Resentment is the product of collecting injustices that have been done against us over time.
We hold onto these transgressions in our memory so that we don’t allow them to happen again. But if you’ve ever held onto a resentment, you know there’s no peace in it.
Anger grows and holds you hostage, telling you lies about how it will protect you from future harm, make you stronger, and prepare you to stand up for yourself.
The following are 10 steps adapted from the work of social worker Mark Sichel in his book “Healing From Family Rifts” for letting go of the chronic punishment and pain that comes from holding onto resentments.
1. Treat resentment like an addiction
Just as people in addiction recovery know that “one is too many and a thousand not enough,” so, too, is the case with resentful thoughts.
Take a moment and consider your own experience.
You likely know that once you indulge in one, it can be difficult to stop the overwhelming force of resentment in your mind.
It can take over and destroy a life in much the same way as addiction.
If you struggle with resentment that keeps you trapped in endless cycles of anger and bitterness, recognize the need for personal limits to no longer partake in this disruptive force.
2. Avoid the adrenaline rush of drama
There’s a thrill that comes from real life drama in which we have a role to play, even if it’s unhealthy.
We feel busy, responsible, and important in these roles, especially if we don’t get those same feelings elsewhere.
Calmness may also feel boring and uncomfortable for people who are used to being in relationships with high expressed emotion.
If you find this experience just too intoxicating to step out of, then you’ll need to make a commitment similar to that made by recovering addicts – abstinence.
3. Stop confusing people in your present with people from your past
The strong reaction of resentments is always the product of what’s been accumulated and unhealed in relationships.
When we’re angry at someone, we’re also angry at people from our pasts who’ve hurt us in similar ways.
The more severe and chronic the injustices, the more we carry these wounds into other relationships.
It’s reasonable to have learned to protect yourself from these hurts, but don’t use resentment against a present person to punish the ghosts from your past.
4. Let go of trying to control those who have hurt you
Insisting that the person who wronged you change their behavior so that you can finally move on places you in a severely compromised and disempowered position.
You may feel proactive and engaged in your attempts to right the wrongs from the past, but the more you try to control the other person, the more they will resist.
Rather than forcing them to be someone they’ll never be, use your energy to focus on your own values.
They’ll either change as you change, or they won’t, in which case you’ll have more information on what boundaries to maintain in this relationship.
5. Recognize that resentment gives only illusions of strength
Resentments are kept alive by the war you create with the offending person in your mind.
In these private battles, we’re the hero who’s found the noble cause of defeating the enemy. But the toll is great, and the mental preparation won’t get you the victory you fantasize about.
This illusion of strength is what ultimately leaves us drained of any possibility for serenity, composure, or peace.
Let go of the urge to continue fighting this internal foe.
From here you can set boundaries and do what needs to be done, but from a self-assured, grounded, and non-reactive position.
6. Identify signals that provoke resentment
We all have experiences that set us up to respond in unhelpful ways.
Consider the following influences that make us more vulnerable to getting hooked by ongoing resentments:
- Being hungry, tired, or sick
- Feeling angry, sad, lonely, hurt, bored, surprised, etc.
- Thoughts and memories involving the difficult person
- People / Places / Things
- Authority figures, people who cross your boundaries, neediness, emotionally reactive people, laziness, arrogant people, carelessness, etc.
- Family home, neighborhood, school, work, bars, etc.
- Any symbolic object reminiscent of the ongoing emotional struggle
One cue may not seem like much on the surface, but if ignored can signal a flood of other thoughts and feelings that become a crisis.
Use these signals to reorient you to more productive action and to stop rumination.
7. Acknowledge your part in the creation of the resentment
Consider taking an inventory of your own ineffective behaviors that prevent your personal healing.
This doesn’t mean that you’re the source of the problem or that you somehow deserved the treatment you got, but acknowledges ways in which you may needlessly be playing into continuing difficulties.
- “I tend to keep the peace at all costs and not stand up for my needs.”
- “I’m impatient in expecting change.”
- “I have a quick temper and say things I later regret.”
- “I struggle to empathize and validate the experiences of others.”
- “I make passive-aggressive comments rather than talking about my feelings directly.”
- “I don’t accept influence from others or apologies that are sincerely made.”
- “I often take the role of an angry, punishing victim.”
Taking such a personal inventory is difficult, but ultimately allows you to know yourself better.
Treat history as a learning experience and resolve not to act this way in the future.
8. Set limits with yourself and with the other person
As you focus on your power to improve the moment, you can start to set boundaries between you and your mind when it veers toward old resentments.
It’s a gentle and compassionate “Let’s not go there. It’s not going to do any good.”
This is a steadfast commitment to refuse going down dead end streets both within yourself and with the other person, focusing instead on healing where possible.
Where no repair can be made, we then have a boundary to limit unhelpful rumination and topics of discussion that will cause further harm.
9. Declare an amnesty with the other person and with yourself
As you work to let go of resentments, make the first step within yourself to not revisit past disappointments in your mind because doing so has kept you imprisoned by bitterness.
Declaring an amnesty with the other person is also a step toward greater peace, acceptance, and healthier boundaries, even if they will not take that step first.
You may consider writing a letter similar to the following:
We’ve both been hurting with anger and disappointment between us. I know that we’d both like to be free of this and, as I see it, the only way to continue our relationship is to put away and stop discussing the hurts of the past. I think there’s something worth preserving in our relationship if we can free ourselves of this pain. I plan to work on leaving this bitterness behind me to enjoy our time together to the extent that we can and I hope that you’ll be willing to do the same.
If, however, you find that this is not a relationship that can continue, then it will be an amnesty to no longer burden each other with expectations of further contact instead of continued fighting. Some relationships may, in fact, be better ended.
10. Forgive when you can and practice acceptance when you cannot
Forgiveness is a powerfully healing process that is also not always an option.
We may choose to forgive the transgressions of another as a gift to ourselves to experience more peace and compassion, and we may also rightfully choose to not forgive when it compromises our integrity.
Regardless of your choice, your life still calls on you to take steps toward clearing your mind of obsessive over-involvement with the other person’s behavior.
We don’t forget the mistreatment and may still experience understandable anger, but also seek to accept the other person for who they are and where they’ve come from.
Whether we choose to continue the relationship or not, this eases suffering and focuses our attention on the future.
Disclaimer: I am a licensed therapist, but I might not be your therapist and this article does not create a therapist-client relationship. This article contains mental health material for informational use only and should not be seen as therapeutic advice. You should consult with a therapist or other appropriate professional before you rely on this information. I reserve the right to change the information contained within this blog at any time and am not liable for any damages that may result from its use.