How to Handle Resentment
by Dr Stephen Ruppenthal
Recently, a friend told me she saw Susan Saint James and her husband on the Oprah Show. Having lost their 14 year old son in a plane crash last year, Susan was asked how she got through the experience without bitter anger. She said, “I have found resentment to be futile. It is like taking poison and hoping the other guy dies.”
When I ponder those words, I look at my own teeming resentments — against friends, colleagues, and indeed against life — and wonder how I, who have not suffered her terrible loss, can conquer them with such courage as she has. With the coming of spring, seeing daffodils splash the moist green fields with mustard yellow, I find myself wondering how can I tune out festering resentments and instead import this beauty into my soul.
Here are four strategies on how to douse four common kinds of resentments with the fire extinguisher:
With resentments against your partner, practice listening: an intimate relationship can be a prime breeding ground for powerful resentments. In a marriage, we could go on for years never really feeling seen by our partner, who seems to get by just fine meeting his needs in the relationship.We are home at our wits end dealing with the kids, but he has had to go out for an emergency meeting with a client — and as it happens, at the club playing doubles in tennis. We feel cheated and duped, but the worst part of it is, we seem to magnetically attract such situations which keep happening.
In the end, we resent him so furiously that it saps our energy for love, most of all to ourselves. Don’t get trapped in this cycle. Instead of letting your mind seethe with resentment, tell your partner you want to make an appointment with him for listening. Ask for ten minutes to air your feelings to him, with a rule in place that he only listen and not react for that time. Then give him the same ten minutes to air his feelings. After such listening, you may see his actions in a completely new light and find that, though your feelings may not change, you have used your energy to make them heard rather than singeing yourself with caustic resentment.
- Distance yourself
When it’s your boss or colleagues at work, get some distance: the modern day workplace is a pressure cooker where work needing to be competently done is nearly infinite and our time and talents, humbly finite.Under the gun for top performance, the boss may come to objectify us as the means to get it all done, rather than as the sensitive human being we are. He or she may give the coveted, creative jobs to a colleague, while we get the dirty work no one likes.
In such situations, I would recommend for a time that we practice what the Christian saints used to call holy indifference. Try taking a break from the job to go out on a brisk walk along the waterfront, in a picturesque part of town, or in a park. I have found that, if while walking you say an affirmation or a mantram, it will blend with the rhythm of your breathing and footstep in a healing harmony.
When you return back to work, the deep breathing and lovely inner companionship gives you fresh energy to give yourself completely to the job you have been given, however humble. Again, this may not remove your resentment against treatment so seemingly unjust, but it gives you valuable breathing room — and the more positive energy you give to your work, the more remarkable will be the changes that can take place.
- Put the past to rest
Many have suffered abusive treatment from parents, siblings, teachers, or religious leaders which left us with a hole in our soul. Nothing we do can stop the burning anger we have against the person who wronged us when we were vulnerable or helpless, yet this very anger saps our will and capacities.Don’t let such feelings fester. Join a twelve step program with others who have suffered similar mistreatment, or seek therapy, so that you can air your feelings in a supportive environment. Like a person injured in a severe crash that goes to the hospital, the experience of recovery in pouring out your feelings will salve all wounds and allow you to reclaim your wholeness and your life.
- Practice acceptance
Resentment against our lot in life: sometimes things so awful can happen that life does not seem to have any justice at all. When you think of the loss Susan Saint James suffered, or of those with relatives who drowned in flood waters of the south Asian tsunami or of Hurricane Katrina, how can those left behind with such grief feel life is ever fair?They resent life, even God himself, for meeting out cruel injustice to those who did nothing to deserve it. There is no way to change what happened — no one can — but we can change our response to it.
To make sure resentment does not swallow us, I would recommend taking up a spiritual practice like passage meditation. Committing to mind the elevated words of others who suffered, like Dr. Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa of Calcutta, or of people who took refuge in nature like the Chinese recluse Han Shan, give yourself a quiet period to go through them and salve the wounds in your consciousness with them. Then, as Susan Saint James has discovered, you don’t hope the other guy dies; you ask for and totally reclaim your original, vibrant, and positive life.
About the Author
Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran’s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. He is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs. Visit Stephen’s work at www.directawakenings.com.
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