Avoiding Bitterness – The True Cost of Resentment
Resentment is best understood as pain and/or anger that we carry with us from the past. It's what folks refer to as their "baggage."
By taking up room in our hearts and mind, resentment has the ability to limit our perspectives and what we allow ourselves to receive in the here and now, including good relationships. In this light, the past is never truly over. As from time to time we relive it.
Resentments can be triggered when what we're experiencing connects us to feelings we've buried. We feel overwhelmed when this occurs: Sometimes a particular memory surfaces and at other times we can't make the connection, we only know that our emotions are disproportionate to what we're faced with. If we choose not to release and seek resolution, we create a cycle of triggering and re-stuffing.
Resentment Is Toxic
I'm fond of the following recovery adage:
"Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."
Resentment has the ability to create and perpetuate unhealthy expectations, insecurities, and fears. It becomes part of the lens through which we judge others and ourselves.
In a sense, resentment is almost literally toxic:
- Burying feelings often culminates in anxiety
- Anxiety has a negative impact on the body (most notably within the gastro intestinal system)
I have consistently found that becoming free of the past holistically improves health.
We're afraid to let things go because that means we have to bring them out into the open. Many of us remain afraid of expressing our negative emotions because we've always associated them with unhealthy behavior. We learned as children that when people are hurt or angry they behave hurtfully.
We came to not only deny ourselves the right to express our emotions, but many of us do not even tolerate feeling them.
Counselors call it "dissonance". It means we maintain distance between what we know and what we feel through avoidance. As my friends in recovery say, "No matter where you go, there you are."
We slowly come to accept that we cannot run from ourselves without paying a high price. It gets harder as we go because the weight is cumulative. There comes a time for each of us when we can no longer run or hide. I encourage folks to take action before this happens. Doing this work with a counselor or sponsor is much more manageable when we choose to than when we're forced to.
Resentments and Resolution in Recovery
Becoming free of resentment and character defects are part of the 12 step journey. Most approach Step Four in AA with great trepidation ("Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves"). Looking at both our shortcomings and the skeletons in our closets lead many of us toward relapse.
My advice to those approaching this part of the journey is twofold:
- First, make sure you have an excellent support system in place and that you're accessing them frequently. You'll need them to deal with the skeletons and the changes you seek to make.
- Secondly, consider how you're doing at not forming new resentments today. It's never made sense to me to go digging for past resentments if we continue to live in such a way as to develop new ones today.
The key to not developing new resentments is to deal with things as they happen. Through the course of recovery, we become more aware of what we're feeling and what we need. We learn to set limits and boundaries with others to ensure that we are protective of ourselves and to let others know when they hurt us.
Do I Have to Forgive?
Many of us get hung up on the idea that releasing resentment means we have to forgive those who hurt us. I have learned that forgiveness can be selfish. If I forgive those who harmed me in the past, I am not in any way condoning what they did. I am not saying it was okay. I am saying that I am sick and tired of feeling hurt or angered by them.
I've also learned that the hardest person to forgive is me. Maintaining resentments against myself was an unhealthy form of self control. The prospect of forgiving myself left me fearful that I might repeat past mistakes. I have learned that self-acceptance and forgiveness offer me far greater self-control.
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