Tag Archives: anger

On Resentment

Photo copyright 2012 by Jenny Rollo“Resentment is the most precious flower of poverty” – Carson McCullers

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.

Photo copyright 2012 by Kavitha ShivanThere’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.

Photo copyright 2012 by Emiliano SpadaHow can we work through it?

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

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Anger: Spotlight, Shield and Balloon

Anger isn’t like other feelings. Spiritual leaders never promise freedom from happiness. No one gets sentenced to shame-management classes. No comic book heroes gain super-powers when they start to feel sad. Only anger gets this kind of concern and condemnation.

One quality that sets it apart is it’s inseparability from other emotions. You can feel pure joy, sheer terror or utter despair. It’s not really possible to feel angry without feeling other things as well. Three metaphors to help clients understand:

Anger is like a spotlight:

Photo copyright 2012 by Chris Cummings.When a client talks about an irritated moment, ask, “What else did you feel?” If your clients are like mine, you’ll get a puzzled look and the answer, “Just mad.” That’s not so, but part of what anger does is to make it seem that way. It’s like a spotlight in our eyes, blinding us to all other emotions. That’s because…

Anger is like a shield:

When I get that, “Just mad,” reply, I’ll supply a list of emotion words. Clients have identified as many as forty other flavors of sadness, fear and shame, none of which they were aware of until they had a reference sheet in their hand. Anger can trigger the fight-or-flight reaction, meaning it probably evolved as a survival mechanism.When we’re faced by a perceived threat, (“Someone took the last slice of pizza, and therefore I may starve,”) we respond with an agitated, threatening display that lets predators (or roommates) know we’re not to be toyed with.  Evan Katz, M.C., LPC takes credit for the notion that anger shields us from the more-sensitive emotions we also feel in that moment. Predators can’t see them, because we don’t even realize they are there.

Photo copyright 2012 by Katinka Haslinger

For exceptionally angry clients, anger may function like a shield reinforced with a stone wall.

This turns into a problem when the threat has passed, (“Chill out, already. I’ll buy the next one,”) but furious thoughts still churn inside. They’re driven by the pressure of the other emotions we haven’t expressed yet. Fortunately …

Anger is like a balloon:

A balloon is a limp sack of cloth or rubber. It will swell up to an imposing size, but only when inflated with gas or hot air. If the pressure goes too high, it’ll burst into shreds, unless we pop a safety valve.  When someone explodes with rage, we can see them deflated and torn once the crisis has passed. Emotion-word lists help clients flatten out the gasbag of anger, because naming something (such as the emotions inflating the balloon) gives you power over them. Naming an emotion usually means accepting,  expressing and with luck, releasing it.

My clients’ neighbors may be puzzled by shouts of, “GUILT! DESPAIR! EDGINESS!” coming from next door. I believe they  prefer it over the sounds of irate recrimination or violence.

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under anger management, Useful Metaphors