On the third Thursday of each November, we Americans bow our heads and meditate on all we are thankful for. For those of us who like our turkey tartened with cranberry sauce, here are a few thoughts on gratitude’s opposite.
What is Resentment?
The word begins with the prefix re (as in repeat) and adds from the Latin sentire – to feel. Ordinary anger flares up and is quenched. Resentment is felt over and over. Vengefulness takes action. Hostility and rage lash out. Resentment is passive and slow-fermenting. One can be bitter at life in general, but we are resentful towards people. We feel prejudice because of who others are, but we are resentful over what others have done. Or not done. No one begrudges basement inventors their new-found wealth, but blue-collar teens are often resentful towards rich kids who did nothing to deserve designer clothes or private-school education.
Philosopher Robert C. Solomon pointed out resentment involves inferiority; we resent our siblings for taking up more of our parents’ time and attention. Like all anger, resentment involves the perception of victimization. If our younger brother gets more maternal love, we get less. Resentment is often misplaced; Li’l Brother didn’t ask to be Mom’s favorite, after all.
There’s even a special type of resentment when it affects our perceptions of the world: ressentiment. Per thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, ressentiment means you’ve invented a morality-based explanation of your inferior position. Your children won’t talk to you? Those selfish ingrates should thank you for raising them with discipline. When you believe you have lost because you are the better person, ressentiment protects your self-esteem but blinds you to your role in the problem.
Why feel resentful?
Resentment is painful and corrosive. Most resentment advice minimizes to two words: “Stop it.” What use could such a toxic feeling serve? It could enforce social norms by punishing those who act haughty and superior. It also could be protective. In the 1980s, political scientist Robert Axelrod wrote computer programs to test strategies for “Prisoner’s Dilemma” games, where success depends on smart choices on whether to cooperate with another. The most successful strategy was to cooperate with those who cooperated in earlier rounds and to thwart those who didn’t. Resentment reminds us who didn’t cooperate. When you pick at a scab, the wound will never heal, but you’ll never lose your reminder of how you were hurt.
The Big Book Bunch encourages those in recovery to write out a four-column summary of their resentments, and to examine the role they may have played in the problem. Taking responsibility can ease resentment, as long as that responsibility is present. A middle child who resents the youngest for taking up her parents’ attention can’t take responsibility for being born between siblings, for the younger child’s greater needs for parental attention, or for the parents’ limited supply of time and energy. Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy provides a less-invalidating approach: examine our beliefs about the situation, so we can shift our feelings from paralyzing resentment to healthier negative emotions, such as sorrow, disappointment or grief.
Discussion of healthier emotions (that is, those that lead us to more constructive, motivated thinking) raises the Thanksgiving Day question: If we’re trying to move back to healthier emotions, shouldn’t we try to shift to gratitude? Possibly not. As Ronnie de Sousa points out in a review of one of Solomon’s books, to be grateful to someone is to be in their debt. And to be in their debt is to place yourself in a position of subservience to them. And positions of subservience can lead straight back to … resentment.
@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved