Resentment: What It Is and How to Get Through It
What is resentment? Discover what it feels like to be resentful and learn how to get over being resentful.
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Resentment is a poisonous thing. Often, it happens gradually, slowly eating away at your heart until it swallows you emotionally, physiologically, and even spiritually in extremely destructive ways. It's a formidable foe that's exceptionally hard to overcome.
Resentment, when left to fester within you, can be devastating. As such, it's essential to know how to let go of such emotion before it ends up becoming a part of your identity.
Today, I’ll be discussing one of the strongest emotions a person can feel and how to get through it in a healthy manner.
What Is Resentment?
Oxford Languages defines resentment as "bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly." While that definition, in and of itself, isn't incorrect, resentment isn’t only “bitter indignation.”
Similar to human nature, resentment is complex and multilayered.
Many of those who feel resentment describe it as a mixture of anger, disgust, disappointment, and even fear. But psychologists consider resentment a tertiary emotion because it is thought to contain three secondary-level emotions: contempt (anger & disgust), shock (surprise & disgust), and outrage (surprise & anger)  .
When we feel resentment, we re-experience and relive the events that led up to how we feel. And although it can be provoked by recent, specific events, like being rejected in a job interview, for example, it commonly originates from insult and/or injury that occurred a long time ago.
The term itself originated from the French word ressentir, which means to feel. Today, resentment is synonymous with spite and holding a grudge.
What Causes Resentment?
Many things can cause the feeling of resentment. These events share one similarly: they involve a sense of injustice or wrongdoing caused by someone.
Here are some things that can cause resentment:
● Public humiliation
● Being taken advantage of by others
● Feeling like an object of regular discrimination or prejudice
● Envy and/or jealousy
● Having achievements go unrecognized
● Emotional rejection or denial by another person
● Deliberate embarrassment or belittling caused by someone
● Being put down or scorned by others
Victims of complicated and harmful situations see no other way out than bottling their emotions inside them. And when anger festers and grows without resolution, it can turn into resentment.
In the words of Malachy McCourt, an Irish-American actor, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
From a psychological point of view, it’s considered one of the most destructive obstacles to repairing a severed intimate connection, family rift, or fallen friendship.
The Difference Between Anger and Resentment
Anger and resentment are often used interchangeably. Although they share a lot of similarities, they're two completely different emotions. And their causes are very different.
Anger is like lighting a match. You can't decide not to be angry; it's an explosive feeling that arises as a self-defense mechanism. In many situations, it’s an emotional reaction that's healthy and appropriate.
According to psychotherapist and author Dan Mager, anger is an emotional response to a real or imaginary “wrong” or injustice. However, in many instances, people get angry simply because things don’t go the way they wanted it to.
Resentment involves more choice. Dwelling on the event that made you feel negative emotions can increase resentment. And unlike anger, resentment can stem from an event that happened to you long, long ago.
Resentment can appear in many different forms. Some of which include:
● Inability to stop thinking about the event
● Continuous or recurring feelings of intense emotion, such as anger and/or shame, when thinking about the event
● Unshakable feelings of inadequacy and regret
● Avoidance of conflict due to fear or tense relationships
Resentment, however, isn't always nagging and persistent. While it may linger, going on for days, weeks, and even years, resentment can also be fleeting. It can dissipate when one receives an apology from the person who committed the offense, or if one realizes the event was misinterpreted.
While anger can be considered a healthy emotion, resentment rarely is. The first reason why it isn't healthy is that it tends to last for long periods of time. It sticks like a second shadow that can interfere with other aspects of a person’s daily life.
Secondly, resentment may be used as a form of self-punishment. According to Steven Stosny, from the book Living and Loving after Betrayal, he states that "the false appeal of self-punishment is that it seems to keep us safe from future hurt and disappointment.” The thought process here is that one won’t be "so stupid" to trust or rely on that person, or someone like them, ever again.
Even so, the painful reality is that this act may actually hurt the resenter more, leading them to mistreat or distrust others.
6 Powerful Tips To Overcome Resentment
For many people, overcoming resentment means forgiving the other person who hurt them. For others, it's about making changes within themselves so that resentment doesn't negatively affect them.
Here are several approaches you can take to get through this troubling emotion effectively:
Recognize the Root of Your Resentment
Get clarity the root or source of your resentment. Think of how you feel about them and pinpoint why you feel the way you feel.
Ask yourself: When did it start? What happened that caused you to feel this way? Do you feel resentment towards a friend, a partner, a family member, or a stranger?
If you feel resentment towards more than one person, it might help if you write their name down on paper and write what they did to cause you to resent them. Write what part of your life it affects, and what you have contributed to the problem to gain better self-awareness. Doing so can put things into perspective, and make it easier to know how to overcome the negative emotions that come with it.
It may also be helpful to try to understand why it's so difficult to let go. For some, letting go of resentment can trigger losing one's identity, especially if the individual felt it for a long time. For others, it may be because they're simply not willing to forgive just yet. The first step is being honest with yourself.
Video: Resentment in romantic relationships
Allow Yourself to Feel
Resentment, especially when paired with anger, is an intense emotion. Bottling these emotions up causes more damage than good. Pretending that these feelings aren't there, or trying to push them away, may even contribute to hatred.
Healing resentment means accepting our feelings. To do so, take a moment to yourself and not only think about what happened to you but also allow yourself to feel the feelings that accompany the situation.
If you're angry, allow yourself to be angry. If you're hurt, allow yourself to feel hurt. Rather than pushing these feelings away, acknowledge your pain or confusion. It may be challenging, but it's necessary to move on.
Video: Meditation to let go of resentment
Talk to Someone You Trust
Whatever you're feeling now, whether it be hate, shame, or anger, they're all valid and worthy emotions. Talking to someone helps in more ways than one. Besides the fact that it relieves stress and feelings of anxiety, it also enables you to see the situation more objectively.
You can benefit from seeing another person’s point of view to see how they would react to the situation you're going through. They may even assist you in brainstorming a solution on how to get through it. Or, they can simply hear what you’re going through, which is enough in some cases.
At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel heard. This is part of why therapy is so effective. Find the right person to talk to. And remember: you're not alone.
Allow People to Make Mistakes
When we make mistakes, sometimes it isn't easy to acknowledge and accept it. It's hard to admit that we're less than perfect creatures and don’t always respond to situations in the most constructive of ways. But just as you want others to forgive your mistakes, extend the same to them. After all, the person who hurt you is human, and they might not have meant to cause you such grief.
This isn't to say that you're excusing their behavior; not at all. But it means that you're willing to be open-minded enough to see the context surrounding the person who's hurt you.
It can also allow you to understand them better and be aware of why they did what they did. And hopefully, you'll grow as a result of the situation.
Find Forgiveness in Your Heart
Understandably, resentment may be easier than the alternative, even if it includes pain and unnecessary suffering. But it means you're hurting yourself, whether consciously or subconsciously.
I must admit, I'm someone who holds a grudge. It takes me an exceptionally long time to forgive, and I'd often say to my friends that I'd rather "forget than forgive." So I get how hard it can be.
To say that forgiveness is hard is an understatement. After all, how could you ever forgive someone who, for instance, had abused you all your life? How do you forgive someone who had been cruel to you or someone who had lied to you? Being unable to forgive doesn't make you a bad person. It's just hard.
According to psychologist Anthony C. Lopez, what makes forgiveness so difficult is the fact that "evolution has endowed us with the psychological motivation to avoid being exploited by others."
But when you choose to forgive the person who wronged you, you're choosing to heal yourself. Therefore, when you forgive someone, you're not doing it for them, but for yourself.
You've probably heard of the phrase forgiveness heals a wounded heart. Although trite and cliché, there is actually a lot of truth in it. There's a great chance that this action will lift the heavy burden you've been carrying on your shoulders and free up valuable mental space for more "important" pursuits.
Love Yourself Unconditionally
"The goal of unconditional self-love is to live our best life with a sense of wholeness, health, peace, and empowerment." Rita Loyd, the author of Unconditional Self-Love, said. "Empowerment enables us to change our lives for the better and to make the world a better place."
For many, resentment is a way to stand up for themselves. If you’re the same, you might even say it feels good, almost courageous, to hold such anger towards the person who hurt you. But once the euphoria wears off, you’ll realize that resentment can feel like a near-constant itch. And turning it off can be tough. The memories repeat over and over, and the rush of emotions you felt then may come gushing back like water from a broken dam.
So, how does one go about being kind to themselves, when they haven't for so long? First, remind yourself that you have worth and are valuable and lovable. Practice self-compassion and work on being true to yourself regardless of what other do to you.
Video: How to get over resentment
Holding onto resentment and anger can hurt your well-being. You deserve to be happy without being held back by the negative events that happened to you in the past. If you're struggling with forgiving the person who's done you wrong, don't lose hope. You can build skills that help you cope with your emotions better.
1. TenHouten, W. D. (2018). From ressentiment to resentment as a tertiary emotion. Rev. Eur. Stud., 10, 49.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.