Healthy Mind

How to Let Go of Lingering Resentment and Achieve Peace of Mind, According to Mental-Health Experts

Stocksy/Alina-Hvostikova
It's easy to feel justified clinging to resentment: The natural response to being wronged, mistreated, or otherwise winding up with the short end of the stick is to resent the person who placed you in that position. But as with harboring anger, holding onto resentment is all too often counterproductive. While you're weighed down by this burden of indignation, the other person can still go about their life free as a bird—likely because they're entirely unaware of how much you're brooding in the first place, says psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW. It's only in learning how to let go of resentment that you can effectively move on with your own life with the same lightness.

But that's easier said than done, of course. Once you're in the throes of remembering and rehashing all the harm caused by this other person, it's tricky to stop that mental loop—especially if you're getting cheered on by friends and family members who feel similarly wronged by association. To process your hurt in a more productive way and develop a strategy for letting go of it, it's helpful to begin by defining it.

First off: What exactly is resentment?

"The feeling of resentment is an intense, multilayered emotion that has components of anger, bitterness, indignation, sadness, humiliation, and shame attached to it," says therapist Christiana Ibilola Awosan, PhD, LMFT. In general terms, it arises when a person feels that they've been treated unfairly, or in a way that is devaluing, disrespecting, or dismissing their identity or perspective. And just like any emotion, it has serious range, typically stretching to whatever magnitude feels matched to that of the particular insult that prompted it.

"The feeling of resentment is an intense, multilayered emotion that has components of anger, bitterness, indignation, sadness, humiliation and shame attached to it." —Christiana Ibilola Awosan, PhD, LFMT

While holding a grudge typically refers to retaining some degree of negative feelings about a particular instance—which you might recall or rehash in future scenarios—resentment tends to be more intimate and impactful to a relationship, says Teplin. To describe its often serious effect, psychologist Robert Enright, PhD, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and author of The Forgiving Life, says that resentment is like "anger on steroids"—deep and long-lasting. "While some initial anger after being treated unjustly is good because it shows that we are people who deserve respect, when that anger is given the space to grow within a person for months or years, it can lead to anxiety, depression, and relationship challenges," he says.

That's because of the intense effect of resentment on the body—which essentially creates a toxic mind-body cycle. "Ruminating over the feeling of resentment and the interaction that brought about it can flood the brain with stress hormones that make you more susceptible to negative thoughts," says Dr. Awosan. "And this thought process then, paradoxically, makes it more difficult to concentrate and identify effective ways to resolve the relational injury that caused this feeling in the first place." The result? Even more bitterness can percolate.

When and why you might feel resentment

Any version of unjust treatment by others can plant the seeds of resentment, whether it comes in the form of negative action (say, a person cutting you down or being actively disrespectful) or a lack of positive action (like, someone ignoring your wants or needs). Below, the experts walk though three common scenarios.

There's an imbalance of give and take in a romantic relationship or friendship

If you're constantly giving to another person without feeling as though that gift is reciprocated, resentment can brood rather sneakily. "You might not feel resentful at the beginning of the relationship or friendship, but as you start to feel like you're regularly compromising for or accommodating the other person, the feeling can emerge," says Dr. Awosan. This type of behavior creates a pattern in which your needs are consistently unmet, leading you to be consistently disappointed in the other person, says Teplin.

Others tend to harp on your negative attributes—instead of positive ones

Being belittled by others (yes, even if it's in a joke-y way) can be just as hurtful as having your needs ignored. If someone is regularly tearing you down but then following up the comment by simply asking why you're being so sensitive, that can spark resentment for a few reasons, according to Dr. Awosan. Not only are they failing to take responsibility for the pain or shame they're causing you, but also, they're failing to see and appreciate the wholeness of who you are. Especially if you hold this person in high regard, their behavior of only calling out your flaws (without ever pointing out your strengths) is a resentment one-two punch.

You feel un-seen or dismissed by society at large

Because of the ways in which society has historically mistreated people in minority groups—including people of a certain color, class, sexual orientation, ability, and religion—it's very possible to feel resentment toward systemic bias. "As humans, we're all in relationships with ourselves, others, and the world," says Dr. Awosan. "And for this reason, I consider resentment to be any kind of relational injury where you feel as though you're not being treated in a way that you deserve, or that you're being treated in a way that deprives you of something you're entitled to."

7 tips from therapists for learning how to let go of resentment

1. Remember: Some resentment is okay

Yes, resentment is a negative emotion. And yes, we want to disavow ourselves of it ASAP. But first, it's important to note that feeling some degree of resentment when you're mistreated is to be expected. In fact, if you're so dead-set on getting rid of the emotion, it can create a negative narrative: "We're told that being resentful is 'bad,' and then we start to regard ourselves as 'bad,' too, when we carry this feeling, which can just intensify the grudge we're holding even further," says Dr. Awosan. Instead, consider viewing your initial resentment as a helpful friend. "It's there to tell you that something is not all right or needs improvement within one of your relationships," says Dr. Awosan.

2. Embrace a new perspective

It's really tough to figure out how to let go of resentment when you're too deep in it. So, try pretending as though you're an outside third party mediating a relationship between yourself and your resentment. "You can ask the resentment what it's trying to show or tell you about how you're participating in a particular relationship, and how you're using your voice (or not) to express what you're entitled to, expect, or hope for within the partnership," says Dr. Awosan.

Whatever thoughts or feelings bubble up as a result can move you toward more clarity: Perhaps, you realize exactly why you're feeling as hurt as you are, or by contrast, you figure out that your response isn't justified by the other person's actions.

3. Talk it out

"I recommend to my clients that they should attempt to find resolution when holding onto resentment," says Teplin, "which can often come through having an open, honest conversation with the individual who hurt them." She suggests talking about what happened in clear terms; acknowledging the role that they and you have played in creating the interaction underlying the resentment (after all, it takes two to tango); and giving voice to all of the feelings that come up as a result. By communicating, you can steer clear of misunderstandings or misperceptions (which could simply cause the resentment to linger even longer).

"Actively listen to what the other person says in response to your expressions," says Dr. Awosan. "Give them the room necessary for them to express their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, as well." Often, in the midst of this conversation, you'll come to a better understanding of the initial hurtful interaction, which can help you figure out how to let of the resentment, find closure, and develop a plan with this other person for moving forward in the relationship. "State and request your hopes and expectations for staying in the relationship in order to prevent a similar relational injury from occurring again," says Dr. Awosan.

4. Step into the other person's shoes

Consider taking an empathetic approach as you embrace conversation with the person who harmed you—as hard as that may be; while you might feel like the victim in this scenario, it's very possible that they're the victim of a past trauma that triggered the act over which you're feeling resentful. In other words, however hurtful this act may have felt, it's worth considering whether it really had anything to do with you. (And throughout the course of an open conversation, you may find that other reasons surface.) Though an outside cause doesn't excuse the fact that this person has harmed you, it can help contextualize the scenario, so you can more effectively let go of it.

5. Find space for forgiveness (even if you don't reconcile with the person)

It's time to forget about "forgive and forget"—because forgiveness doesn't actually rely on forgetting another person's actions at all, according to Dr. Enright. "When people forgive, they strive to be good to the person who wasn't good to them, without finding excuses for their behavior or abandoning a quest for justice," he says. In fact, the act of forgiving is a deeply personal one, with the power to reduce stress and boost mental health in the forgiver—without downgrading the severity or meaning of the hurtful person's actions. "The paradox of forgiving is this: As the forgiver tries to be good to the other person, it is the forgiver who experiences emotional healing," says Dr. Enright.

6. Speak with a therapist to pinpoint preexisting emotional pain

Past trauma tends to interfere on both sides of resentment: Not only can it cause one person to lash out at another person unnecessarily, but also, it can cause the person who's being lashed out at to internalize the situation more deeply, and feel more hurt as a result. As such, it's possible that internal roadblocks from the past may be driving your interpretation of a present scenario, and leading you toward resentment that's not warranted by the other person's behaviors alone. And as a result, the only way to fully let go of that resentment will be to address your own preexisting emotional baggage, for which the experts suggest seeing a pro.

7. Practice gratitude

Carving out time to embrace gratitude for the people, things, and scenarios in your life toward which you don't hold resentment can shift your outlook, making the things you do resent seem less significant as a result. Not to mention, gratitude has its own share of mood-boosting, stress-melting effects that can place you in the right state of mind to let go of your current resentment, once and for all.

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