Don’t take it personally
How to avoid the poison of resentment
“If you go out seeking revenge, dig two graves” (Confucius)
“Resentment is a cure that is worse than the disease. It is a deadly poison to the spirit, making happiness impossible and using up tremendous energy…” (Maxwell Maltz)
No, that’s not me!
Revenge? Resentment? No, that’s not me, you insist! But stop, reflect a moment. I am not talking about the gang wars of the Mafiosi. I am not talking about Gollum in the Lord of the Rings brooding darkly in his cave. What about all those little feelings of unfairness, the little grudges and gripes, the urges to “get your own back” to get even, to get one up, the self-justifying clinging to past hurts… Be honest, we all have these thoughts and feelings.
And what about those feelings of resentment we hold against to those who appear more successful than ourselves? How we gloat over their setbacks!
How much do such thoughts and feelings influence you actions and choices in life?
How much energy do they consume?
It often seems to me, looking back over the many clients I have mentored, that resentment is one of the biggest, perhaps the biggest source of human unhappiness. I am aware too of how much resentment sabotaged my own life when I was younger.
Resentment literally means to feel again
The word resentment literally means to feel again. Resentment is like a broken record, going around in circles endless replaying past hurts and affronts. It is like scratching off the scab of a wound to reopen it every time it starts to heal. In a very real sense, we keep those past hurts smarting by continually hurting ourselves.
The essence of resentment is our self-pitying cry, “It’s not fair!” This is our passive but demanding inner child talking. In resentment, we continually look outside ourselves to make what is unsatisfactory in our life more palatable by explaining it in terms of unfairness and injustice.
We blame society, we blame God, we blame fate, we blame our upbringing and our parents, we blame our (ex) spouse…
Now here is the crunch! It feels good!
Now here is the crunch! It feels good! Think of those times when you felt unfairness or hard done by. Adrenaline surges through your system, your muscles tense, your blood pressure rises. The cocktail of neurochemicals you release gives you a hit like heroin. You feel powerful and important as you plan your revenge or fantasise about the downfall of your adversary.
But, like a shot of heroin, the hit is short-lived and deadly. It is a “deadly poison to the spirit”, said Maxwell Maltz. He was right. As Maltz says, happiness is impossible if we hold onto resentment.
Things are as they are. People are as they are.
Resentment is irrational and unrealistic. However, much we insist that life should be fair, it isn’t. To use the vulgar expression, “shit happens.” Life will always have its ups and downs. The world is populated in equal measure by the benevolent and wise and the malevolent and ignorant and we will encounter both in the course of each day. We have no control over external events or the actions of others and there is a randomness in what life throws at us. Things are as they are. People are as they are. Rather than harbouring resentment we can embrace the hits we take in life with grace seeing them as opportunities to practice equanimity and acceptance.
Resentment is totally ineffective as a strategy for fairness or happiness. Right now, I could feel bucket loads of resentment towards the fifty one percent of the UK population who voted for Brexit. They have made my life very difficult as a Briton living in France. But what would it achieve? Nothing, except to make me feel bad and drain my energy. Instead of resentment, acceptance and self-responsibility are called for. As Shomo Morita advises: Accept what is happening, accept your feelings about it and then do the wise and noble thing regardless of your feelings.
Knowing right from wrong is simple. What is hard is finding the courage to do what is right.
Resentment traps us in the role of victim. Resentment can so easily become an emotional habit. We begin to carry around an inner feeling of victimhood looking for external pegs to hang it on. We begin to perceive slights and hurts even in the most innocent or neutral circumstances. Such habitual resentment leads to self-pity. Self-pity is the life position that I am not right, I am flawed, I am not meant to be happy. Ironically, someone caught in the trap of resentment and self-pity is probably only happy when they are miserable.
But what if I have suffered a real hurt or injustice?
“To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it.” (Confucius)
But what if I have suffered a real hurt or injustice? Nothing changes. In such circumstances, it is perhaps even more important to practice acceptance and to act virtuously. Quite simply, do not take it personally. It is good to recognize that those who wrong us, do so through ignorance, the lack of a clear ethical compass and the self-discpline to follow it. The stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius advised:
“The best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that.”
Acceptance does not mean being passive or condoning wrongs. It means taking the ethical high ground and seeing the long view. Another stoic philosopher, Seneca, writes:
“The wise man will not pardon any crime that ought to be punished, but he will accomplish, in a nobler way, all that is sought in pardoning. He will spare some and watch over some, because of their youth, and others on account of their ignorance. His clemency will not fall short of justice but will fulfil it perfectly.”
However, a word of caution before you judge yourself virtuous enough to sit in judgement of others. Confucius advises us to use our encounters with wrong doers to reflect first on our own thoughts and acts:
“When you meet a good person, let them be a model for your own good conduct. When you meet a not so good person, let them be a mirror of your own faults.”
The conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment
To break out of habitual resentment is not easy. It calls for clear rational thinking, the mindfulness to perceive and step back from our resentful feelings and the moral courage to act from our big self rather than our little victim self.
Forgiveness, which is the true antidote to resentment is not some vague feeling. It is the conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance. It is the choice that our life and our actions will not be determined by the fact that someone one or something has, deliberately or inadvertently hurt us.
Let me end with another stoic quote, this time from Epictetus:
“Forgive others for their misdeeds over and over again. This gesture fosters inner ease.”
“Those who cannot forgive others break the bridge over which they themselves must pass.”
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Who Am I?
I am Nicholas Hudis an author and mentor dedicated to the path of self-cultivation. After 25 years as a therapist/coach, I see that the need is not for therapy but for cultivating the skill to live wisely, ethically and purposefully. I am no "sage" but the wisdom of Confucius, the Buddha and the Stoic philosophers guides me on a daily basis. My desire is to share this inspiration, through my writings and personal mentoring, and make a difference to your life too.