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Poisonous Resentment

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Colombia is a country with frequent kidnappings, often with tragic results.

Such was the case of a father who reported his 11-month-old son kidnapped, then joined in the frantic search for his missing child. The outcome was terrible: the child was found to have been killed by his own father.

While Colombia's citizens are fairly jaded regarding crime, even they were outraged by this incident after it was revealed the father had some involvement in the kidnapping. In a country without the death penalty - or even life sentences in prison - citizens are now demanding both. Colombia's president even spoke publicly about his anger regarding the crime.

A Colombian radio producer contacted me after seeing a television interview I had done on forgiveness. "How could people handle their powerful feelings of anger and resentment?" He asked.

During the interview, I struggled to balance the importance of acknowledging your feelings of anger and indignation, yet not "staying" in them. But I felt the host was confrontational, suggesting I was providing "Pollyanna" advice.

Of course the events were horrible, I responded. Of course this father should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Of course people are outraged, I said.

But behind the outrage, I pointed out, is typically a sense of fear, a sense of powerlessness.

Anger is not really a primary emotion. It can be what is easiest to express. What is often under that anger is fear. By acknowledging your fear, you get to the root of your feelings.

The reason I shared the story about the Colombian kidnapping is that one of the key things to remember about anger is that many people see it as a great motivator. If you forgive for a transgression - such as the murder of a child or perhaps hurtful words - then does that mean you will forget what happened? Absolutely not.

At the same time, I think people are often reluctant to forgive because they somehow feel that if they forgive, then they are excusing the bad behavior. It's as if we're saying that by forgiving someone, it justifies what that person did. This couldn't be further from the truth. Resentment is like drinking poison - and expecting the other person to die. The only one who is made sick is the one harboring the resentment.

Resentment and anger are not only toxic, but often intoxicating. Anger can sometimes act as an antidote to feeling powerless: you can feel really powerful when you are indignant. But, like many drugs, the feeling is artificial and fleeting.

Forgiveness is really a choice we make. If we wait for the feeling to fill our hearts, inspiring us to forgive, we could spend our lives waiting. It is a decision - a conscious decision. While we don't have control over events that occurred in the past, we have some say over what role those events play in our present. You may find that you may not necessarily feel immediately better after you forgive, but as with many things in life, action often precedes motivation.

When I tell people I am a psychologist there are a few predictable responses: "You should use my family as a case study," "that must be interesting," or "how can you listen to people whining about their problems all day, don't you just want to tell people to just get over it?" So below is an exercise you might want to try to make a step towards finally getting over it! You can do this with one or many resentments you might carry. But like is commonly said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. So pick one, an easy one, and take it from there.

So here it is:
Write down who or what your are resentful towards. Then go through and write down what you're angry about, how does the resentment affect you and those around you, what does it do for you, and then write down what the benefits would be of letting go of those feelings.

Here's an example from my own list (I may regret this later!):

I am resentful at: Sarah (not her real name)

The reason: She said, "Congratulations! I didn't know you were expecting!" I was actually four-years postpartum (that outfit has long been retired).

What does the resentment do to me? It makes me irritated because every time I go to my son's school I get self-conscious about what I am going to wear. That makes it more difficult to get myself out of the house, which then causes me to rush the kids and bark orders, making me not a very nice mom.

What does holding on to it do for me? It helps me feel better than her. "Can you believe she said something like that? I would never say something like that." (Oh, and that makes me a liar as well!)

What are the benefits to myself and those around me of letting this go? I can move on, have more peace in the household, not be obsessed with my body, feel like I am setting a good example of forgiveness and be more likely to teach my kids how to really get over things by practicing it myself. (and, I'll feel a little less hypocritical when I give professional advice!)

We give too much power to the people we resent. We let them rent so much space in our head, when we could be using that space to be inspired, focus on our dreams or just enjoy the amazing sight of the dawn.

Let's consider some important steps on the road to forgiveness:

Acknowledge your true feelings. Recognize you are indeed resentful/angry. People sometimes think they are somehow "above" these feelings and don't recognize them. I don't care how spiritual or Zen you are, how much yoga you do or how much green tea you drink - you are still human. That means you are vulnerable to the range of human emotions, including the negative ones.

Recognize the cost. Think about how much this resentment is hurting you and how much energy you are expending on it. So often patients will tell me that they don't think about it consciously, so they don't really think it is a problem. Really? This is why we talk about this thing call the "unconscious." We are naive if we think that things we are unaware of can't affect us. Have you ever had someone ask you why you are being short-tempered when you hadn't even realized you were? Or, you realize you're irritated but have no idea why? Things we don't get can still get us.

Focus on the payoff. If you have been holding on to a resentment for a long time, it can feel scary to not be angry. If anger makes you feel powerful -- ready to protect or defend it at any moment - then you can worry that without it you are defenseless. But prolonged anger isn't useful in keeping us motivated in the long term. In fact, the more time you spend stressed and angry, the less likely it will be that you will have the resources to deal with another issue that needs attention.

Remember: Your mind is like a magnifying glass. Whatever you focus on will expand. Do you want to focus on resentment or forgiveness? Which one, do you believe, will ultimately make you feel (and live) better?

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