“Why did she do that to me? I’ve never done anything to her!”
“No one crosses me and doesn’t pay for it.”
“He may think he can do that to me, but just let him try it again.”
Resentments are often called frozen rage or “drinking poison and hoping the other person will die”.
In reality, resentments grow out of the stories we tell ourselves about what is true in our lives. We sponged up rigid, interpretive statements from adults when we were little, taking them as the true version of how life or people are or should be.
We rarely are conscious of these ideas or, if we are, don’t examine them. Gail Sheehy sold millions of copies with her book Passages and Judith Viorst did the same with Necessary Losses which examined the journey we must take in releasing illusions about life and people.
Generally these messages cluster into three categories. As adults, we can look at what is causing us pain in our relationships for clues about which category is being challenged.
The number of unconscious expectations is startling. They most often have to do with thinking someone will return our good will without ever declaring this as a baseline for our interaction. We assume the other person is “on the same page” without ever checking it out. It’s a “tit for tat” belief.
Abstract terms like “love” are culprits. “Love” to one person may mean wanting to get you the moon. To you, it may mean taking out the garbage. Both may have said “I love you”, using the same word but not checking out what it looks like in everyday life.
Giving unwisely may trigger our resentments. We may have been taught that if we were kind to someone, it would be reciprocated. That may be a positive belief but there is one caveat: the same person may not be the one to return the favor.
When we give, we need to do so freely and out of our surplus energy. Giving out of need or to influence someone to love us, called people-pleasing, is almost certainly to be disappointing. If we cannot give what we think we should, we can realize that no one can give all the time. That is an unrealistic expectation and a hard taskmaster. Learning to say “no” is not a failure. Accepting our own limitations allows us to stop demanding others have no limitations.
To find out what some of your expectations are, examine your favorite “common sense” sayings, often called proverbs: “blood is thicker than water” “you made your bed; now lie in it” or “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” The first saying implies that family must be valued over friends, no matter how badly they treat you. The second forbids changing one’s mind or looking at options. The third sends the idea that caring will increase when the person is absent.
For most of these bits of wisdom, there is an opposite saying. For example, “Out of sight, out of mind” would contradict the last saying. As children we tend to want simple, absolute guides for living but being an adult means doing to work to examine our experiences with clearer lenses and allow more options for choices.
We may have learned through osmosis that how other people treat us is the measure of our worth. It may be a measure, but not of that. As children, we certainly could not control how others treated us. And as adults, we may not have learned the skills needed to help others remember how to treat us. One of my favorite sayings is, “The ego is easily offended.” Looking for slights or collecting “anger stamps” is rarely satisfying.
Instead, we can adopt realistic boundaries and remember to stop at the line in the sand at our feet. We all want validation, but we can’t guarantee everyone will deliver it. So we can know that how others treat us has more to do with their needs. Sometimes a statement as simple as “I am your wife. Do not speak to me in that tone” is enough to remind your partner of how you are to be treated.
There is a positive, affirming pride called self-esteem and a negative, inverse pride which is easily hurt and self-conscious. The negative one generates self-pity if not the center of attention, feeling unloved and unworthy if not constantly acknowledged. Learning to nurture ourselves emotionally will lessen the amount of hurt pride we experience. We are free to communicate our boundaries and, when we learn to do so, will experience more satisfying emotional security.
We can realize that there are many supportive people who will value a relationship with us but we also have to accept we are just one of the human race, no better or worse than anyone else. No one has a “get out of hurt” card and it doesn’t mean you are less than others because you don’t have one.
Closely related to pride is loss. Unacknowledged and ungrieved loss often shows up as a resentment. Emotional losses such as betrayal and dishonesty certainly can punch us in the gut. Out of fear that we were somehow to blame for being hurt, we feel more powerful if we harden our anger into resentment rather than admit we have lost something precious to us.
Sadness and hurt are underneath most anger and are often more uncomfortable to deal with. We may feel that if we don’t hold onto our loss, we will lose part of our identity or it didn’t matter or wasn’t important, and we know it was. We may have been told to “just get over it.” Well meaning sympathizers may say, “How could you let him do that to you?
The reality is that part of human interaction will always be missed connections, mixed signals, and missteps. We can stop thinking that we are the only ones who have suffered a loss. It is part of the common human experience. As a popular song said, “Everybody plays the fool sometime.” It does not mean we are deficient.
If we realize that all of us, the one who hurt us and ourselves, are doing the best we can with what we know at the time, we can allow ourselves to admit our pain, give it time and support, and even get stronger for having gone through the loss. We can also take responsibility for our choices in our relationships without blaming ourselves or others.
In this way, we can pour the poison down the drain and accept that “forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”