Regardless of how you voted, I think we can all collectively acknowledge the intense negative emotions that many people are experiencing in America (whether directed toward marginalized groups, different parties or the president elect). And I think we can agree that our nation needs healing. This blog is written in the service of that healing.
I want to start this discussion (which will soon take a turn toward the topic of resentment) by talking about the emotion of anger. I believe that anger is a vital, human emotion. It carries a lot of energy with it. It tells us that a value that we cherish is not being honored or that a desire or need that we have is not being met. Anger is an emotion that needs to be felt, interfaced with for information gathering purposes, expressed in a healthy manner and then ultimately released. If you are a person who doesn’t feel anger, you may want to ask yourself why. Anger is an emotion, especially for women, that the culture has historically shamed. Your anger may be asking you to open up to it a little bit more, so that you can learn more about what you value and need, so that you can be a whole and healthy human.
If you are a person who is almost always feeling angry, you may want to look a little bit deeper. Some have said that anger is not a “true” emotion at all, but rather a masking emotion for other emotions, like fear, vulnerability and sadness. If you are habitually angry, it may be time to start to open up to some of the softer, more vulnerable parts of yourself. Or it may be time to sit with your anger and gather some information: is there something that your anger is trying to communicate with you that you really need to hear? Perhaps it is time to listen to your anger, so that you can gather its important message and then allow it to move through you, to be released.
While anger is an emotion that we need to feel in the present moment, listen to and then let go of, resentment is an entirely different beast. The word resentment comes from the Latin word, “sentire,” which means to feel and the prefix “re” is to do again. “To feel again” is a common definition of resentment—to feel anger and bitterness and replay stories of injustice again and again and again.
First, I want to say that it is very human to feel resentment. We all sometimes fall into the negative spiral of resentment, and we can give ourselves a little compassion for this. It is difficult being a human. We humans are sensitive creatures. And sometimes others do things that we experience as hurtful. Sometimes others do things that cause harm to us and to those we love. So when we hear resentment, we must also hear pain. And pain is an emotion that is begging for the compassionate embrace of loving kindness.
Resentment can also be an indicator that there is grief that we need to process and heal. A full description of the therapeutic ways that one could deal with resentment is beyond the scope of this blog. But I am here to share a little bit of wisdom: to cultivate and feed resentment will deplete your own well being.
Here are a few quotes that I have heard in reference to resentment: “Resentment corrodes the vessel of the one who holds it.” “Harboring resentment is like holding onto a hot coal that you want to throw at another and getting burned yourself.” And my personal favorite, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.”
Let me repeat that last one, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.” What this means is that no matter how “wrong” the other person is, your resentment is harming you. You are the primary victim of your resentment. And being a victim of your own resentment is not going to empower you to take life affirming actions. So once there has been a therapeutic look at what is behind the resentment, our question becomes this: How can we become free of resentment?
I am sure that there are many tools for letting go of resentment, but in this blog I will focus on just one practice. It is a practice that I have been using for almost two decades with amazing results. Would you like to hear it? It is very simple, but not necessarily easy. Here it is: send loving kindness/ blessings/ kind wishes to yourself and to the one who you resent. Simple, but not easy.
Rather than read about this practice, I am going to invite you to try it. I am going to invite you to start by sending loving kindness to someone who you love deeply. Please think about someone—a person, a pet, a small child toward whom you feel loving feelings. Picture this person in your mind, picture this person smiling, surrounded by things that bring them joy. Are you doing it now? As you focus on this image, notice how you are feeling in your heart.
Now, we will do something that might be slightly more challenging. We will send this kindness, these loving wishes to ourselves. Sometimes it’s helpful to do a little mindfulness practice (mindfulness of sound, body, breath) before we do this, but for now just give it a go. Think about what you truly yearn for in your life—peace, happiness, love, health, ease—and then offer this kindness toward yourself. Sometimes it’s helpful to bring to mind an image of yourself that evokes a sense of tenderness, perhaps an image of yourself as a child, and then begin to offer yourself the kind phrases. “I wish that I may be peaceful.” “I wish that I may be truly happy and free from resentment.” “I wish that I may be loved.” Experiment with your own phrases. Find the words that “land,” that express what you truly yearn for. Try it now for a minute or two.
And now, the practice that is my prescription for releasing resentment toward others: offer these same kind wishes to the one toward whom you feel resentment. I would like to offer a few qualifiers before we get started. First, sometimes it’s helpful to begin this practice with someone who we care about but toward whom we feel resentment right now. The advice of starting with a “five pound weight” is sage and helpful. So, you may want to try offering kind wishes toward an “easy” difficult person first.
However, it you think this may be only time you will try out this practice and there is a resentment that is just eating you up inside, I will share a couple of tips. One: expect anger. When you offer kind wishes toward someone toward whom you feel resentment, expect that you might also experience strong flashes of anger. This does not mean the practice is not working. It just means that you are feeling anger while you are doing the practice. Two: allow the anger to surface. So rather than suppress the anger as you offer kind wishes, embrace it. Sometimes I will say, “God, please give this “blankety-blank” person the peace, love and kindness that I wish for myself.” I allow my kind wishes to have a tone of anger if that’s present. And I persevere with the kind words. I want to allow the anger and kindness to sit in the same room together—to exist side by side. It is not particularly helpful if the anger completely blocks out all of the kindness, and I have sometimes had to use the strategy of wishing that the radiance of the love that I offer my loved ones might radiate outward toward the person I resent (because I just couldn’t directly wish them kindness yet). You can experiment with variations, but do find a way to send some kindness in the direction of the one who you resent. If you do this practice repeatedly over time (in addition to identifying and affirming what value/need is behind your resentment), you will likely notice that your resentment will begin to lessen.
I did this practice with my children about a year ago when someone had broken into our car. Every night my daughters and I sent the person who had broken into our car some kind wishes. We did this in part to heal our own pain, and in part we did this because the person who had stolen probably needed some kind wishes. He or she would not have broken into our car if they were experiencing peacefulness, love and true happiness. People act in hurtful ways when they are experiencing a lack of true peace, of true happiness, of true love. So we wished our thief peace, love and true joy hoping that he or she might cultivate these feelings that are incubators for right action. And it softened our own hearts as well.
This was a long blog. If you have read all the way to the end, and have not yet tried the practice of sending kind wishes, I will encourage you to do it now. And I will start by offering kind wishes to you. Are you ready to receive?
I wish that you may be peaceful.
I wish that you may be truly happy and free of resentment.
And I wish that you may be loved…. loved just exactly as you are in this moment (because you are).
Click the icon to the right to listen to a guided audio of loving kindness meditation (sending kind wishes to a loved one, yourself, and a difficult person).