How Holding onto Resentment Makes YOU Suffer

Part One of a Three Part Series

Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S


An important component of healthy human growth is learning how to move forward in life and love when one has been hurt, ignored, insulted, slighted, rebuffed, gossiped about, lied to, cheated on, dumped, criticized, betrayed, abandoned, humiliated, or laughed at. This can feel especially hurtful when these actions are delivered by a person you have loved and trusted. 

When these painful life challenges occur, it is only natural to feel sad and resentful. While sadness is easily understood in the face of betrayal, resentment is often misunderstood. Yet resentment is an important feeling to understand and explore. I often share with my therapy clients that unresolved resentment is often an internal compass pointing us to something that needs attention and healing in our mind, body and spirit.

So, what is resentment anyway? In a nutshell, resentment is a form of anger. Think of resentment as the toxic after taste of anger that hangs out in our hearts and minds. Resentment is the pesky voice in our head that nudges us in the ribs like an unwelcome visitor reminding us of how "they" hurt us. This might sound like, "I was a wonderful friend to her, how dare she treat me this way!" or "I gave him all of my heart, and he was a worthless jerk, I hope he gets what’s coming to him!" While occasional thoughts such as these are not necessarily damaging, it is the constant care and tending of these thoughts over time that is unhealthy.

On going resentment takes work and effort to keep alive. The very process of ruminating on hurtful injustices and reliving those injustices internally day after day, week after week, can become habitual. I often say in my counseling sessions, "Your brain only knows what your brain knows." If you feed your brain a daily diet of negativity, or constantly review your internal script that rehearses and rehashes the painful experience over and over again, your brain will believe what you tell it. Brains are funny this way!

Anger is that challenging human emotion that tells us something doesn't feel right, or my boundaries are being crossed and I don’t like this. While experiencing anger is not a pleasant experience for most of us, feeling anger is not the problem, it is how we choose to relate to the feeling, and how we decide to express resentful anger that can be problematic. Some folks displace their angry resentment onto others by blaming and shaming, or by shouting and raging. Other's may use gossip or sarcasm. And still others choose silence as violence [e.g. the silent treatment, withholding love, guilt trips, etc]. It is rare that human beings have good models for how to process anger and resentment.

Yet, how we choose to express our resentment and anger can either create healing in our life, or compromise health. It can be comforting to remember that while you may not have any choice or control over the negative behaviors, actions and words of the person who hurt you, the good news is you do have a choice with your behaviors, actions and words. You get to do something different than that other person.

Again, anger is not the problem; it is how we choose to express anger. And anger is not the same as being mean. 

I'd like you to also consider that holding onto resentment is a form of self-abuse. It is the kindling on the forest fire, the maddening drip on the forehead, the irritating squeak in the wheel. It is the ball and chain chafing our ankle, the hot unsettled thoughts that wake us up in the middle of the night. And without awareness followed by an intentional practice of healing...

It. Never. Goes. Away. 

Instead, resentment will be very happy to set up space in your spirit like a hyper-vigilant houseguest. Resentment is much like that annoying family member who shows up at your door, bag in hand, reminding you of all of the reasons why you should invite it in and keep it around, all the while kicking it's feet up on the coffee table, eating the last cookie, laughing too loud, not flushing the toilet, and refusing to leave. By the time you realize that Mr. or Ms. Resentment is an unwelcome visitor, you will likely have some work to do in extricating this nuisance!

Another risk of holding onto old resentments is that this can impact current or new relationships. You may not even be aware of how angry resentment creates discomfort in your loved ones. Resentment is that unhealthy shadow that follows you, the part of you that your family, friends and co-workers tip toe around. Rather than express their concerns about your relationship with resentment, they quietly pull back and away from interacting with you rather than incite your anger. Resentment is sly this way, and will tell you that you didn’t need them anyway, "Now we have someone new to hate!" Conversations with resentment often sound like:

"She is a rotten liar, I will never forgive her!"

"He is a cheating bastard and I will never trust again."

"I hate her and wish she did not exist. She is dead to me and mine!" 

“How could he do that to our family? I will never forgive him!”

"Who cares, I didn't need her in my life anyway."

Messages like this repeated over time can create a false internal reality. Remember, your brain only know what your brain knows. And resentment will be more than happy to participate in this kind of internal dialogue. These discussions do not keep you safe...instead they keep you stuck. 

Still, we cannot have a discussion about resentment without a discussion on how to release, heal, and move forward. Let’s bookmark Part I of this discussion for now, and pick this up tomorrow. 

As we part for today, I invite you [yes you] to share with me below one feeling that comes to your mind, right in this very moment when you reflect on the picture and quote I have included with this article...

Kindly and in support,

Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S

What feeling does the image and quote above bring to mind?