resentments: where do they come from?

a little while ago i wrote a post on dealing with resentments.

but here’s a question: where do resentments come from?

definition: what’s a resentment?

pulling together some dictionary definitions, a resentment is

the feeling of displeasure, ill will, bitterness, anger or indignation in reaction to an act, remark, person, etc., regarded as grievance (i.e. causing injury or insult.)

these definitions are not bad; the only thing that’s missing is the fact that more often than not, resentments are harboured over a period of time.

the other thing that we can notice here is that resentments are a mix of feelings and ideas in regard to an interpretation of an event.

notice how different this is from a reaction to an event.

let’s use an example.

how resentments are not born
herb steps on tanya’s foot. tanya says, “ouch!”. herb goes, “oh, i’m sorry.” tanya smiles and replies, “it’s ok.”here we have an event – herb steps on tanya’s foot. tanya has a natural reaction and says something. her saying “ouch” is another event, etc. event, reaction, event, reaction, event, reaction. period. it’s over. the event is not going to be played over and over again in either herb’s or tanya’s head.

here’s the same initial event again – but with a different twist:

… and how they are born
herb steps on tanya’s foot. tanya glares at him and snarls, “watch where you’re going!” herb replies, “geesh. i’m sorry. i guess.”

both herb and tanya go home and tell people about the jerk and the bitch, respectively, who they’ve met on the bus, and start talking about people who just don’t have any manners. they add their experiences to their assortment of stories about people who’ve treated them impolitely.

interpretations and beliefs
what happened here? when herb stepped on tanya’s foot, it wasn’t just an event – in tanya’s eyes it was, as the dictionary said above, a grievance. the underlying feeling was hurt but she immediately interpreted the event as something directed at her: someone who did not value her enough to take care not to step on her.

this interpretation comes from a system of beliefs, involving her perceived value in this world, her expectations of how she should be treated, ideas about who herb is (“obviously someone who does not care”), etc. from this mix of feelings, interpretations and beliefs she formulates her response.

this whole experience is quite frustrating for her, and naturally, she wants to relieve this frustration. one very common way of doing that is to tell others about it and elicit their support. it’s common but unless one is careful about whom to share such a story with, not very reliable. often, for example, by telling someone and that person agreeing with one’s point of view (“what a jerk!”), self-righteousness is created. resentments feed on self-righteousness like yeast on sugar. the whole thing bubbles up and blows out of proportion.

out of proportion
and that’s another hallmark of resentment: it’s often quite out of proportion to the initial event. “out of proportion” can refer to situations like in our example: hours of resentment follow an event that could have been forgotten within minutes.

however, just as resentments can be unhelpfully large reactions to an event, they can be unhelpfully small reactions. i’ve talked to clients, for example, who were expressed resentment against people who had sexually abused them – when outrage or grief might have been more proportionate feelings.

not a natural reaction
resentments, then, always happen because we can’t or won’t react to an event in a way that immediately makes sense on an emotional level.sometimes, we can just make a decision to let go of them.

sometimes, we need to work through the unhappiness that caused them in the first place. that’s where therapy can help.

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

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