You can probably accept that life is not perfect, mistakes happen, people can be distracted or do not pay full attention so mishaps occur, things go wrong and you are hurt, physically or emotionally, sometimes seriously or even catastrophically. After all, on another occasion you could be the one who caused the trouble.
But life is not always like that. Sometimes life goes wrong and it hits you hard. It is not fair – and you resent it, you hold a grudge against the perpetrator. Sometimes people deliberately do something to hurt you and for one reason or another you cannot protest or ask for an explanation. All you can do is swallow it and seethe. That is resentment. It can be a cause of stress that can be hard to deal with while the instigators of your trouble may not know or care about what has happened to you. That can add to your stress. Resentment, therefore, has been said to be like swallowing poison and expecting other people to die!
Resentment is common but it is often not recognised for what it is or its effects are not acknowledged or are underestimated. It is a powerful factor in causing stress and usually operates on a deep layer.
As an illustration read what happened to Bill and Wanda.
Bill and Wanda were enjoying their retirement. Their son and his family lived nearby so they were fully involved in the care of their two grandchildren aged 6 and 8 – they shared the school run, attended school functions and often had them for sleepovers. They were fulfilled and happy. Then shock, horror! The family were moving 200 miles away! They were upset and angry and made their feelings very clear. There was a big row and they stormed off and cut all contact with their son and his wife. In return they were stopped from meeting their grandchildren. Anger, grief and resentment ruled for about a week but then both parties faced up to the fact that they all had much to lose if they did not resolve the matter quickly. They arranged to meet one evening when the children were in bed. Bill and Wanda learned the reasons for the move and in return they explained why they were so upset. They argued. They sulked. They wept. Then gradually they all began to think rationally. ‘At least they have not moved to Australia, we can still see them at weekends and holidays,’ Bill and Wanda reasoned, ‘and we might see them less but gain more quality time.’ Their son apologised for informing them of their unexpected move so abruptly but he and his wife were absorbed in what the move meant for them, and had not thought through what it would mean to Bill and Wanda. They could not provide a granny flat but he would have a caravan for them to stay whenever they wanted. All the family were deeply hurt emotionally by what had happened but they journeyed within touching distance if not actually together on their individual journeys of grief as they came to terms with their loss and learned to accommodate it. Resentment was fortunately short lived.
If only breakdowns in communication could be resolved with no more disruption than in Bill and Wanda’s situation, life would be so much easier! An acknowledgment, an apology, a pause to investigate what happened, an attempt to resolve the hurt and restore the situation all help to ease your situation and encourage you to co-operate with the restoration attempts. If, however, it is not possible to quickly resolve the cause of your budding resentment it can develop into an escalating catastrophe. Read what happened to Vera.
Vera was in agony with her hip but was soon to have an operation. She lived alone and independently so she stocked up with food and made arrangements for her dog to be cared for while she was in hospital and during her recuperation. But then it was delayed. And delayed again! Weeks passed. Vera was in despair and in severe pain. Then came the offer of admission at short notice – in two days’ time – because of a cancellation. By then the arrangements to care for her dog had fallen apart. Though they were soon reinstated the offer had been withdrawn. Vera slipped from anger to despair and back again and her painful agony continued unabated. And then a letter came – as she had not accepted numerous offers her name had been removed from the waiting list! Vera wept in anger, frustration and bitterness and in between times thoughts of retribution, suing and a large financial recompense, occupied her mind.
Her community of friends and neighbours rallied round. Her GP came to see her. He phoned the surgeon’s secretary and the hospital manager. Someone took responsibility for her dog and someone else did some more shopping. The surgeon himself phoned to confirm the operation date. He apologised for the long delay but his team had had a series of family catastrophes that had called one or another away and had prevented them keeping up with their schedule of operations. Then the manager called back to explain the withdrawal letter had been a mistake as a busy clerk had been distracted and had ticked the wrong box. Within a week Vera was in hospital. Operation done. Pain relieved – well, nothing like as bad as it had been. In the few days before her discharge Vera was very impressed with the devotion, patience and care of the staff whether they were doctors, nurses or cleaners. She could see it was not a special show for her but was genuinely their normal attitude. Patient Liaison came to see her before she left and gave her pages and pages of information about how to complain but Vera threw them away as although she accepted she had been treated badly she was full of sympathy for the difficult schedules and stressful situations the staff had to cope with every day. Everyone in the community knew what had happened to Vera. Many rallied round. She had a mountain of get well cards, her neighbours organised a rota to provide meals, walk her dog and keep on top of her household chores and gardening until she was fully recovered. Vera was a member of a local church so they then acted as a focus for developing over the next few years a community wide ‘Friend in Need’ service that was committed to providing a caring service beyond what was provided by the statutory services.
While an inpatient, Vera saw for herself how her medical problems fitted into the bigger picture of running a hospital with limited resources so her resentment and desire for compensation was overwhelmed by her relief to have her life back and admiration for those who accomplished this for her. Vera’s resentment would recur from time to time especially when she felt down or had other stressful situations to cope with but it was only ever short-lived. When downhearted she always found encouragement in remembering that her awful experiences had been a stimulus to bring the community together and develop services to help others who lacked personal resources or were otherwise disadvantaged.
There is a Chinese proverb that summarises the results of Vera’s experiences: ‘In every crisis there is opportunity – as well as danger.’
But if there is no acknowledgment, no apology, the situation is ignored, by-passed or treated with ridicule or laughter then your hurt is compounded. You will be indignant at being treated unfairly. You will be angry and offended so are likely to complain bitterly. If your claims, protests and suffering are still ignored you will become resentful. The hurt enters deep into your soul. You will brood about it. It clouds your perception of events and their developments. You can be so focussed on your hurtful experiences that you may actually contribute to them by not doing what you can to ease your own situation. The next two stories provide an illustration of this.
Theresa was crossing the road when she was hit by a car. She suffered a broken leg and whiplash injuries to her neck. Her leg healed satisfactorily but her neck pain persisted. Physiotherapy was recommended but she refused to attend even though she had persistent pain that disturbed her sleep. She attended her doctor regularly but all she was interested in was talking about the anger she felt toward the driver of the car and her desire to see him prosecuted and punished for what he had done. The doctor advised Theresa that delay in having her neck treated properly could mean she would have prolonged problems and perhaps even a permanent disability. He suggested she should try to forgive and move on, he even offered counselling but that was dismissed with disdain.
Theresa was making her suffering worse by her obsession with ‘justice’ – or was it retribution?
And then in Sandra’s situation her resentment affected many other people.
Sandra was ambitious to succeed so she worked hard and took on responsibilities. Her company came to depend on her so she was surprised when she was overlooked for promotion. And then it happened again. She worked harder and longer than anyone else to prove how good she was but no one truly valued her. Gradually she realised her colleagues were omitting her from their conversations and she did not get invited to their social events. But they still smiled nicely when asking for help when they were stuck. By this time, years had passed and Sandra realised that her skills were so specialised she would have great difficulty getting work elsewhere. She became morose and despondent and resented her colleagues and employer for taking her for granted. One day she had an inspiration and engineered a fault that no one could resolve. They begged her for help and she resolved the difficulty. The company lost money but no one realised what was behind the fault. Sandra felt a warm glow of satisfaction. That will teach them she thought. Sandra was careful not to be caught but when her dissatisfaction with her company and colleagues built up a head of resentment she repeated the exercise. At her retirement no one had anything special to say to her as a person but all bemoaned their future without her skill and attention being available to rescue them when serious problems occurred. Some doubted the chance of the company surviving. It was a few years later when the company was growing beyond anyone’s expectations that the management began to be suspicious about Sandra’s role in delaying this success.
Resentment may be justified but if it is allowed to get out of hand you can create even more stress for yourself and other people may be caught up in your resentment. It can become like a festering sore or an insidious cancer that if it is ignored or it becomes too dominant other factors may come into play and it can be the root cause of increasing harm and distress to yourself and others.
And it can blow up very suddenly.
Steven worked shifts so was at home one day relaxedly watching a sports programme when the travel agent called. Steven had booked a holiday and he and his wife were really looking forward to it. They had saved hard for it, they had negotiated a good deaI and were now busy planning how they would spend their time while away. The travel agent shocked Steven. One of their clients was asking for the very holiday Steven had booked and wanted Steven to give it up, for a good recompense. Steven was immediately angry and insulted. How dare they. That was theirs. It was special. He refused. Ten minutes later the agent phoned back. Would he accept a more expensive holiday and £20,000 in compensation? Steven hit the roof. No! No! No! He settled back to his programme. He had protected their precious plans. Within a few minutes the phone rang again. He had his response ready and gave it even before he properly heard the latest offer. Back to the telly with a glow of self-satisfaction. He was idly going over in his mind what he would tell his wife when she came home and how he had protected their dream. Recompense, then £20,000 and what was the last offer? He had hardly listened to it – to pay off their mortgage! He started to laugh to himself and then suddenly went cold all over. What would his wife say? She wouldn’t, he decided, she would just beat him up and divorce him. He phoned the estate agent. Apologetically he asked if it was a genuine offer? Was it just a joke? What was going on? This time Steven listened carefully. A very rich client had personal reasons for wanting this holiday so was willing to pay whatever it took to get it. Steven could set his own terms. Resentment that his precious dreams were not valued and appreciated nearly led Steven to miss out on the deal of his life!
Resentment is a natural response to being hurt and upset. We all experience it at one time or another. If you respond promptly and cooperate with those causing the hurt it can be cut short and resolved. If, however, resentment is allowed to simmer away in the back of your mind it will disturb your sleep, trouble your thoughts and interfere in how you relate to people. You can be suspicious, doubting motives and expecting the worst. This can go on for years and even become such a part of you that it affects your relationships and situations that have nothing to do with the origins of your resentment. Resentment can become just a part of who you are.
Management of Resentment
- As always when hurt, an immediate response explaining how the incident affected you can cut short the possibility of resentment building up. Reacting openly, cheerfully and cautiously may be enough to cut short any risk of resentment.
- That is not always possible. Perhaps the severity of the hurt is too great. Perhaps overtures to resolve the issue have been rejected and an open disagreement has developed. Perhaps you had already reacted angrily and emotionally and the one who hurt you responded similarly as they may not have seen the incident as you have, they felt guilty or were afraid of the consequences to themselves if they acknowledged the truth of your allegations. They may even think it was your fault. Recriminations are tossed to and fro. The battle lines are drawn. Family and friendships can be disrupted for years. You may not recognise straightaway what is happening but as soon as you do, call a truce, back off, stop and think – where is this going? Discussing what has happened with those close to you may not be helpful as they may get drawn into the situation and may even become more involved than you. It is better to talk to someone who is neutral, and does not get emotionally involved. They do not have to say much. Their task is mainly to listen, to help you go over what happened and consider the consequences. Then you can plan how to respond.
- Think about what exactly it is that you resent. What is it that makes you angry? Now be honest with yourself – is it possible you may have contributed to the problem? Might you have expected too much of them? Do you feel foolish that you did not see a problem developing? Could there be a hint, or more, of envy in your resentment? Now, what can you do about yourself? Can you change something about your attitude or behaviour?
- Is there anything you need to apologise about? Please do not hesitate about this – apologising openly about a small contribution to a quarrel can open the door for others to apologise about a major contribution. Be a peacemaker!
- Are you ready for a face-to-face meeting? Do it privately or have a neutral person who is trusted by both parties to help you. Aim to be positive so make personal statements such as, ‘I felt … when you did ….’ Avoid being negative by making accusations such as, ‘You must have known …’ Ask them to tell you what they remember about the incident. Discuss the differences between your stories – can you work together to see how you came away with possibly different understandings about what happened? It may take more than one meeting as you may need time to reflect on what transpires but do not end without discussing what you have both learned and how you will relate in future. After what has already happened you will only need a hint of a possible recurrence for painful memories to disturb your assessment of the latest situation.
- Sadly it may not work out. The discussions may fall apart. Your approach may be rejected. You may not feel emotionally strong enough even to start an approach. Then at least look after yourself. Be positive and look forward. Encourage yourself that you did what you could. When downhearted for whatever reason you will brood about it and feel worse. That is what happens – we all do it. But cut it short. Do not get stuck in the past – enjoy the present and prepare for the future.
- It is counter-intuitive to all sense of right, fairness and justice but it seems that the most effective answer to resentment and carrying a grudge is to cancel the claim and start afresh. This is called forgiveness. If you forgive, you break the ties that hold you imprisoned to resentment. Forgiveness has a wider role than just resolving the pain and suffering that comes from being resentful so we will consider forgiveness in a page of its own in the next section of management options.
For now, set aside some time to reflect on your stresses and the issues of life that trouble you. Consider whether in any of them an attitude of resentment could be a factor that is making your overall sense of stress worse.
How significant is this damage?
Is resentment such a big factor it has become a stress in its own right?
If you recognise that resentment or bearing a grudge plays a significant part in your personal burden of stress set time aside to reflect on what happened to start the resentment, consider what you can do now to resolve any continuing issues.
Put right what you can.
Forgive where you need to – include forgiving yourself.
Give yourself time to come to terms with the stress of dealing with painful memories and heightened emotions. Then move on.
If your experience of resentment is longstanding it will take time to assess and learn how to deal with it. Do as much as you can cope with, then leave it and come back to it on another occasion.
You may need to unlearn attitudes and patterns of behaviour. It can be done but usually it is best done in stages. For tips and ideas see the page about Changing Habits.
If your trouble is overwhelming you may need professional help from a trained counsellor. For further help see ‘Counselling’ at the end of Moving Forward/The Causes of Stress/Categorise Stress.
One final story
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was imprisoned for 27 years by the white minority government of South Africa and was treated inhumanly for much of that time as an aspect the government’s cruel apartheid policy. In 1990 Mandela was released and went on to lead the first democratically elected government that was chosen by an electorate that included all South African citizens whatever their racial background or skin colour. The world held their breath waiting for the backlash against the former white supremacist government and the bloodbath that was feared would engulf the white electorate. But it DID NOT happen! On his release from prison Mandela had proclaimed his commitment to peace and reconciliation. He emphasised personal forgiveness and reconciliation announcing that, ‘courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace’ and went on to form the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and other parties. The Commission organized mediation between victims and offender, sometimes with the involvement of representatives of a wider community. It was not perfect by any means but in the international world of aggression, implacable hatred and atrocities it was a stunning revelation of how resentfulness could be channeled away from murderous retribution through forgiveness and reconciliation to honest and transparent democratic peace.
There were many factors that contributed to this stunning resolution of a multi-lifelong abuse of humanity. Among them was the fact that as Mandela contemplated his forthcoming release from prison he wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that, ‘as I walked out of the door toward the gate that would lead me to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.’
That was a profound and true understanding. It changed Mandela as a person, it saved South Africa from a bloodbath and it set an example to all governments, organisations and even individuals throughout the world.
‘As I walked out of the door toward the gate that would lead me to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.’
Nelson Mandela’s reflection when approaching his release from prison.
Do you get it? If you hold on to anger, bitter resentment and hatred it is like a prison that confines and limits you. Instead, embrace forgiveness and reconciliation and see healing blossom and peace breakout.
Give yourself time to reflect on what you have covered and uncovered!
Do not be in a hurry to rush into the next topic.