.