Resentment is a poisonous, slow burning feeling that's bad for our mental health and even worse for our relationships. How can we let go of resentment when situations are unfair or we feel left behind? Let's take a break from grumbling to consider five ways to get a healthy perspective shift.
We’ve talked about a lot of negative emotions on this podcast, including how sadness is not all bad, how you can cope with fear, and even how to see anger as useful. These emotions are all pretty clear and easy to define, kind of like the primary colors of bad feelings. But sometimes we feel bad in ways that are not as easy to put a finger on.
One such muddy emotion I’ve heard a lot about recently is resentment. Do thoughts like this sound familiar?
- “I moved across the country and sacrificed a job I loved so we could be together ... and you can’t even do your share of the dishes?”
- “I’m so sick of hearing my sister talk about her perfect wedding last year! I didn’t even get to have mine because of COVID.”
- “I shouldn’t have to be the only one taking care of my elderly parents. Why don’t my siblings do their fair share?”
- “It’s just not fair that I have to work so hard to lose weight while my partner can eat whatever and not gain a pound.”
- “Success seems to just fall into his lap because he’s good-looking and charming. It’s so annoying!”
When was the last time that marinating in these resentful thoughts and feelings made you feel better?
These feelings of resentment are so understandable! Who isn’t irked by unfair situations or undeserving people? And it’s not surprising to see a spike in resentment around the holiday season, because along with great food and family time, the holidays tend to open old wounds and poke at stale hurts. This year, we've added the bad feelings that come with an ongoing pandemic, and a lot of us have been pent up with those sour feelings.
But when was the last time that marinating in these resentful thoughts and feelings made you feel better? Has it ever improved a relationship?
Chances are, you would rather let go or make peace, whether it’s with someone else or with yourself. Coming to terms with feelings of resentment is easier said than done, but these tips are a good start:
1. Be assertive about what you need
Sometimes we’re stuck feeling resentful about an unfair situation because we haven't done anything to correct the injustice. We allow the situation to remain unfair. Maybe we’re scared to ask for something different, or we’re not optimistic that we’ll get it. Either way, if nobody knows how we feel about it, the situation will never change, and we'll just keep growing more bitter.
Why not express your needs? Even if you don’t ultimately get your partner to do more dishes or change your parents’ favoritism toward your brother, the act of asserting your point of view can be a huge relief.
A quick primer on how to be assertive: Don’t be a bully, but don’t be a doormat either:
- Stick to just one issue
- Start by simply describing the situation as you see it
- Use an “I” statement to say how you feel about it
- Ask for what you need or state changes you’d like to see
- End with some gratitude or encouragement
Here's an example of assertiveness in action.
Hey, I’ve noticed a lot of dishes piling up lately. Sometimes, I’m frustrated because it can feel like I’m the only one taking care of the house. Could we make a plan together for how to split up chores? It would make me feel a lot better!
2. Figure out who (or what) you’re really mad at
Feeling resentful towards someone can be like shooting an arrow if you’re a total newbie at archery. Whoever happens to be in the path of your arrow gets the blame, even if they’re not the real target.
Does the woman who is resentful of her sister’s wedding really hate her sister? Or is she sad and angry that her own wedding was canceled due to COVID-19? Does the struggling novelist really hate his successfully published friend, or is he feeling frustrated by his own writer’s block?
Here’s an easy way to figure out who or what you’re really upset about. Say out loud, “If only … [insert a situation in a parallel universe], it would be easy to not feel so resentful anymore.”
Don’t think too hard. Just say the first thing that comes to mind after “If only…” Like, “If only ... I had a more creatively fulfilling job, I wouldn’t be so annoyed that my roommate has a much higher salary than I do.” Now you know that it’s the boringness of your job that makes you feel unhappy. You don’t necessarily have beef with your roommate, even if she does show off a new expensive bag or shoes every week.
3. Give yourself options
Do you remember enjoying raking leaves as a kid? You got to be outside, maybe with your friends, and you could jump into big, satisfying leaf piles. What about as an adult? Now that you own your house and have to keep up with yard work, doesn’t it feel like a chore?
Sometimes, getting to do something and having to do it are not mutually exclusive.
We humans are funny this way. If we get to do something, we love it. If we have to do something, it sucks. But sometimes, getting to do something and having to do it are not mutually exclusive. It can be part of your job to teach the new intern an office task, but you might also enjoy helping him because you like helping people. Depending on how you view the situation, as either an obligation or an activity you value, you might feel resentful or happy about it.
The lone sibling who does all of the caretaking for aging parents might feel resentful that his siblings are not contributing, which is completely understandable since this situation is unfair. But he might also feel proud that he is able to care for his parents.
The best way to help yourself shift your perspective is to give yourself a real choice. Forget about what other people are doing. Forget whether something should be an obligation. You can make a decision for yourself. You can choose to take care of your parents, or you can choose not to. If you still choose to do it, ask yourself why. Maybe your answer is “because I love my parents and want them to be happy”. Next time you're tempted toward a resentful thought, rephrase it—“I’m glad that I get to take care of my parents, because this makes them happy.”
4. Don’t fertilize weeds
Our minds are like gardens—the parts we tend to will flourish. Don't fertilize the weeds.
Your resentful ruminations thrive on attention the way weeds thrive on fertilizer. Every time you chase a resentful thought, returning over and over again to how unfair a situation is or how mad someone made you, the weed grows a little bigger and stronger. Over time, if you spend a lot of time fertilizing your weeds, they grow deep roots in your mind and crowd out the beautiful flowers.
Your resentful ruminations thrive on attention the way weeds thrive on fertilizer.
Luckily, thoughts don’t have to take root. Even very emotional thoughts are, after all, totally imaginary words and sentences in your head. The best way to not feed them is to not take them so seriously—just because they sound convincing and persistent in your head doesn’t mean they’re necessarily true, fair, wise, or helpful.
Let's say you have a thought that your kids are ungrateful about the sacrifices you made for them. Do you know for sure how grateful they are or are not? That thought about how your spouse has a great metabolism while you have to work so much harder to lose weight—even if it’s true, is it helpful?
You can acknowledge that a thought exists the way you acknowledge that a newspaper exists—it’s sitting right there, but you don’t have to grab it, read it, or believe it.
5. Do what you value
Sometimes, we resent things that are out of our control, like a friend’s effortless beauty. More often, we resent things that we think are out of our control, and it’s this feeling of being stuck that makes us grumble about other people.
Here’s why we make this mistake. We believe that in order to stop feeling resentful about someone—say, a coworker who seems to charm his way to the top without having to work hard—we must have exactly what he has. Of course, this makes us feel stuck. Maybe we don’t feel very charming, or we don’t actually want to skate by on charm alone.
Instead of trying to be like someone else, do what you value.
But here’s an alternate solution. Instead of trying to be like someone else, do what you value. Perhaps you value creativity more than charm. Or perhaps you value wisdom, service, or humility. Whatever it is you value, find this North Star and aim for it in your daily work. Allow yourself to feel great about what you accomplish along the way.
Even if you never come up with an effortless yet hilarious joke the way your coworker does at every meeting, you can feel fulfilled in a way that matters much more to you. Then, at some point, you’ll have let go of that resentment towards your coworker even without noticing it. You might even genuinely enjoy that joke he tells!
Whichever methods you try for letting go of resentment, remember that it’s not about taking a situation to court. We’re not trying to establish right versus wrong in any situation—this is either already very clear or something people will never agree on. Instead, the more productive thing to do, for your own well being, is to zoom out and see the bigger picture. What do you actually want? What do you value? Why do you choose to do what you do? Hone in on what’s important and don’t feed the rest. Your garden will be plentiful with flowers you enjoy!