Q: Many of my clients are stuck in resentment over past injuries, abuse, or unfair treatment. But when I try to get them to let go of the resentment and move on with their lives, I typically encounter strong resistance. Do you have any suggestions for me about how to get through to these clients?
A: Unlike most forms of anger, which are triggered by specific incidents, thoughts, or memories, chronic resentment is a more generalized state: no one resents just one thing. Most resentful people drag a long chain of bitterness through life. Specific injuries, abuse, or maltreatment that evoked a profound sense of betrayal may have initially forged the chain, but many of the additional links often involve overreactions to minor incidents. It’s important to recognize that even removing the beginning links of the chain (resolving whatever offenses started it) will do little to affect the many links that have been added over the years. And since resentment can greatly distort thinking through oversimplification, confirmation bias, inability to grasp other perspectives, and impaired reality-testing, it often becomes a worldview and way of life. Another reason that it’s often hard for people to let go of resentment is that the low-grade adrenaline rush it brings—which temporarily increases energy, confidence, and a sense of righteousness—feels better than the self-doubt and low energy that comes when feeling vulnerable.
But the problem with the adrenaline effect is that it borrows energy from the future, usually leading to a crash and some form of depressed mood. Worse, since a burst of adrenaline enhances memory, when people resent their partner, they tend to remember every perceived offense since they started living together. Instead of experiencing negative feelings as temporary states, they feel as if they’re reacting to continual unfair or unreliable behavior that won’t change.
The Therapist’s Challenge
The initial challenge of treating those afflicted with chronic resentment is to strike a balance between validation and empowerment. While validation is the first step of treatment, it should be the shortest in duration. Start off by allowing yourself to feel compassion for whatever injury the client reveals, even when obscured by resentful or contemptuous attributions. Don’t challenge the attributions, no matter how distorted they may seem. The more you challenge resentment, the stronger it becomes. As long as it’s needed as a defense, resentment will marshal the client’s thoughts and creativity to justify it at all costs.
Empowerment is the next step in helping people let go of resentment and relies on building viable coping mechanisms that make resentment unnecessary. The key to overcoming resentment is putting more value on a path toward a fuller experience of life, rather than dwelling on the offenses of the past. While memories of past maltreatment may never go away, clients can learn to experience them as white noise, like the background hum of an air conditioner, as they build more value and meaning in their daily lives. So rather than what happened in the past, I focus with clients on how they want to feel. While everyone has the right to feel resentful, hardly anyone really wants to feel that way continuously and experience all the unpleasantness that goes with it. Thus, when people focus on how they want to feel, their prefrontal cortex zeros in on how to achieve the desired state, rather than justify the undesirable one.
We can think of resentment as a habit of substituting temporary feelings of power (from a small dose of adrenaline) for feelings of value, such as feeling worthy of appreciation and respect. My approach trains resentful clients to do what will make them feel more valuable when they feel vulnerable, and therefore, more likely to act in their long-term best interests by appreciating something, connecting to someone, or protecting someone they value—all of which are incompatible with resentment.
Encouraging valuing behaviors differs from self-soothing or participating in enjoyable activities, which rarely add meaning to life and stimulate little or no guilt, shame, or anxiety when we fail to do them. I love ice cream and I love my family, but protecting the wellbeing of my family adds meaning and purpose to my life; ice cream does not. While I feel guilt, shame, and anxiety when I violate or fail to protect the wellbeing of my family, I feel no guilt, shame, or anxiety when I turn down ice cream.
Our task as therapists working with resentful clients is to help them come up with an array of behaviors that make them feel valuable. These fall into broad categories:
- Recognizing the basic humanity of others (most people would help a desperate child)
- Appreciation of the love they have for significant people in their lives
- Some sort of spiritual expression that feels right for them
- Appreciation of natural and creative beauty
- Small compassionate acts (e.g., listening, lending emotional support, helping someone struggling)
But occasionally engaging in valuing behaviors alone won’t be enough to alter chronic resentment. That requires practice—something similar to “emotional pushups”—to condition new emotional responses. In my experience, it takes about six weeks of daily practice associating valuing behaviors with the physical signs of resentment, such as tension around the eyes, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, thighs, and feet. Conditioning new emotional responses to occur with physical changes is advantageous because physical changes happen more rapidly than the awareness of emotion. This enables the exercise to forge new emotional associations that are largely unconscious. Before clients knowingly feel resentment, they’ll try to make the situation better.
My client Jake requires this kind of repeated practice. Prone to getting lost in resentment when he feels treated unfairly, he recently found himself ruminating over an unpleasant exchange he’d had with his wife the day before when she’d reminded him twice to mow the lawn, as he’d agreed to do. After she’d heard him mumble, “Nag” under his breath, she’d gone off into what Jake described as one of her own “sulks.” Jake is still brooding over the incident today, but agreed to work on another way of handling his resentful feelings.
To start his practice session, he imagines that the unpleasant exchange is happening now. He feels the tension in his neck, around his eyes, jaw, in his chest, shoulders, arms, hands, and stomach. I can’t believe she’s starting again, he thinks. After all I’ve done for her, she gets upset about a little grumble? It’s not fair! Having clients intensify this kind of anger self-talk escalates arousal for practice purposes. Then, as instructed, he imagines the words core value, core value, core value flashing in front of him. This is a thought-stopping technique to shift clients out of the cascade of resentful thoughts.
The next step is to experience for one second the deepest vulnerability he can possibly feel, which for Jake is feeling unlovable. This step creates a vaccination effect. In other words, small doses of the unpleasant experience of feeling unlovable helps him be more tolerant of it—so he no longer needs resentment to avoid it. Jake then recalls the sequence of value-images we’d worked on in the previous session: feeling love for his wife and son, going to communion at his church, the sunset over the lake near their house, his favorite song, his connection to his neighborhood, and the feeling he gets when he does small compassionate acts, like sending get well cards. Finally, he imagines apologizing to his wife and hugging her.
Jake now appreciates that he’ll be much more successful in any negotiation with his wife while he’s in touch with his core values, and his next negotiation about division of household labor is likely to be more respectful and considerate of her perspective. Additionally, I asked Jake to note after each practice session how much more he likes himself when he’s free of resentment. This feeling of wellbeing provides motivation for him to continue the practice regimen.
About 12 repetitions of an exercise with the above components spread out over the day for about six weeks forms a conditioned response that can transform the rigid perspectives necessary to maintain resentment. In this way, clients can learn to replace the constricting effect of picking at their emotional scabs and nursing grudges with incorporating more value and meaning into their daily lives.
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Steven Stosny, Ph.D. is a well-known therapist and author of many books and articles. He’s appeared on all the major networks and national radio shows, most of the major newspapers and magazines. He has taught at the University of Maryland. His blog on PsychologyToday.com has more than 21 million views.