I have decided to drop my resentment habit.
Shifting resentment is not going to be easy for me; it’s part of my identity. My family of origin was steeped in blame. Resentment was allowed, even subtly encouraged, in my home. We practiced it together. We directed resentment toward relatives, neighbors, politicians and each other.
Since childhood I have practiced resentment more than enough to complete the 300-3000 repetitions required for a behavior to become automatic.
Resentment is now one of my automatic superpowers; this superpower bestows upon me the ability to perceive the slightest whiff of insult or injury; feeling slighted, thinking, “What were they thinking?”
I have the ability to feel put-out, offended or victimized in a matter of seconds.
Resentment has many faces; it can look like resignation, passivity, martyrdom, silent suffering, whining or it can show up as attacking, blaming or guilt-tripping others. Resentment can take the form of self-righteous attacks on people who have wronged me or my group.
Resentment is justified.
There is much in my family history that merits resentment—I have the perfect right. No one who knew my story would blame me for being resentful.
And recently, something completely unfair “happened to me.” I had to call up all of my privilege, skills and creativity just to get a basic need met. The bureaucracy, poor communication, condescending sexism, irresponsibility and just plain mean-spirited nature of others had put me in a very difficult situation.
I can name all the ways I was wronged that day, in great detail and if you heard my story, you would probably agree that I have the right to resent.
So my resentment is often justified…but is it how I want to live?
We can respond with resentment to systematic injustice, too. Those of us who belong to an oppressed group could spend years reciting the litany of wrongs that oppression has inflicted on us or the rights it has withheld from us. After all, we have suffered atrocities for centuries.
If we used the rest of our lives to point out others’ wrongs, even that could never do justice to our suffering. Ironically, systemic oppression is part of what caused me and my family to embrace the resentment habit in the first place.
I am a female who was raised in a misogynist community; I am a lesbian living in a world made for heterosexuals; I am the child of a bitter, upper-class aspiring, lower-middle class father; I am part of a multi-generational lineage of child sexual abuse victims—and I am a grandchild and great-grandchild of foster-care system survivors and poverty-driven immigrants.
My family and I—we have every right to be resentful.
Many people have far more right and reason than I do to be resentful; for example, the generations of First Nations people who have survived residential schools. Or, people with disabilities, who have been mistreated and isolated for centuries.
The human world offers so many reasons to feel resentful. Resentment is often justified…but is it how we want to live?
The downside of resentment.
For me, the body-mood that accompanies resentment is brooding: I become stuck in a mental loop, endlessly rehashing slights and insults. This loop obscures all kinds of possibilities and creative options.
My resentment habit makes me miserable.
Resentment also freezes me and everyone else into a static object: “I am someone who has been wronged.” “You are the one who wronged me.” “It’s their fault.” “There’s nothing I can do.”
The habitual aspect of resentment is another downside. When resentment is a habit, there is no end to it because there will always be something or someone new to resent.
Resentment is the mood of a victim. It dis-empowers us. Resentful thoughts are a clear indicator that my energy is focused outside of myself. My attention is on what others are doing or not doing: “They overlooked me.” “Look at what she is doing to me!” “If only he would change, then I could do what I need to do.”
When I place my attention on others in this way, I abandon my own power—I feel like a victim.
It’s funny, because in the social world, I am not a powerless victim; not even close.
Whether or not I can access the feeling of agency, my social identity as an English-speaking white woman with a Christian upbringing, middle-class mannerisms and no obvious disabilities means that my actions or inactions have a disproportionate impact on others. When I am cranky, put-out or bitter; when I spiral down into a state of reactivity (where I am hijacked by my amygdala into automatic fight, flight, freeze, appease or dissociate responses); when I feel “helpless” and lash out, undermine, or passively aggress, zone out, withdraw or quit, I can harm a lot of people.
Women of my race, class and education level are often in administrative or gatekeeping positions where our behavior profoundly impacts the daily lives of people of color, poor people, working class people, trans-gender people and people with disabilities.
My resentment habit makes others miserable.
The upside of resentment.
Are there any upsides to resentment?
For me, resentment has been a kind of armor. The toughness and numbness of resentment was much easier to feel than loss, confusion, grief, rage or terror. When no one was there to help me bare these feelings, resentment was an intelligent survival strategy that helped me to endure.
In my early life, resentment was a viable way to survive hardship.
Resentment was also a way for me to fit in with my family—a way to be loyal. Resentment was part of how my family and I recognized one another, part of how we loved one another. As we suffered together and resented together, we understood one another.
Finally, resentment gave the younger me a way to bare witness to injustice and the words to express resistance to oppression.
I am grateful to my resentment habit for these gifts…but it is not how I want to live.
Recycling resentment into resource.
We can recycle resentment by building on its “upside.”
We can investigate the properties of resentment and discover its hidden resources.
For example, you could describe me as having a “quick-to-resent” temperament. I am hyper-vigilant to slights or injustices. I notice I am in good company in social justice circles; many of us have a similar “quick-to-resent” response.
If I look underneath my resentful responses, I find a sensitivity to the nuances of power. I am quick to notice what people are doing or not doing, and how that impacts—or may impact—myself or others. I can spot the potential for unfairness or hardship that follows when people make assumptions about or are oblivious to others.
My instant, practiced response is anger, contempt, judgment or critique (and underneath hurt and despair); I am highly sensitive to people’s impact on myself and others. Such sensitivity can be a resource.
What other resources are hidden within my resentment habit?
A longing for all people to have their needs attended to. I want people to feel seen, met and included. I want people to be free; I want dignity for all; I want choice, consent and accommodation.
These are good things to want.
How can I appreciate and build on these resources of sensitivity and caring without getting stuck in resentment? How can I work for justice without turning people into static objects or viewing others with contempt?
First, I can warmly greet my resentment habit when it arises: “Thank you for protecting me all these years.” “Thank you for fighting injustice.”
Next, I can shift my focus from what others are doing, or not doing, to what I am doing.
I can ask myself, “What do I want to create? What do I care about? What do I want to become?”
I want to create environments that make space for everyone’s needs to be included.
I care about supporting others to name and ask for what they need; I want to become a warm, steady, thoughtful presence.
Now, I can start to embody what I care about by choosing new behaviors to practice 300-3000 times, such as the practice of offering respect to everyone or the practice of asking people what they need to be able to participate.
Other practices I can take on include:
> Softening my gaze when I look at others
> Practicing generosity and patience when others appear to be inconsiderate
> Reminding myself that folks are not telepathic
> Persistently stepping up to advocate for myself and others
> Forgiving us all when we are not perfect—and opening my heart again
We are not powerless victims—not even close. Even our resentment is resourceful.
Vanissar Tarakali, Ph.D. (East West Psychology) is a somatic and intuitive coach who teaches healers, change-makers and cultural creatives how to collaborate with their wise bodies. You can connect with her on Facebook or read her blog.
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Assistant Ed: Rebecca Schwarz/Ed: Bryonie Wise