Resentment is like a drinking buddy. It keeps you company and lets you tell your story of being wronged. It feels comforting at first, then starts to work less and less. Eventually, no one wants to hear it anymore.
The problem is that you remain stuck while pretending that you don’t care about what happened, when, in truth, you really do. That’s what resentment is. “It’s something that’s unfinished,” says Silvia Dutchevici, licensed clinical social worker and president of Critical Therapy Center in New York City.
The compounding part is that you want the offending person to make amends, except he or she doesn’t care and has moved on. It’s on you to fix things, but resentment is hard to release. It lets you be “right” and rave on, and it provides identity, even though it’s not a productive one.
“Resentment is doing more damage to yourself,” says John Kaplan, psychotherapist and co-director of Marriage Labs in Canton, Massachusetts.
As Kaplan’s wife Gail, psychotherapist and fellow co-founder, says, it’s like the Buddhist belief in two arrows. The first one causes the initial pain. The second one is a person’s reaction, which, when it’s anger, turns the pain into suffering. “It’s about living with the first arrow,” she says.
That work isn’t easy and is complicated by seeing the other person around town or across a family table. But letting go doesn’t require doing everything. You’re not trying to forget, because that’s not possible. You don’t have to forgive. You don’t have to accept what the other person did. You just have to change the story into being just another story.
Here’s what can help you finally let go of resentment.
1. Admit That You’re Still Bothered
You first have to admit that you’re still bothered, which can be hard since it’s common to believe you’re shrewd and unshakable. But one of life’s incontrovertible facts is that you can do everything correctly and bad stuff happens. “Suppressing and pretending it isn’t there isn’t the answer,” says Alane K. Daugherty, co-founder of the Mind and Heart Lab at Cal Poly Pomona and author of Unstressed.
The next part is asking, “What’s really upsetting?,” and Dutchevici advises that the “easy answer is never the answer.” It might appear that it’s being fired or lied to, and those can sting, but with some excavation, you might discover a deeper sore spot, like feeling unworthy or a fear of never measuring up.
The revelation doesn’t make the problem go away, but it can help the resentment shrink as your energy channels off of the person and onto something more productive. “It’s not about what happened. It’s about me,” Dutchevici says.
2. Step Off the Gas
You can’t do anything when you’re worked up. Noticing the trigger, be it a name, place, smell, helps, but emotion has a physical component, so scan your body. Hone in on the tight spot with some deep breaths to release it, Gail Kaplan says. If you’re more visual, give the feeling an image, like a jagged rock, or color, like bright red, which can further help you smooth it out or tone it down.
Daugherty also recommends to relax the tiny muscles around your eyes, which will signal your brain to calm down. When you do this, you get into the third-person, essentially watching yourself be upset. You’re unhooked from the intensity, but then …
3. Make a Choice
Follow getting that distance with changing the environment. It could be going outside or into another room. It could be listening to a song or watching TikTok clips. “It gets you out of the routine response,” Daugherty says. It just has to be by choice. The nicest scenery won’t work if you don’t want to take a walk.
But you also want a new emotional link. Start small, Daugherty says, to get forward progress. If you’re feeling unaccomplished, think about jumping the car battery or make those great pancakes. It’s anything, anything, which makes you feel good. Do it over and over with bigger and bigger accomplishments, and it becomes the new habit. “Once you train the neural net, you expand the capacity,” she says.
4. Break Down the Film
Review what happened and ask, “What could I have done differently?” This isn’t about blaming yourself, but as Dutchevici says, “It’s a dynamic.” You were there and there’s something to learn, so when there’s a next time, you know what to look for and ask, and maybe you get it in writing or don’t loan the money. You’re wiser and you’ve stopped replaying an event that can’t change and taken control by finding something usable.
5. Share Your Story
A confrontation isn’t required, but, if you want to, John Kaplan says to shoot your shot and say your piece. There’s a power in advocacy, Dutchevici adds. But they both say to you go in without expectations.
You might get an apology or hear the person’s story, which softens your feelings. But even if it goes poorly, which it well might, you’re getting valuable information, John Kaplan says. You might see that the person is eternally horrible and you decide to cut all ties. It’s not the pretty ending, but it’s one of your choosing.
Even if you don’t go one-on-one, it’s still beneficial to tell your story and get the words out. “When you’re stuck in your mind, there’s no chance to see it differently,” Dutchevici says. Just share it with the right person, someone who’s supportive, doesn’t let you play the victim, and nudges you to find a different interpretation, because, as John Kaplan says, “It’s like a prism. You’re looking at the many angles of it.”
It comes back to the Buddhist arrows. You’re trying to live with two things, that you can’t erase the first arrow and that you need to stop firing the second at yourself. As Gail Kaplan says, “It’s not about resolving. It’s about accepting.”