Resentment comes up a lot in my work as a therapist here in New York City. I suspect it’s a frequent topic in therapy everywhere. It was also a frequent topic of the sermons at the Presbyterian church where I spent most Sunday mornings as a child. While the faces of the ministers changed over time, the message around resentment remained consistent. It was bad, and ought to be avoided.
How it was to be avoided was left to interpretation, but the implication seemed to be that one ought do this stoically. Which is to say that we ought find a way to garner the strength to forgive our trespassers. In my extensive experience with Presbyterians, at least through the first half of my life, I’ve concluded that Presbyterians, along with most of us, are far better at asserting resentments’ shortcomings than actually giving them up.
The principle (resentment = bad) leaves us wanting for strategy. Stoicism rarely works. Why? Because we’d have to be superman or superwoman. Resentment is a powerful beast, and the only way to beat it is to destroy it before it comes into being.
Beat the grudge before it starts
Our challenge is to keep a grudge from forming before it starts. How?
1. Ask for what you need.
Most people are pretty shy about making their needs and wants known, yet we are quick to be disappointed or even victimized when we don’t get what we want. Being wanting, and making those wants clear may seem bossy, but it’s the best way to prevent resentment down the line, which makes it a pretty virtuous thing to do.
2. Make your limits clear. Say no.
Just as we don’t often ask for what we need or want, we are often slow to say no, if at all. In strong relationships, both parties ask freely for what they need and feel empowered to say no. If you’re not willing to do something but agree to do it anyway, you’re on the express train towards a grudge.
3. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…
…shame on me.” When people let you know who they are, take note. If someone rarely pays back a loan, is unreliable or consistently hurts your feelings, you need to allow the realization of those facts to inform the nature of your relationship ongoing. If your friend has let one of your secrets slip yet again, perhaps it’s time to stop sharing secrets with her.
4. I’m the one responsible for making sure I’m not taken advantage of.
Be vigilant. Think carefully before going along with any offers that are too good to be true. Plan ahead so there’s a Plan B if someone you’re counting on drops the ball. More than anything, keep site of that fact that you are in charge of your health, safety and welfare.
That doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. In fact, leaning on other people for support, asking for guidance or help when needed is a good policy. But recognize that seeking out that help, making sure it exists on terms that work for you and striving to make the help as effective as possible are responsibilities you have. When we place weight on other people as responsible for taking care of our lives, we’re setting ourselves up for resentment.
5. Drop the I-can’t-believe-you would-do-such-a-thing! fiction.
Believe it: Your husband bought the scented laundry detergent. Your sister didn’t call you on your birthday (just like last year, and the last 6 years before that). When we assert that we “can’t believe it,” we’re usually kidding ourselves into a willful naivete. What just happened actually happened. Often it’s happened before. Take a moment to be honest with yourself. Accept it.
Are you into grudges?
I know at least a few people who are. All of us probably have at least some pull towards hanging out in a grudge. In situations where we don’t feel very powerful, a grudge can be among a rare set of circumstances where we can. If you’ve been wronged then you get to be mad about that, and take that anger out on those around you–not the least of which is the person who’s done the wronging.
I find that many people who come to me for therapy hold resentments of people they haven’t seen in years or who’ve passed away. Grudges can last for decades and cause tremendous pain on the grudge holder as well as the object of the grudge.
We trick ourselves when we believe that resentments makes us powerful. In truth, they hurt relationships and they incite us to be hurtful in response (which builds–guess what?–more resentment).
When we’re honest and up front about what we need, set clear limits on what we’re wiling and unwilling to do and take ultimate responsibility for getting our needs met, we executing the best possible grudge-elimination plan: prevention.