Letting Go Of Resentment
WellBeing|Issue 194
Resentment can be a bitter feeling, steeping you in darkness, tension and pain. But there is a soothing elixir that can help — forgiveness. For those struggling through resentment, here is a psychology-backed guide to letting go of hard feelings.
Rebecca Howden

There’s an old saying that holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Resentment, that bitter feeling of injustice, the feeling that you have been wronged, can be a deeply painful experience. It can feel like a quiet rage smouldering slowly inside of you. It can manifest as tension, gripping your muscles and twisting your insides. And it can lock you into an obsessive feedback loop, as your mind replays the same thoughts and memories over and over, and the resentment, in turn, grows.

Put simply, holding on to resentment is exhausting. It drains emotional energy that can be better spent elsewhere. Learning to let go is a freeing gift you can give yourself, and it can benefit not just your mood and relationships, but your health and wellbeing too.

The tangled knot of resentment

“Resentment is a complex emotion,” says Tamara Cavenett, a clinical psychologist and president of the Australian Psychological Society. “It’s often defined as anger or indignation that you experience as a result of some sort of perceived unfair treatment by someone else. But underneath it there’s often feelings of hurt or disappointment, or even fear.”

It’s a natural human experience and we’ve all felt it. Strands of resentment can come from any number of situations — some big, some small. Some common themes are feeling overlooked or unseen, feeling betrayed, being criticised or humiliated, feeling used or taken advantage of or feeling that someone else (often less deserving than you) has something you want.

Maybe it’s a colleague who has a knack for subtly putting down your work or asserting their dominance. Maybe it’s your friend who doesn’t return your texts, leaving you feeling rejected. Or maybe it’s an ex who betrayed you, now flaunting their new relationship in happy, sun-kissed Instagram posts.

Whatever the cause, this knot of negative feelings can bring you a lot of suffering. “It can go quite deep, and often, you’re the one experiencing this negative feeling while the other person might not even notice it’s going on,” Cavenett says.

Strangely, we don’t even always recognise or acknowledge the experience as resentment.

Resentment and your mind and body

Research shows the effect of resentment can be immediately felt, in both your mood and body. In a 2001 study by Hope College in Michigan, psychologist Dr Charlotte Witvliet asked participants to recall an old experience of betrayal, rejection, insult or dishonesty. When they did, the participants’ blood pressure and heart rate increased, leading to a surge of anxiety.

Feelings of resentment can provoke a stress response in the body. Commonly known as the “fight or flight” response, this is your body’s reaction to a real or perceived threat in which it activates the sympathetic nervous system.

This sets off a number of physiological effects, including the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and the tensing up of your muscles as your body prepares to fight or flee.

While the stress response is a healthy and natural response when it’s activated in the very occasional and appropriate context, too much of it is harmful. Research shows that chronic stress — such as what we experience when we hold on to hurt and bitter feelings — puts a load on the body that can lead to illness, including depression, diabetes and heart disease.

Research from Canada’s Concordia University published in 2011 found that holding onto bitterness can affect your metabolism, immune response and organ function, increasing your risk of illness. Another study, published in Psychology and Aging, found that carrying anger into old age was associated with higher levels of inflammation and chronic disease.

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