Friday November 06, 2015
Of all the difficult emotions we know so well in life, there is one particular rogue which can stalk our relationships like the proverbial bad witch at a wedding, sucking up joy and spreading poison in its wake: Resentment. And like all bad witches, this one has a lot of power to cast bad spells on your wellbeing.
"We never really argue," my clients will often tell me, puzzled at how imperceptibly yet thoroughly their relationship has unravelled.
Sweeping grievances under the carpet is corrosive and cumulative. It feeds the slow burning fuse - and takes commitment and good will hostage.
London based relationship counsellor, Carole Nyman called resentment "the number one killer of desire in both genders", when she commented on a recent Marriage Foundation study in Britain of 40,000 couples.
The findings showed that 80 per cent of couples that separated had reported being "generally happy" only one year earlier.
It doesn't usually take long for the real culprit to be found and as the relationship teeters, resentment often emerges from the shadows.
The obvious course of action is to become more open, entering into an honest and responsible discussion. The science tells us that one person's response to the other can literally change the brain's waves.
Expressing empathy and looking for a solution is the best way forward. It can be very important to have a trusted third person to help if resentment runs deep, or has built up over a long time.
When "choices" and "gratitude lists" just don't cut it
Resentment can strike beyond the heart of our most intimate connections with our partner, meaning it won't always be possible to address said resentment to the person you feel it towards.
Take for example the resentment that can spring up in a family - where you try and articulate your feelings may backfire and upset a very delicate web of relationships, making everything worse. Or that person may well remain unmoved by your distress. It is often said of resentment, that to experience it over a sustained period is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Quite simply, hanging on to this typically internalised and debilitating emotion ends up doing considerable harm to you.
Described by philosopher Robert Solomon, resentment is a moment when "humanity is at its lowest ebb". Receiving advice like "keep a gratitude diary" or "it's a choice to stay stuck" doesn't really touch the sides - and usually makes the feeling even worse. Because this type of advice can make you feel ashamed for even having the feelings - which is particularly unhelpful - and can cause further and dangerous "internalising of the emotion."
A potent and complex cocktail, in the first instance, resentment tastes a bit like a mixture of sadness, disgust and surprise - and after that difficult concoction has been drained, there is a residue of deep disappointment and injustice. And it is mostly that feeling of injustice - that heartfelt cry of "this is just completely unfair!" - which drives resentment for most of us. It tends to stem from the following:
- What we feel someone did to us which was unnecessary mean or hurtful
- What someone did not do for us
- How we feel when someone has not done enough for us
Break through the shame barrier
That you are hurting and enraged - and can't shake it off - is not an indictment of your character. Everyone has a right to assume justice and to then feel deeply aggrieved - and often deeply betrayed - when it does not occur.
Blame evolutionary brain development for sensitising us to this type of threat. Depending on our situation and, often, exposure to earlier injustices, we are all sensitive in different degrees to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", as Shakespeare called it.
We don't "choose" like some willful child to have this very uncomfortable feeling.
Holding onto resentment is draining and takes Herculean strength to carry in your daily life. So, as if the feelings of injustice and the replay in your mind were not enough of a burden, research tells us that, like a virulent weed, the roots often run very deep and can strangle other plants in the vicinity. It can wind its way into other negative emotions like hostility and cynicism. And of course all this becomes an attitude, which not only works against healthy relationships in general, but also creates a barrier against psychological health and confidence.
If you know that you are in the grips of resentment and can't find a way out, find a very trusted friend or family member to talk to - or a reputable counsellor or therapist.
Please don't choose someone who doesn't listen carefully, or who argues about your right to feel the way you do. Or sends you off to count your blessings as the way to manage the problem.
Bringing the feeling out of its dank habitat and into the sunlight can immediately help. This is an evidence based fact and is especially true if your resentment is flourishing and choking you from the fertile loam of those supposed to be closest to you - for example a friend or a close family member.
Finding the responsive and responsible support, which acknowledges your feelings and does not invalidate you, is a rather vital act of self-compassion.
Rather than adding shame to the mix, revisiting the circumstances which gave rise to your feelings can feel like a life raft releasing you from an echo chamber.
An evaluation of what can be changed, and a responsive development of strategies to navigate what can't, has nothing to do with shame. It is a courageous act of exploration, which can return you to your own truthful way of living.