A mindful approach to dealing with feelings of resentment

by | Sep 16, 2022

Feelings of resentment are extremely common in relationships. If left unresolved, they can be destructive and can slowly sour our relationships and cause us a tremendous amount of personal suffering.

In romantic partnerships, resentment creates emotional distance and withdrawal of empathy between partners. It can fuel the fire for destructive communication patterns such as criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Additionally, partners stop turning toward each other for support and stop sharing their inner world so they run the risk of drifting apart.

What causes resentment in relationships?

Feelings of resentment are often rooted in past disappointments, feelings of betrayal or abandonment, unresolved conflict, external interference into the relationship (eg. family), and an imbalance in the relationship when it comes to sharing the load of responsibility. Often these kinds of issues develop as patterns in relationships and if they are not dealt with, resentment can build and cause damage to the relationship as well have a negative impact on an individual’s well-being.

People often feel unable to release feelings of resentment on their own, they feel others need to change their behaviour in order for their feelings to be resolved and, in some cases, that would not even be enough. We can’t change the past so this leaves us powerless and also in a cycle of blame and withholding of empathy and compassion towards the people in our lives, often those closest to us, who we feel have hurt or wronged us.

But the journey towards releasing resentment and healing relationships has to start within. When we no longer rely on others to change for us to feel better, we can begin to liberate ourselves from the suffering that resentment causes us. When we make that internal shift, we will usually find that our relationships with others can be improved for the better.

How can Meditation and Mindfulness help?

Before we discuss how mindfulness can help work through feelings of resentment, we must first understand what it is. Originating in Buddhist tradition, Mindfulness is a broad category of practices and techniques that, through focusing on the present moment, can promote increased awareness and compassion. This is how Oxford languages defines Mindfulness:

mindfulness

ˈmʌɪn(d)f(ʊ)lnəs

A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Oxford languages

For beginners, Mindfulness is often practiced by following guided meditations, but mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, anytime. Mindfulness can be simply thought of as the act of pausing, finding presence and observing our internal experience in a kind and non-judgmental way. We might feel we are too busy to meditate or practice mindfulness. Being flexible in how we practice mindfulness and finding ways to integrate it into our daily routine and mindset can be helpful.

Mindfulness is a practice, and like anything, the more you practice, the more natural it becomes. At first Mindfulness can feel counter-intuitive and many often feel they’re not doing it right and get discouraged when they can’t seem to switch off and their mind inevitably becomes captivated with thought. This is completely normal and natural, all mindfulness asks is that we catch ourselves and with kindness, observe, allow and not judge ourselves for whatever it is we are thinking or feeling at the time.

Developing a regular meditation or mindfulness practice has many potential benefits including lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety, decreased physical pain, and some meditation techniques can be helpful in processing difficult feelings such as resentment.

Here are some of the ways that mindfulness and meditation practice can help you work through feelings of resentment:

1. Helps you to be in the present moment

Because resentment is often rooted in the past, mindfulness can help by bringing you into the present moment and help to understand how fixating on things that have happened in the past is impacting you in the present.

Resentment is a build-up of past hurts or disappointments we feel have been caused by others that also impacts how we respond to things that are happening in the present. We don’t have to forget the past, a better strategy is to notice how much of our thinking revolves around past events and ask ourselves is this helpful? How is this focus on the past impacting me right now? What purpose is it serving me?

Often when memories pop-up we end up reliving those painful moments as if they were really happening, which in turn causes us a great deal of suffering. A helpful strategy to diffuse painful memories is to name them. As you notice your thoughts drifting to the past, simply naming them ‘remembering’ or ‘memory’ calls them out for what they are. 

You can also learn to recognise and name the feelings that arise when these thoughts appear and name them also. For example ‘hurt’, ‘abandoned’, ‘betrayed’ or ‘frustrated’ could be some of the feelings that arise with these memories. If this doesn’t feel natural at first there is a systematic mindfulness technique called the RAIN practice that encourages us to recognise, allow, investigate, nurture and not identify with these difficult feelings, rather just allow them and notice them without judgment.

Alternatively, if your mind just needs a break from all that thinking, pause and find presence. Turn your attention to an anchor such as your breath or do a body scan meditation to help you become more embodied in the present moment.

2. Encourages self-compassion

Often, built-up resentments lead to a withholding of empathy and compassion towards those we feel have hurt us. It’s also often used as an excuse not to accept responsibility for our own behaviour because we feel justified and often like to feel we are the victim who is just responding to the mistreatment of others.

This cycle of blame and victimhood is a never-ending battle, and it causes us to suffer. If the quality of our life is measured by the quality of our relationships, then getting stuck in this cycle can have an extreme impact on our mental health.

If built-up resentment exists in a relationship it’s likely that there will also be contempt, criticism, defensiveness or stonewalling present in the relationship. These behaviour patterns are incredibly destructive but sometimes we hold on to them tightly if we are harbouring resentment. We feel powerless to change them because we are reacting out of resentment.

We may not like the person we have become and feel like the relationship is bringing out the worst in us. We may feel guilt or shame over our behaviour, but at the same time we know we are reacting from a wounded place. Learning self-compassion allows us to tend to these difficult feelings.

When we start with self-compassion and develop the tools to observe our feelings of guilt or shame and forgive ourselves for our mistakes, we reduce our suffering, but we also naturally learn to apply a softer, more compassionate approach to others. Self-compassion is different to self-justification. Self-justifying sounds like ‘they did this, so I did that’. Self-compassion sounds like ‘I’m hurt and I’m reacting from a wounded place.’ Notice also how one feels hard and defensive, and the other has a vulnerability and softness to it.

Forgiveness meditation is a powerful way to increase our self-compassion and also our compassion for others. Practicing Forgiveness meditation can soften our approach to difficult feelings. This softening and opening helps us to resist pushing away these uncomfortable feelings and allows us to investigate them more deeply. The overall goal is to open our hearts to compassion and in response to releasing feelings of resentment, the forgiveness that is a natural byproduct of compassion.

3. Helps us to develop healthier thought patterns

A myth about meditation and mindfulness is that the aim of it is to stop thoughts from happening. The reality is that is not actually possible or necessary. Thought is the job of the mind, so thinking is entirely natural and doesn’t need to be turned off. One of the aims of mindfulness and meditation is to train ourselves to pause and observe our thoughts with kind attention. This allows us to develop increased self-awareness and a calmer, less chaotic mind.

Often when we are recalling painful memories we can become hyper-focused on what someone else said, or did, how that made us feel and what we think that means. This playing over of painful memories can become habitual and we often find that one story leads into another and our mind runs away with us. All this thinking can have a huge impact on our well being if the stories we are playing over in our head cause us to feel negative emotions.

Meditation and mindfulness help us to learn that while these thoughts are real (they are happening in our minds), they aren’t necessarily true. That is not to say that your memories are false and the cause of your resentment didn’t happen but in our minds these memories are often perceived through our set of beliefs, which are subjective. They can also be selective. When we become entrenched in our resentment we may be inclined to collect these stories to support or justify our feelings and behaviour.

The art of ‘catching’ ourselves when we get carried away with thought and training ourselves to bring our attention back to an anchor such as the breath or to sensations in the body empowers us to disengage with thought when necessary, or create some space to observe the thoughts and feelings with kind attention. We can stop negative thinking in its tracks as well as develop insight into where our thoughts tend to go, what stories we’re playing over and over, and how that makes us feel.

With mindfulness practice, we are no longer tossed around by the waves of our experience. Mindfulness gives us the apparatus to steer and direct our experience in a more conscious way.

Like anything, the more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will be. Practicing this state of observing rather than being enmeshed with thought starts to feel more and more natural and can have a profound effect on our relationships and well-being.

4. Helps us to identify the connection between our beliefs and our thoughts

Mindfulness and meditation, in particular the RAIN practice, help us to learn that what we feel is often impacted by our thoughts, which are often impacted by our beliefs. For example, you are upset because a close friend forgot your birthday. Observe what beliefs are underpinning your reaction to it. Beliefs such as ‘I’m not important’ or ‘I’m not lovable’ or even more specifically, ‘people who love you should remember your birthday’ will trigger an internal response (thoughts and feelings) in us that is charged by those beliefs.

In some cases, those beliefs will have a tone of judgement to them that fuels the fire of resentment. Usually, the harsh judgements we place on ourselves are also projected onto others. Getting familiar with these judgmental beliefs and thought patterns and learning to step back and simply observe them and allow them with kind attention can help to relieve the discomfort of resentment as well as promote a deeper level of compassion and awareness for ourselves and others. This awareness and compassion are often referred to as the two wings of mindfulness.

Many of our most unhelpful beliefs also have a theme of unworthiness to them. ‘I’m not lovable’, ‘I’m only lovable if I’m perfect’, ‘there’s something wrong with me’, ‘I’m not enough’. These wounds often lie dormant in our subconscious and become activated or ‘triggered’ without us being consciously aware of what’s happening. When someone’s actions towards us seemingly confirm these core beliefs of unworthiness, it hits us in our most wounded place. When we’re feeling wounded, our defences come up, and feelings of resentment often serve as a defence against more hurt and pain. The irony is that the patterns of behaviour that arise from acting from this wounded place only cause us more suffering.

Understanding that our direct experience is impacted by what we ‘believe to be true’ helps us to identify these unhelpful beliefs. When we identify a belief, asking ourselves ‘is this true?’ allows us to gain a deeper understanding of how we respond to the events in our life. This in turn gives us the tools and insight to respond to disappointments or things that cause us pain that are not dependent on the actions of others. From that deeper place of understanding, we can take more informed action to address arising concerns in relationships with others or seek further help if necessary.

5. Help us to move on and move forward

If we’re holding onto resentment, we have to ask ourselves, is this something that I’m willing to carry with me into my future, or do I need to find a way to set it down?

Notice how you feel when feelings of resentment arise. It’s most likely an unpleasant feeling and your thoughts will likely be based on what someone said or did, how they made you feel and your beliefs  around that.

The aim of meditation and mindfulness is not to make these thoughts and feelings go away, but to allow them, and with kind attention, develop deeper insight into them. Asking yourself, ‘what am I believing?’ or ‘what is this story about?’ can be good prompts to delve deeper into lingering feelings of resentment.

From this place of deeper awareness and insight, you will be in a better position to move forward and take the steps necessary to address the root cause of the resentment, or just decide that it’s time to let it go.

6. Help us to respond rather than react

Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

– Viktor Frankl

We can’t change other people’s behaviour, but we can change how we respond to it.

A lot of what we experience is impacted by the content of our mind, and that impacts how we respond to the arising conditions in our lives. One of the most powerful things about a meditation and mindfulness practice is that it can create a spaciousness in our experience that allows us to observe the ever-changing nature of our thoughts, feelings and sensations without becoming too enmeshed with them.

When we are holding onto resentment, feelings around past hurts or disappointments will impact how we respond to present and future interactions in a relationship. While it might be desirable, it is not necessary to remove all feelings of resentment, rather notice them without becoming overpowered by them. This will help us to be less reactive and may also help us to express our feelings in a calmer, more insightful way which will pave the way for deeper trust, compassion and intimacy in our relationships.

Conclusion

If you are struggling with feelings of resentment in your relationships, you are not alone. Resentment underpins a lot of the issues that arise in relationships and is one of the most common reasons couples seek help. Working through feelings of resentment can be one of the most difficult but powerful things that you can do in your relationships.

Couples and individuals often struggle to do this entirely on their own and need the support of a therapist. Seeking help is not a sign of failure or weakness, in fact it takes courage to admit that we need help.

There are also numerous mindfulness and meditation resources available on the internet and also through your local meditation groups and practitioners. Silent meditation retreats offered through the various Buddhist traditions allow participants a chance to deepen their mindfulness and meditation practice and provide the time and space to reset the mind and nervous system and delve into the deeper layers of our experience.

If silent meditation is not for you, consider taking an online course. The courses offered by teachers and psychologists such as Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach will help you develop some of the techniques discussed in this article and are delivered in a ‘go at your own pace’ format.

Overall, the insight and awareness that you can develop through a mindful approach to dealing with difficult feelings can be incredibly transformational and wonderfully liberating.

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