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The Taboo World of Resentment and How it Alters our Relationships

January 26, 2023 by Mari Pfingston-Bigelow

The Taboo World of Resentment and How it Alters our Relationships

If you’ve ever visited Yellowstone National Park, you’re familiar with the huge number of geysers that reside there. But when you see that high plume of hot water shooting out of the earth, there is much occurring underground that one cannot see. The vast magma chamber deep beneath the surface radiates into surrounding rocks, creating the conditions for superheated water to explode out of the earth’s surface - the visible portion of a complex and buried process.

Resentment is like the process that happens beneath the surface of a geyser, one of the invisible forces behind the heated plume of other emotions that ultimately arise. Emotions like resentment are difficult to admit and often go unspoken, leading to an expression of emotions that don’t truly speak to what’s happening beneath the surface. There may be a whole magma chamber of resentment to unpack.

Harboring resentment may help us feel more comfortable in the face of pain by acting as a shield from the true source. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility, helps us feel like we have control, and acts as a tool to prevent us from facing something deeply uncomfortable. What arises in its place is a complex variety of emotions that provides a false sense of safety from feeling fully vulnerable. 

How Resentment Hurts Ourselves and Others

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”  -Saint Augustine

Not only is resentment a poison to relationships, it’s a poison to our own mental health and outlook on the world. When we allow another person or entity to be the source of our pain or suffering, we disempower ourselves from a sense of ownership, responsibility, and accountability for the situation and the emotions we experience within it. While the resentment can feel safe and comfortable, it’s a lie we tell ourselves to shed the pain of our own involvement. Ultimately, resentment is a disempowering and toxic behavior that prevents us from developing a healthy sense of self and growing into better people. 

Resentment also affects us on a physical level. This magma chamber of emotion tends to live alongside frustration, bitterness, and hidden envy. These emotions, locked within us, keep us reliving past anger and negative memories. The internal tension of this emotional repression may lead to things like depression, anxiety, lowered immune function, fatigue, hypertension, chest pain, obesity, psoriasis, and chronic pain.

When the internal tension of resentment expresses itself outwardly, it is likely to cause tension in relationships. When we see ourselves as the victim, it’s much harder for us to empathize with the other. This lowered empathy can happen alongside a desire for ill will, and we may find ourselves wanting the perceived perpetrator to experience some measure of the pain that we have suffered. This can reveal itself in small but impactful ways, such as heightened frustration or disgust, sarcasm, avoidance, increased anxiety, passive/aggressive behavior, and picking fights.

How to Overcome Resentment

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” -Brene Brown

To recover from the intensity, heat, and rumination of resentment two things are required: a change of perspective and facing the uncomfortable. Not only is it uncomfortable to look at what has caused the resentment, it’s uncomfortable to know that we’ve been comfortable with our own sense of resentment. There are a number of layers to unpack, but it starts with forgiveness and compassion toward ourselves and others.

It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge the web of emotions that live within resentment. However, to do so allows us to start moving past the discomfort and toward self-awareness and growth. Compassion is key. Self-compassion gives us permission to remove judgment and assess how we participate in our own suffering. Compassion for others gives us the ability to see others from a softer point-of-view, allowing us to move to a sense of understanding. When combined, compassion for self and others can allow us to shift out of victimhood and take accountability for past hurts within our relationships. 

Sometimes all that’s needed for this shift is an internal overhaul of perspective, forgiveness, and compassion - to face the uncomfortable as an internal process. Other times it’s helpful or needed to have a discussion with the target of the resentment, to have vulnerability and open communication to move forward in the relationship. 

Letting go of resentment is a liberation, albeit an uncomfortable one. But in the words of Brene Brown, “Choose discomfort over resentment.”

For more on resentment and forgiveness, check out our other article ‘Self-forgiveness & Working with a Coach.’

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