Through the Eyes of Resentment

Resentment and Expectations

Resentment is often defined as a common emotion that results from wrongdoing or unfair treatment: injustice or humiliation. Long-term resentment can result in complex trauma.

Healing from trauma may involve understanding the underlying source(s) of resentment and processing it so that one no longer has to suffer indefinitely from rumination, repression of feelings, and/or negative self-talk.

Healing from trauma may also result in clearly seeing a person or situation as toxic and making a decision about and a plan for changing or escaping it.

According to 18th century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, resentment and gratitude are the two most prominent moral sentiments. Gratitude is the emotion we experience when we receive what we deserve or more than what we think we deserve. Gratitude is a feeling of our expectations being met in a way that makes us happy and safe. Resentment on the other hand, is the opposite. Gratitude motivates us to reward others for good works, while resentment moves us to punish them for evil doing.

In our modern world, we have been told from numerous studies that gratitude is intricately related to mental wellness and happiness. Meanwhile, resentment is often associated with three less than pleasant secondary-level emotions: contempt (= anger + disgust), shock (= surprise + disgust), and outrage (= surprise + anger). Resentment is often associated with passive aggressiveness, frustration, and vengeance.

To me, resentment is simply a strong emotional reaction to having a gap between expectation of appropriate treatment and reality of undeserving treatment, coupled with an inability to resolve the situation or helplessness.

In other words, resentment is: “How I was treated is far worse than I deserve and I don’t want this to continue, but I don’t know how to stop this.”

Resentment and Anxiety

Anxiety is a very natural result from longer term resentment. That makes sense when you deconstruct resentment into 3 of the 6 basic human emotions as originally identified by Paul Ekman. Resentment is made up up anger, disgust, and surprise that combine together to bring forth contempt, shock, and outrage! That’s a lot of ongoing negative energy!

Anger

Chronic anger has been linked to health issues such as high blood pressure, heart problems, headaches, skin disorders, and digestive problems. Anger has also been linked to crime, emotional and physical abuse, and other violent behavior. Anger motivates us to do something, to fight the person or escape the situation.

Disgust

Disgust arises when something is deemed to be offensive, poisonous or contaminating. It could be triggered by something we perceive with our senses (sight, smell, touch, sound, taste), by the behaviour of people, by our own thoughts, or even by concepts. Disgust is actually designed to keep us safe by motivating us to avoid what is hurtful or toxic.

Surprise

Surprise, whether it is positive or negative, means that whatever is happening is completely unexpected, perhaps even illogical or unbelievable. Surprise means that reality is different from our expectation. Chronic surprise will eventually cause us to second-guess our judgment, competency, and ability to plan. Chronic surprise means that either we are constantly wrong about people, or there is something really wrong with them!

Mind the Gap

Resentment implies that I know how I should be treated and that I believe the person (or people) who are behaving this way know that they should stop. There’s a GAP. When we are mentally healthy and in healthy relationships, the natural, logical response would clearly declare our expectations, express that there is a crossing of boundaries, and request that they cease inappropriate behavioiur. We MIND the gap and figure it out.

Resentment becomes a problem when we are not healthy enough to express those things, the relationship is not healthy enough to experience such a disagreement, or people refuse to stop, either by denying they are behaving badly or by continuing the inappropriate, unfair, and hurtful behaviour. We are unable to bridge the gap and believe we are helpless and stuck.

Resentment and Shame

When resentment (contempt, shock, outrage) partners up with shame (negative self-evaluation, powerlessness, worthlessness), this insidious duo of “villains” together can wreak so much havoc on our nervous system and cause us to suffer from complex trauma and burnout. We can be so overwhelmed by waves of resentment (motivating us to fight) countered by waves of shame (motivating us to flee). How confusing and utterly chaotic and noisy in our heads! Add on top of that, layers of: gaslighting from people in power and a nervous system wired for trauma responses.

Understanding this can help us slow down and Do our Work so that we can work through the myriad of confusing and debilitating emotions.

Understanding this can help us change them from villains that cause us confusion and pain into heroes who are actually trying to tell us something, teach us lessons, and help us learn about ourselves and the world around us.

This means that we may have to look out for a few things that stand in the way of us Doing the Work.

Resentment and Gaslighting

When we are feeling resentment (or any feeling for that matter), often times we just need some validation. It’s particularly true for people who no longer trust their own judgment… and that often happens when gaslighting occurs. Gaslighting is when we are being told that our feelings and our truth and experience are not real.

Gaslighting from people around us or people in power (when we are trying to establish healthy boundaries, protect our health, safety and energy, or expressing that we are being harmed) has got to be one of the main reasons people suffer from anxiety.

They are being told that their feelings are not valid, that what they sense, see, and understand are not what they sense, see, and understand. They constantly told that they are wrong and that their feelings, judgment and senses are not reliable.

If you feel that you are being gaslit, please try to find help. Please look for ‘safe’ people who will listen to you, hear you, and care about you. That could be a good friend, a therapist, a coach, a counsellor, or a community leader.

Resentment and Trauma Response

When we feel stuck, when our feelings are telling us one thing and someone in power is telling us something else, we may end up so stressed and anxious that we end up defaulting to our trauma responses of fight/flight/freeze/fawn.

That is to say, suffering from chronic resentment may hurt our nervous system so much that we are unable to have ‘just a normal response’ and instead may have trauma responses.

I just want to take this opportunity to say that I see you, I hear you, and I care. Please find the support you need to get through this and heal from your burnout. If it’s from resentment, take the time to unpack it and reframe how you want to live your life, as your authentic self.

You’ve got this. If I can do this, you can too.

Published by Sherry Yuan Hunter

Sherry Yuan Hunter is a certified trauma recovery coach and certified parenting coach. Taiwan-born American-Canadian Chinese, married, working mother of two, Sherry identifies as a Sandwich Parent, Third Culture Kid, an untigering Mom, and Recovering Shouldaholic. Based in Toronto, Canada, Sherry has been working in student success programs at University of Toronto for 20 years, supporting students, young professionals, new managers, working moms, and new immigrants to success.

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