Laura Gilliom, Ph.D.
A question I often hear in both couples and individual therapy is, "How do I let go of the resentment I feel toward (my partner, my family member, my friend, my co-worker, etc.)?"
Resentment is basically a cooler, less intense version of anger, a long-standing feeling that we have been wronged in some way. It may linger long after the event, and it may erupt into fury under the right circumstances. It can poison a relationship, it can poison the person holding the resentment, but it is very unlikely to change the resented behavior. Often the resented person is completely unaware. So, how does one let go of resentment? The following process can help.
First, examine your feelilngs.
What is it you resent, and why?
Is there hurt or fear underneath the resentment?
What are the assumptions and beliefs underlying the feeling of being wronged?
Do you resent others for similar behavior, or just this person?
What does holding onto resentment do for you? (For example, it can give you a feeling of righteousness or superiority, or it can keep you from facing your own role in the problem.)
What would be the benefits of letting go of resentment?
Second, consider the pros and cons of expressing your feelings to the resented person.
Is it something that can be changed?
Is it ongoing?
Is this person close to you?
Are you prepared to hear resentments they may feel toward you?
If yes to all, it's probably worthwhile to say something to the "resentee". Examples of situations that could probably benefit from honest communication: Your next door neighbor constantly lets his dog poop on your lawn. Your mother frequently interrupts you to tell you about something that happened to her. Your spouse regularly leaves dirty socks on the floor. Your best friend shares your confidences with others.
Examples where it may not help and may possibly do harm to express your feelings: Your father married a woman you can't stand. An aquaintance made a thoughtless comment. An elementary school classmate bullied you years ago.
Of course, there are many gray areas and situations where it's less clear. And in some cases it may help to say something even if happened long ago or only once. In particular, hurt and anger over something your intimate partner did, whether recently or much earlier in the relationship, should usually be expressed. Then there are some things which should not be simply let go. Serious violations such as abuse, harassment, or clearly illegal or unethical behavior are a different matter and require professional assistance.
If you decide to express your feelings, the way you do it is very important. Rather than simply blurting out your pet peeve, give some thought to how to approach it constructively. It may help to keep in mind three aspects of good communication outlined by David Burns, MD: Empathy, Assertiveness and Respect (EAR)¹. Say that you can see why they might be doing it, but that it has been having a negative impact on you. You may want to share some of what you've realized in thinking about the problem. Convey how much you value the relationship. Be open to hearing their perspective. For more about how to bring up a difficult topic in a close relationship, see my blog series on How to Fight Successfully.
If you decide not to express your feelings, OR if you express them and nothing changes (keep in mind that it may take more than one conversation to bring change), it's time to refocus your energies toward letting go. Letting go is a conscious choice not to dwell on the matter, and it is something you decide to do for your own benefit. It will take time and practice -- if it were easy, you would have already done it! You may need to find a new way to talk to yourself about it. For example,
"That's the way he is; he can't help it."
"I know she means well."
"I can handle it."
"I choose to focus on what I like about the person"
"I'm sure there are things about me that they aren't crazy about."
"It's not worth getting upset about."
"I'm freeing my mental space for something better."
It can also help to try and find compassion for the person. There may be a good reason they are not capable of better behavior. You are probably not the only person who resents their behavior.
Letting go starts with a decision, but it rarely ends there. You will probably have to take a deep breath and remind yourself of your intention to let go, and why, repeatedly. But it will get easier with practice, and the benefits to your sanity and to the relationship are priceless!
¹Burns, David (2008). Feeling Good Together: The secret to making troubled relationships work. Broadway Books, NY.