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Resentment: How It Can Creep In and Take Hold

The key to letting go of resentment is unpacking complex emotions and learning how to express them

Person observing a loving couple

When we feel we’ve been mistreated, betrayed or wronged — unintentionally or otherwise — those actions can often lead us to develop resentment for the people who’ve harmed us. When we allow these complex emotions of anger, bitterness and disappointment to fester for weeks, months or even decades, it can affect our relationships, our ability to trust and our ability to reason with ourselves and other people.

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Resentment doesn’t just emerge within intimate relationships either. Resentment can surface in the relationships you have with people at work, at school, with members of your family and with anyone you interact with in your life.

So, how do you recognize resentment in its earliest stages before it gets too tough to handle? And what can you do to let go of all the anger you’ve been holding onto for so long without feeling like you’re giving up a part of yourself? Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, shares some of the signs you might be harboring resentment, along with ways you can pull yourself out of it.

What is resentment?

Resentment can be described as a complex, multilayered emotional reaction to being mistreated or wronged by another person, situation or series of circumstances. Often, resentment feels like a merging of anger, bitterness, disgust, disappointment and disapproval toward the person or events that led to your perspective.

There’s no one specific cause of resentment, but it can be triggered by several things, including:

  • Being taken advantage of by others.
  • Being put down, dismissed or ignored.
  • Feeling inadequate, overlooked or unheard.
  • Having unrealistic expectations of others or the world around you.
  • Maintaining relationships with people who insist their needs are more important than your own.
  • Having interactions with people who undermine your authority.

Expressing the precise causes of resentment can be challenging because it’s not always straightforward and can involve a multitude of factors.

“This complexity arises due to the intricate and complex nature of human behavior and relationships,” explains Dr. Albers. “While resentment can be directed toward others, it may also be intertwined with feelings of self-directed anger, creating a nuanced emotional landscape that necessitates thoughtful self-reflection.”

Signs of resentment

The problem with resentment is that if it’s left unchecked or if you feed into it for too long, it becomes harder to forgive or let go and move on from the situation. Whether you recognize it early or catch it down the road when it becomes overwhelming, resentment is characterized by these repetitive signs and patterns of behavior.

Your negative feelings keep resurfacing

When you’ve been mistreated or wronged, it’s common to experience an overlap of negative emotions that continue to resurface and return whenever you’re confronted with these individuals, situations or memories. These emotions may include:

  • Anger.
  • Hostility.
  • Hate.
  • Bitterness.
  • Discomfort.
  • Distaste.
  • Disgust.

When you suppress these emotions over time, it can lead to resentment, which can have significant negative effects on your mental and physical health.

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“In the short-term, suppressing feelings may seem like a way of coping. However, in the long run, pushing down or ignoring emotions can be a slippery slope into mental health issues like PTSD, trauma, depression and anxiety,” warns Dr. Albers.

“It’s perfectly OK to have feelings of anger, regret or disappointment. And it is crucial to recognize the importance of validating your emotions and seeking healthy ways to process them, as this promotes long-term mental and emotional well-being."

You’re unable to let go of your anger

Often, resentment can make it difficult to let go of your anger. You can sometimes find yourself hyper-focusing on these feelings, especially whenever you’re confronted by the person or situation that caused them in the first place. You might even be enraged or experience strong urges to seek revenge. All of these things can take a significant toll on your mental and physical health. If you recognize any of these signs, or there’s real concern for your safety and/or the safety of others, it’s time to ask for help.

“Emotions are not solely confined to our minds; they can also take residence in our bodies,” clarifies Dr. Albers. “Anger, if left unaddressed, can manifest physically by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, causing muscle tension and headaches, digestive issues, weakening your immune system, and causing sleep disturbances. These can all put you at higher risk for cardiovascular issues like high blood pressure and heart disease or chronic conditions like diabetes and autoimmune disorders.”

You feel like there’s no closure

Sometimes, resentment makes it hard to stop thinking about the event that led to these overwhelming emotions, especially if you had no closure.

During its most intense moments, you might experience periods where you’re overthinking the situation or having recurring thoughts about the person, place or events that led to your resentment. Occasionally, you might replay the entire event over again in your mind and wonder what could have happened had it played out differently. These thoughts may come and go, or they can linger for days, months or even years depending on what happened and how things were handled.

For example, as the oldest sibling who’s a caregiver for an aging parent, you may resent your younger siblings if they’re not putting in the same amount of effort when it comes to supporting your needs and the needs of your family members. These feelings may stick with you for years.

“Resentment in caregiving scenarios often stems from a perceived disparity in effort and support,” explains Dr. Albers. “It can be influenced by the intricate interplay of familial roles, expectations and unresolved grief, making it a complex emotional terrain.

“Navigating the depths and complexity of these relationships can be confusing and it takes time to unravel. For this reason, sometimes, the source of the resentment is hard to see and may have evolved over many years.”

You have feelings of regret or remorse

When strong, complex emotions like resentment linger, we tend to associate it with other feelings like regret, shame, guilt or remorse, especially if we’re made to feel like we’re at fault.

For example, if you were passed over for a promotion that’s given to a newer employee, you might resent that employee, your boss or the company-at-large because you feel as if you weren’t rewarded appropriately for your accomplishments. You might also internalize that experience by reinforcing the idea that you aren’t appreciated by leadership or that you’re not going above and beyond as you should. You might even be dealing with a heavy-handed dose of jealousy.

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“Resentment, when nurtured within us, can become a breeding ground for self-doubt, leading us into the treacherous traps of gaslighting ourselves,” notes Dr. Albers. “This means we distort our own perceptions, question our worth, and allow others to manipulate our reality as we hold onto these feelings.”

There’s an element of fear or avoidance

When you’re resentful, you armor up. Why would you ever surround yourself with the same people or situations that hurt you again from the start?

We see this often in relationships. If you’ve been ghosted in the past by a previous partner, you might resent them and anyone else who reminds you of them or presents that kind of behavior because it triggers your fears and anxiety around betrayal and lack of commitment. So, maybe you turn inward, make yourself smaller, and avoid confrontations with people, dates and other social gatherings you’d normally be attracted to because you’re afraid of being hurt a second, third or fourth time.

On the surface, resentment may appear to offer you the ability to have power and control over the situation. But internally, it can cause real, long-lasting damage to your mental health.

“At first, it may seem like avoiding the situation is a way of coping. However, by engaging in avoidance behavior, we inadvertently fuel the flames of resentment, allowing it to fester and intensify inward,” says Dr. Albers.

“This pattern extends beyond relationships, affecting various aspects of our lives, like our careers, personal goals, and self-worth. Resentment sabotages our expectations and willingness to engage with others. So, you may enter a situation feeling angry and hopeless that things will be different before it even begins.”

The nature of your relationships has changed

Resentment can cause real changes and imbalances in a relationship. If you’re holding a grudge, you can lash out at a person in very obvious ways or even participate in passive-aggressive behavior. Resentment can also lead to the ending of a relationship, as it can become grating on anyone involved in the situation.

How to let go of resentment

Forgiveness can do wonders for your body. A study from 2014 showed people who were able to forgive felt they had a lighter physical burden, increased capacity to jump higher and perceived hills to be less steep when compared to participants who were unforgiving

Truth is, we carry stress in our bodies. And over time, we can buckle under the weight of it and the pressure of all this pent-up aggression if we don’t do something about it in a healthy and productive way. So, when you’re ready to let go and leave resentment in the past, you may find these steps useful.

Locate the source of your resentment

If you’re dealing with resentment, finding a therapist who can help you unpack these difficult emotions may be your best first step forward. Your therapist can help you figure out the root cause of these feelings and how they may be impacting other areas of your life. And they can work with you to recognize healthy coping responses for when these feelings of resentment resurface.

“Resentment can be like an iceberg, with its true source hidden beneath the surface,” illustrates Dr. Albers. “In therapy, you embark on a journey of self-discovery, peeling back the layers to uncover the roots of your resentment. It allows you to stop the cycle of resentment, heal and find true resolution. It can also help you to find your voice and communicate what you truly want instead of silencing what you need.”

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Try empathy and examine your expectations

Do a personal inventory of what’s important to you. What do you need to support your healthy boundaries, and what would it take for you to “settle the score”? Are you looking for an apology? Are you looking for an explanation? Or are you looking to make amends?

Acknowledging where you stand on the issue, what you need in order to heal, and what your expectations are for yourself and the other party involved are the keys to handling any unresolved conflict.

“Empathy plays a vital role in putting a stop to resentment, as it allows us to step into the shoes of others and understand their perspective,” says Dr. Albers. “Coming to terms with the person or situation that caused resentment can open the door to healing and closure, as it enables us to find empathy towards ourselves and create space for forgiveness and growth.”

Practice gratitude

It’s easy enough to say you’re grateful on the surface, but putting those words into action can take years of practice. When you’re circling the drain of doubt and negativity, lean on the people, places and things that bring you peace and positivity by practicing gratitude. And if you’re not sure where to start, try keeping a gratitude journal where you keep track of all the things that make you happy and serve as a positive step toward improving your health and wellness.

“The key to releasing yourself from resentment is adjusting your mindset. This means stepping out of anger, hurt and disappointment and understanding how the resentment evolved,” says Dr. Albers. “It is consciously choosing to let go of the past and embracing forgiveness. Taking this step, in the long run, can do wonders for your mental health, which in turn, can boost your mental health.”

Lean into self-compassion

In the event that oxygen masks are needed on an airplane, they always tell you to put your mask on first before trying to help anyone else. The reason? You can’t really help anyone if you’re suffocating.

“It’s OK to seek support because navigating resentment alone is not easy,” reaffirms Dr. Albers. “Working with a therapist can help you to see the situation from a new perspective and access self-compassion, which becomes key to making a manageable journey of healing and growth.”

Finding ways to practice self-love and compassion will not only set you up for success in the future. But it will also help you recognize that when you feel like you’re caught in the throes of resentment, you can be your own light in the darkness.

You don’t have to harbor any of these negative feelings that weigh you down. Instead, you can allow yourself to feel them, express them and move on to a safe space where you can recover.

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