How Resentment Becomes Self-Defeating

Resentment. Even the word has a sting: the front teeth momentarily grating on the S, the lips bunching inward quickly on the M, and spitting out the T. Just saying it possesses a particular conviction, expressing an unquestionable and unresolved wrong, done by another. Resentment bolsters one’s entitlement to feel aggrieved, and even to designate its course and resolution.

What does it mean to have resentment? On the surface, it implies simple cause and effect. A person was treated badly and feels wronged, but with just a pinch of feeling that it was intentional. But where for most people these feelings leave off, for those prone to it, resentment develops. The longer they hold onto the resentment, they believe, the greater the power and the degree of significance it has. The person then gets to feel unquestionably right by virtue of having been wronged. Because of this, the one who committed the wrong can’t make amends and mutually move past the ill-event. But making amends may not necessarily be what the resentful person wants. Because in addition to being right, resentment creates an indebtedness, which, in a perverse way, accumulates interest for the resentful person.

While no one honestly elects to hold onto resentment, being wronged does possess a certain value: You hurt me; I’m owed recompense. It also solicits sympathy from bystanders: Look at how he wronged me; and, conversely: Look how that person wronged him. It sets the person wronged apart from the one who wronged them by a simplification of right and wrong. And then there’s the added bonus: the one wronged effectively punishes the wrongdoer–and yet, by no actual act of their own.

This, unfortunately though, is basically passive-aggressive behavior. The person wronged is indirectly expressing animosity towards the person who wronged them to avoid direct confrontation. Typically, passive aggressive behavior develops as a result of early, non-negotiable, relationships in which there was an inherent imbalanced, or hierarchal, power dynamic, like parent and child. The parent unfairly exercised this power—and the child didn’t feel allowed to acknowledge or address this unfairness. So in order to maintain some sense of integrity the child had to keep a running tally of wrongs by the parent. Because of this a child develops an anticipation that others will treat him unfairly and this gets generalized to future interactions that even hint at being unfair. To counter feeling powerless they automatically seize upon any hurt, thinking this will level the playing field. Their justification, most likely unconscious, for indirectly punishing someone who wronged them is not only a means of retribution for the wrong, but insurance that the wrong doesn’t go unrecognized, and correction of the perceived imbalance of power.

All behaviors are shaped—and continually re-shaped—by emotional experiences throughout life. If a parent used resentment as a means of ingraining a disciplinary message, that resentment caused pain. That pain set up a simple cause and effect expectation: Being wrong is bad, wronging somebody is worse. Raised in an environment where resentment rather than repair was the predominant response, similar interactions are transferred onto later relationships and associated with any perceived wrong by self or others. In developing romantic relationships the resentful person approaches relationships with ambivalence: leading with interest, while tempered with caution. Because their ability to rightfully express themselves in the past hadn’t been validated, or was felt to be dismissed, by those closest to them, they automatically “protect” themselves against both the potential partner and the generalized relationship. In relationship-psychology, this is sometimes described as, Avoidant Personality Disorder, Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style, Love Avoident, Approach-Avoidant Relationship Pattern, narcissistic behaviors, or the standard—“commitment-phobic.”

Given this, a person prone to resentment may speak abstractly of being in a relationship, rather than speaking directly, of being in the relationship. Still reacting to past relationships, they often confuse exploring a current relationship with aggrieved feelings from past relationships. Because they employ opposing attitudes, problems arise when they demonstrate interest in a current relationship while expressing ambivalence to being in a relationship itself. Hence the above labels.

While these tactics are a means of regulating risk and closeness, they unfortunately often frustrate potential partners. Not understanding the person’s emotional logic, potential partners might distance themselves from the person in response. This in turn leads the resentful person to feel rejected, or undervalued (despite the hoops they get potential partners to jump through). Being misunderstood is experienced as an injustice, thus the person has to rally, not just against the other, but relationships in general. This, along with their ambivalence, is the perfect recipe for a self-defeating lack of relationship-traction, or commitment.

Like most people, the resentful person wants relationship. But because of their conditioning they experience disappointment as a slight, and quickly react with resentment. In so doing they avoid their own vulnerability and shortchange themselves by too quickly foreclosing on learning and growing from relationships.

When the resentful person cuts themselves off from someone who has wronged them, they are actually cutting themselves off from the means of resolving the wrong. It’s like they toss a bomb, turn and run, without witnessing its outcome. The person knows they’ve caused something, but doesn’t dare to discern what it is. Fear is both the constant, as well as the motivator.

Resentment keeps people stuck in their past relationships by carrying them into the future. A person raised in an environment in which they had to accept a parent’s misuse of authority holds onto resentment as a means of survival, by setting themselves apart from the parent. Not having had any other experience, the person automatically assumes others will reject them, and thus don’t risk expressing their vulnerability.

What is it resentful people are missing? First of all, the understanding that not everybody will behave as others had in their past. There are people out there willing to acknowledge when they have wronged another; who don’t retaliate by dismissing the one they potentially wronged, but actually seek to make amends. They don’t see relationships as there having to be a winner and a loser to ensure security, but see acknowledging wrongs in a relationship as investing in and increasing the relationship’s value. By attending to a perceived wrong and resolving it, a resentful person can actually reverse the emotionally negative experiences that their tendency towards resentment originally developed.

But what if acknowledging a wrong is received with rejection or dismissal? What then? While it would be tempting to fall back on resentment, what about simply recognizing the wrong for what it is: a wrong and possibly nothing more. Although conditioned to feel powerless, one does not have to continue to feel powerless. Certainly one can be powerless over another’s refusal to acknowledge a wrong, but to feel resentful is a matter of choice. The other’s inability to acknowledge a wrong doesn’t literally take away one’s power; in actuality it only hurts the other. Recognizing how defeating resentment has been, one can certainly empathize with how defeating it is for others. In order to do this, one must understand the patterns and functions of their own resentment, then learn to trust their judgment and value their own integrity. Knowing that one has been wronged, recognizing the effect(s), and believing that acknowledgement and amends can be made, is essential to the viability of relationships.

Seen this way, the wrongdoings of others presents an opportunity to determine whether a relationship is viable. That isn’t to say one should automatically write off a relationship if they’ve been wronged. What is important is how the wrong is handled; whether it is one among several or recognizing its significance to the expectations of the relationship. If the other person continually causes harm it suffices to say it’s not a good relationship. On the other hand, there are viable relationships in which the other’s value outweighs the significance of their shortcomings. A person may choose to disregard certain wrongs in the spirit of maintaining a valued relationship. Knowing which wrongs are worth consideration also demonstrates competency in relationships, and demonstrates the person values themselves regardless of another’s potentially negative influence.

All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.