The one feeling that can destroy your life
During Chairman Mao's reign in China, he instituted a policy with the rather hubristic name: The Great Leap Forward. The intent was a complete overnight "modernisation" of the country's traditional agricultural and industrial systems. But it didn't take long for mass starvation and chaos to set in across China, as the overnight innovations failed spectacularly.
Mao then decided to take a different route.
Given that The Great Leap Forward was such a massive failure, Mao needed to consolidate his grip on power in the face of increasing opposition. In 1966, he began what would become known as the Cultural Revolution. The movement was dedicated to purging all remaining capitalist and bourgeois ideas in China, and also, conveniently, all of his party enemies. To bring about the necessary changes, Mao enlisted everyone from middle school students, groups of activists called "The Rebels", party members, to any and every person that felt drawn to Mao's call to free the country from bad thoughts and the people who held them.
And the country answered.
Groups of rebels would terrorise every person with even the slightest whiff of "subversive" tendencies, subjecting millions of people to torture and even mass killings. At least three million people died as a result of the Cultural Revolution and at least 100 Million people suffered in one way or another as a consequence. Mao's enemies had been eliminated in the process.
Mao knew something profound about human nature. He was an expert in resentment.
He weaponised his intuition about the power of resentment against his own people and for his own gain. Mao understood that, if pointed in the right direction, resentful people would gladly do his bidding, use any means necessary and even feel righteous committing atrocities. In this case, the right direction was "the enemies of the revolution", the people who were conspiring to undermine the universalist utopia Mao was trying so hard to build. Unsurprisingly, the enemies of the revolution were often better educated, better dressed or were respected members of the old order - easy targets for a mob.
This is an example of resentment gone off the rails on a societal level, but you don't have to be a middle school student or a subversive teacher in 1960s China for this toxic feeling to infiltrate your life and wreak havoc.
What is resentment?
Resentment is the bitter indignation you feel when you've been treated unfairly or when something that was owed to you has been withheld.
Resentment is when you catch yourself saying:
"I don't deserve this."
"I'm better than this."
"I need an apology."
"I'm not getting the respect I deserve."
"That's just so unfair to me."
Resentment isn't just your run-of-the-mill anger, it's a special flavour of righteous, justified anger originating from a feeling of moral authority. The target of resentment could be another person, but often people grow resentful of whole groups, like society, the system, the government, women, the police….
Resentment gives you the feeling that you’ve correctly identified and are resisting unfairness, a toasty, righteous simmer that feels both exhausting and pretty good.
Have you ever replayed a moment of injustice in your mind (or even acted it out mumbling in the shower) and felt the inner strength and adrenaline that came from it?
Have you ever felt the righteous jolt of: How. Dare. They?
You see this feeling promoted a lot in the self-help, motivation, entrepreneurial community: "Use your haters as fuel" has become a common mantra and the subject of many an Instagram post about how to #hustle. Feminists have “Male Tears” mugs, and conservatives make do with the less great sounding “Leftist Tears” mugs.
Resentment has hit the mainstream and it doesn’t seem to want to leave. We’re living in polarising times, so for many, resentment of the other side has become a central part of their identity, strengthening their position either as “free thinkers” or as “woke”. There seem to be few options to get people off their pedestals of moral posturing, so looking at the root emotion could be a good place to start.
What's so special about resentment?
Resentment is a particular kind of feeling. It doesn't exhaust itself, like regular anger, it simply simmers away, and can stay with you for years - and for some of us, it will be there, lurking, for our whole lives.
Because it involves a cue-response-reward cycle, resentment is more like a habit than an ordinary emotion.
Here's the typical cycle:
We all know someone who has made a habit out of resentment, maybe even built an entire identity around it. They rail against the government, against their spouse, against their "ungrateful" children, against their boss. They've managed to construct a morally superior prison for themselves. The little adrenaline kicks and the sense of righteousness that resentment provides make sure that it will be hellishly hard to escape the cycle.
The habit of resentment is also self-reinforcing. If we're in a resentful mood, we're scanning the world for information to fit our pattern. We find confirming information and dismiss anything that doesn't point to what we're looking for. If you also add some insecurity to the mix, you have an explosive mixture on your hands.
Resentment is like a circus mirror, everything is bent through its filter.
Your boss says: "We'll need that report by tomorrow."
You hear: “He's saying I'm lazy, that I never get anything done on time, even though I have to juggle 10 projects and he's not helping at all. He's being so unfair.“
Your boyfriend says: "Can we have takeout tonight?"
You hear: “He's saying I'm a bad cook and he needs to escape my shitty improvised dinners. WELL, screw you, mister.”
An actor on television says: “ We live in dark times. We must be strong together and let love win!”
You hear (depending on where you get your politics): “Another rich white male speaking from a position of privilege.” or “Another preachy, out of touch Hollywood elitist fear mongering about Trump.”
You see what I mean.
Resentment is a force field that skews reality and can enslave you - if you don't know how to recognise it and swiftly slap it into submission.
How to keep your resentment in check
I was a big ole' pile of resentment when I was younger. Everything was unfair and everyone was out to get me. The world was a dark, immoral place, full of bad people and evil, oppressive systems. I was focused on everything that was wrong with society, and I felt deliciously righteous being on “the right side of history”, far away from all the haters and bigots.
Things turned around in a big way when I slowly realised that some of my problems were my own goddamn fault and largely fixable. What a revelation!
Gratitude and ownership
I'm going to sneak this in here, as I can't write any post without mentioning this at least once: Take responsibility, people!
Move your focus from what you're owed to what you can and should contribute and what you can take responsibility for.
Resentment has one huge enemy: gratitude. You can't be resentful if you're grateful. If you appreciate what you have and live in gratitude, resentment can only look longingly at you from its little dark pit, but can't touch you, because you've figured out its game.
You're not a slave to righteousness anymore, you've sacrificed that warm and fuzzy feeling of moral superiority for much greater happiness.
Resentment is the plight of the overly polite and the scourge of the agreeable.
Say what's on your mind, debate it with people and if someone has offended you, or treated you unfairly, talk it out. In 99% of cases, it's a misunderstanding - I swear.
Talking to others honestly and calmly about how their behaviour makes you feel is an amazing opportunity to understand another person's perspective and connect on the basis of truth.
A great step in this direction is to try to not read other people’s minds and to not interpret things in the worst way. That’s the default route to resentment, and an incredibly common way of dealing with things (I’m absolutely on the naughty list for this one). Rather, try to detach from your initial anger and allow yourself to entertain other possibilities about what’s going on with the other person. Maybe they were just having a bad day and their behaviour had nothing to do with you (you narcissistic creep). Or, in a more broad, society-wide perspective - the other side might have other motivations which don’t include malice or stupidity.
A focus on others
Resentment is, like many other similar demons, an inward-looking phenomenon.
It's all about me, me, me:
Who's disrespecting me now, who's treating me unfairly, where's my fair share?!
In the depths of resentment, life is unfair in particular for me or my group.
It might be time to get off this ride. A good way to get over yourself is to do something useful for someone else. Don't overthink it. Just bake that cake, help your neighbour, see a friend, chat and don't complain about anything for a change. Refreshing, isn't it?
Resentment wants to vent.
One of the biggest challenges here is to starve resentment of its fuel, the righteous indignation, which only gets more frothy and succulent the more you chat about it.
Your friends, though probably politely ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the sound of your stories of righteous indignation, don't really care. I know it’s a great shortcut to getting attention, but your friends will love you more if you spare them and spare yourself.
Even if you are right about the unfairness that the world or other people impose on you, and you might be, resentment is too high a price to pay for being right. And it is a price you pay yourself. It will hold you back in both your satisfaction with life and the quality of your relationships if you let it go unchecked.
Let me know in the comments if this was useful and how you deal with resentment in your own life.