Moving Beyond Resentment

How to Help Clients Get Past Old Wounds

Steven Stosny

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.

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.

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.

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.

This blog is excerpted from "Breaking the Chain of Resentment." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: Anxiety | betrayal | depression | psychotherapy | self-compassion | therapist | therapists | therapy | stress | networker | compassion | Steven Stosny

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1 Comment

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 12:45:04 PM | posted by Dee
just 'GET OVER IT ALREADY' and other resentment remedies. While I am guessing that there isn't much of an issue. water under the bridge really. When a person finds out the trauma of a victim's past their obliterating behavior is understood and forgiven. But inquiring minds want to know. by adding insult to injury and rubbing salt in the wound, bystanders think they can access the extreme details. "well, that wasn't so bad" over and over and over again. the danger in analyzing the given details as 'not so bad' is we weren't there. We are the recipient of a story converted into language. trust me, something nearly always gets lost in translation.
but steven stosny wants to break the chain of resentment. validation should be the shortest of duration and then empowerment. he relays an example of a delay of chores and 'nagging' which created resentment. If this is just a pattern a family has fallen into then a short validation and empowerment is a fine and just modality. If this is a subset metaphor for an underlying problem, that problem should be explored.
I love math. It is honest, it attempts to hurt no one and aid all that use it. the bell curve of life is a beautiful thing. When a person falls into downward slope of a quadratic function there is a point of extreme. If the person has support and love the function of upward slope can continue. If the amount of trauma is life threatening a cubic function results.
People who relate a resentment might be protecting the analyst by only stating a socially acceptable metaphor of the true trauma. When people feel completely accepted by the analyst they have the courage to reveal violations of mores. While the analyst goals might be to reduce resentment, the analyst might be putting a band-aid to hid extensive trauma. To quote Hank Hill: "just push those feelings way down deep so they can never come out".
If the analyst is truly dealing with a non traumatized individual that has immature feelings of narcissism and control, my analyst had a magnificent technique of narrating stories of individuals who had suffered true life changing trauma to bring the examples of resentment into a more realistic light. But the example again must be in cases where true ptsd is not an issue.
When a person is violated and a therapist is protecting their empathy, 'breaking the chain of resentment' isn't going to work. While a therapist can challenge the client to trust them, or merely ask 'is the resentment of this minor insignificant incident a mask for a deeper, possibly shameful event'. All people have a deep need to be known, to have their history revealed in a safe environment. If the therapist has made the room safe, a trauma will be made known.
We have a deep childish need for the world to be fair. Not that this need isn't also mature, but the incident of adults blaming the victim or rationalizing a trauma to not address a trauma or right a wrong occurs too often. Merely pointing out that a client is resentful of an extreme trauma is not enough. That the therapist isn't resentful of the trauma is mega.
Yes, people who have attempted to right wrongs left a great many wonderful insightful intelligent people, murdered. Learning to stuff resentment 'to mow the lawn' is inane. reminding the couple that they love one another is a wonderful step. I think the true crux of the relationship troubles is she's a crime fighter, he is a lover.