- Christiana Ibilola Awosan, PhD, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Ibisanmi Relational Health
- Irene Levine, PhD, psychologist, friendship expert, and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend
- Jennifer Teplin, LCSW, psychotherapist and founder of Manhattan Wellness
- Robert Enright, PhD, psychologist and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute
- Victoria De Paula, LMSW, couples therapist at NYC Cognitive Therapy
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 loved ones who feel similarly wronged by association. Whether you’re wondering how to let go of resentment toward a spouse, an ex, a friend, or maybe even your mother, it's helpful to begin by understanding what it is and why you’re feeling it.
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 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, therapist
While holding a grudge typically refers to retaining some degree of negative feelings about a particular instance—which you might rehash in future scenarios—resentment tends to be more 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. It’ll have you seeing red for as long as you let it. "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," says Dr. Enright.
That's because of the intense effect of resentment on the brain. "Ruminating over the feeling of resentment and the interaction that brought it on 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.
How can I identify the source of my resentment?
Any version of unjust treatment can plant the seeds of resentment, whether it comes in the form of negative action (say, a person cutting you down or being disrespectful) or a lack of positive action (like, someone ignoring your wants or needs).
To identify the source of your resentment, consider how your needs may have been written off or gone unmet in a friendship or relationship. 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 the other person, the feeling can emerge," says Dr. Awosan.
That's especially the case if you've expressed your concerns only for the other person to continue ignoring them. "I have found that resentment—as opposed to occasional anger or annoyance—builds not only when someone feels like a need hasn’t been met, but particularly when they believe that they have been clear and consistent in expressing that need, and [the other person] has deliberately ignored it," says couples therapist Victoria De Paula, LMSW. Such a scenario can crack open deep emotional wounds surrounding fears of not being good enough or being abandoned... which can lead to even greater resentment.
The same goes for being regularly belittled others (yes, even if it's in a joke-y way). If someone is constantly tearing you down but then following up the comment by 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.
It's also possible that you feel more broadly dismissed or not fully seen by society writ 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.
"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." —Dr. Awosan
"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."
Relatedly, that feeling of being unfairly deprived is also the reason why resentment and anger are included in the stages of grief. You can resent the unfortunate circumstances of a loss itself, wondering why it had to happen to you, and you can also resent others who have had the good fortune of not experiencing the kind of loss you have.
Why is it so hard to let go of resentment?
In some cases, harboring resentment functions as a protective mechanism, says De Paula. It serves as a reminder to yourself that you've been disappointed by people in the past, and that this could very well happen again. “For example, resentment can tell us that we shouldn’t give our partners what they need because they haven’t been there for us, or that we shouldn’t continue trying to express our needs because we will only be let down again,” says De Paula. In other words, you might think that continuing to be resentful will keep you from getting hurt the same way twice.
By a similar token, it can be tough to let go of resentment because it can feel really righteous: After all, they were the one who wronged you, so why should you have to drop your feelings about it?
The more you hold onto that sense of being the victim, though, the more easily resentment can build and build, says psychologist and friendship expert Irene S. Levine, PhD. “It’s common to continue to find wrongs that reinforce the feelings of resentment.” For instance, consider a scenario where you're resentful of a friend who missed your wedding; you're probably more likely to feel really hurt by their lesser snubs, like taking a while to text you back, than you would if they were done by someone else. And the more bricks you place on that resentment wall, the harder it gets to climb over it.
What role does forgiveness play in releasing resentment?
In short, a big one. But it's important to get clear on what forgiveness actually means—which is not synonymous with forgetting a person's poor actions, says Dr. Enright. (In fact, just trying to forget the behavior of someone who wronged you and move forward can be evidence of toxic forgiveness, or forgiveness offered up too soon or without meaning.)
Genuine forgiveness takes time. You'll need to first acknowledge your own hurt and accept your initial feelings of anger and, yes, resentment toward the person who hurt you. That's right: Some degree of resentment when you're mistreated is normal and good. If you're so dead-set on getting rid of the emotion right off the bat, 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," says Dr. Awosan.
Instead, consider viewing your initial resentment as a helpful friend. "It's there to tell you that something is not alright or needs improvement within one of your relationships," says Dr. Awosan. This can lead you toward a helpful conversation with the person who hurt you, where you can seek an apology and perhaps re-negotiate the terms of your friendship or relationship by setting new boundaries.
Only then is real forgiveness possible—and still, it doesn't mean letting the person off the hook. "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," says Dr. Enright.
In actuality, the act of forgiving is a deeply personal one, with the power to reduce stress1 and boost mental health2 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.
How can letting go of resentment improve my relationships?
Holding onto resentment typically feels pretty horrible. Remember how it can flood your brain with stress chemicals and crank up the volume on negative thoughts? Research indicates that both willingness to forgive and letting go of resentment3 can improve your mental health. And when you're in a good headspace, you can also build better friendships and romantic relationships with others.
Letting go of the resentment you feel toward a particular person can also help you find new reasons to like them—versus getting stuck in the negatives—and remember that they, like you, are a person who makes mistakes, which is a positive thing for the relationship you share. And that behavior can affect the way you approach other relationships, too. “Once you learn strategies to let go of resentment, you’ll be less stressed at minor affronts in the future,” says Dr. Levine. And the less you sweat the small stuff, the more good energy and positive emotions you'll be able to experience in relationships down the line.
Are there any specific exercises or practices to help let go of resentment?
Even if you recognize the power in forgiving someone, it can be tough to do in practice. The good news? Letting go of resentment is, in fact, totally within your control, says Dr. Levine. “You don’t have to depend on another person to lessen your resentment.” At the end of the day, you’re not releasing resentment for them; it’s for you.
Below, experts share eight actionable tips for releasing the resentment burden and finding the freedom that comes with forgiveness.
1. 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 reframing your thoughts from the perspective of an outside 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 or hope for within the partnership," says Dr. Awosan.
Dr. Levine says that writing down what you feel resentful about and reading it back can help you establish this third-person perspective. Whatever thoughts or feelings bubble up as a result can move you toward 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.
2. Explore the softer emotions of resentment
Resentment can often show up as anger—outwardly, you're upset at your partner for repeatedly failing to do certain household chores and valuing their time as worthier than yours, for example. But softer emotions, like the fear of your needs going unmet, are often at the root of the issue, says De Paula, and learning to stop projecting fear as anger can bring you closer to resolution.
To do so, consider the emotional wounds that the situation might be ripping apart. “Rather than telling your partner, 'I am pissed off that you work all the time and put your career before our family,' imagine saying instead, ‘When you aren’t around, I feel so lonely, like I can’t count on my person to be there for me,'” says De Paula.
Figuring out how to let go of anger is hard, but when you explore the tender elements of resentment instead, you essentially invite the other person into conversation with you, adds De Paula, rather than pushing them away. In this context, they're more likely to hear you out, understand how their actions may have harmed you, and commit to change.
3. Talk it out
Speaking of conversation, part of learning to release resentment typically hinges on finding some resolution with the person who harmed you, says Teplin. She suggests talking about what happened in clear terms; acknowledging the role that they and you played in the interactions underscoring the resentment; and giving voice to all of the feelings that come up.
"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." 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 go of the resentment, find closure, and develop a plan for moving forward in a relationship with this person. "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. Be accountable for your role in perpetuating certain negative behavior
Sometimes resentment is the result of a negative engagement cycle, says De Paula, which is a repeated pattern of interaction that develops in two people who do not feel emotional safety within their relationship and take up rigid positions against each other. To break that cycle, one person has to make the choice to lower their defenses and show that they're "willing to take accountability, be vulnerable, and work together," says De Paula. And even if you suspect that you're entirely the victim, that person can be you.
Typically, both people in a partnership play some role in sustaining a negative cycle (as they say, it takes two to tango). Pausing to reflect on the ways in which you might be contributing to the harmful behavior at play will allow you to have a more honest conversation with the person who hurt you—and keep it from turning it into a battle that each of you is trying to win.
5. Step into the other person's shoes
Try to take an empathetic approach as you speak with the person who harmed you, as hard as that may be. It's very possible that they're the victim of past trauma that triggered the act over which you're feeling resentful, and no matter how harmful it felt, it may have come from a place that really had nothing to do with you.
While no outside cause will excuse the fact that this person has hurt you, it can help contextualize the scenario, so you can more effectively understand it and let go of it.
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, and feel especially hurt as a result.
In this realm, it's possible that emotional pain from the past may be driving your interpretation of a present scenario, and leading you toward resentment that's not really warranted by the other person's behaviors. That means, letting go of the resentment will require first addressing those emotional roadblocks, which the experts say is best done with the guidance of a mental health professional.
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 resentment, once and for all.
8. Do a mindfulness practice
Practicing mindfulness in the face of resentment can help you acknowledge the core facts of the situation without judgment, says De Paula. And in removing judgment, you'll also take some of the fuel away from the resentment fire.
“For example, rather than thinking, 'My wife is selfish and will never be there for me,' you might say to yourself instead, 'My wife didn’t take care of me when I broke my leg, and I am feeling afraid that I can’t rely on her again,'” says De Paula. Where the first version is a sweeping and emotionally charged statement about the future that you can't definitely prove, the second hinges on the present reality—and in so doing, allows you to honor your feelings with a whole lot less emotional intensity.
- Toussaint, Loren L et al. “Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process Study.” Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine vol. 50,5 (2016): 727-735. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9796-6
- Toussaint, Loren et al. “Effects of lifetime stress exposure on mental and physical health in young adulthood: How stress degrades and forgiveness protects health.” Journal of health psychology vol. 21,6 (2016): 1004-14. doi:10.1177/1359105314544132
- Bankard, Joseph, et al. “The Interaction between Forgiveness and Resentment on Mental Health Outcomes: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” Religion, Brain & Behavior, vol. 13 (2022): 1–11. doi.org10.1080/2153599X.2022.2147985.
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