So many times my job involves having to take a detached look at human behaviour and patterns thereof, but most of the time it is to support people as they go through their own challenges with relating. Sometimes it’s also about reflecting in a detached manner on my own life as an additional piece of data, as a way of triangulating what I have been told or white I see in others.
One of the elements that pre-occupied my mind this morning is the concept of resentment. Resentment is one of those fascinating words that are nuanced but very powerful. I define resentment as “little loving hate” – you don’t hate someone enough to want to kill them or kick them out of your life but you also don’t like them enough to forgive them everything.
Siblings tend to resent each other, colleagues, couples, you name it- where there are two or more beings, there is likely to be an element of resentment once in a while. But why does it happen? It is a “normal” human emotion (not a feeling…it’s more complex than that) that results when there’s a gap between the self-value and the expected responses/results. So when you value something, but most especially something in someone, and you feel you need to benefit from the value, and it doesn’t happen or accrue to you. So as an example, if you value having high qualifications and your sibling has more of those than you and it seems to come easy for her than for you- you might develop resentment for her because she is accruing value you think is due to you.
There’s resentment in many relationships and many people respond to it by acting in petty and vengeful ways. So resentment, like any emotion, drives behaviours and decisions of people. Most of the behaviours, while vengeful, are not necessarily violent. But it can put a strain in a relationship because even as the resenter is acting in passive aggressive ways, the resentee has a sense that something is wrong, but they “can’t quite put a finger on it”. After a while though it gets annoying and noticeable and may generate into stronger emotions like anger and irritation.
Many resenters are not aware at times of their resentment because it can be very subliminal, especially for people who are not emotionally self-aware. What this means for the resentees, especially those who are self-aware and “tuned-in”, is that they have a responsibility to give feedback about the feelings they experience, keeping in mind that the resenter might not be aware that they have been resentful. They however also reserve the right to walk away from that relationship if the behaviour does not change.
Resentment is about Ego, yet another word that is usually given a negative connotation, but is totally neutral since it refers to a person’s experience of themselves. So it is therefore incorrect to say someone has “An Ego” or “someone should Let go of Ego”, because it is not possible- we all have it. The issue with Ego though is that it can be perceived differently by the owner of the behaviour and by the observer of the behaviour. Since the experience of ego is a matter of perception, it can lead to human conflict if there’s a huge distance between the perceptions of self and that which others have of you.
So what does this have to do with resentment?
Well resentment is an ego disconnect essentially, so if I perceive myself as one thing, yet I keep getting feedback in the opposite, I start getting resentful of the people that do not perceive me as I perceive myself. It must be remembered at this point that the importance of how one is perceived is linked to the value that one places upon themselves and therefore what they deserve. So in understanding that ego is a perceptual thing, it makes it easier then to deal with resentment, both within (your resentment of others) as well as without (others’ resentment of you).
As a resenter, your work is to understand what the perceptual gap is, that you are experiencing in behaviour terms: How do you expect people to be responding to you vs. how they are actually responding? How often? E.g. is it a one time response or more extended. Once this consciousness has been raised the next step is to ask yourself if the expectations you hold of others are realistic. If they are not, is there any adjustment you can make? If they are realistic, is there an action you can take to close the perceptual gap? (Eg create a different understanding of who you are with others). Most importantly, it might even be important to explore if the effort you are putting is correcting this perceptual gap is worth it as far as a particular person is concerned)- for example: What do you get from them that is so important to your ego?
For the resentee I have already highlighted the role of feedback in the relationship. The feedback should not be judgemental, but instead behavior-based e.g.:”I have noticed in the last 4 days when I speak about incident X, you respond with a sarcastic remark”. Then proceed to highlight the impact that behaviour has on you: e.g. “those sarcastic remarks are really hurtful and I feel I am being unfairly punished for something”. Then finally direct the conversation towards a resolution instead of dwelling on the problem: “Can we talk about how we can resolve this going forward?”
This is always a difficult conversation, so it is important to make time for the conversation instead of rushing it. Make sure you have evidence of behaviour and stay at that level, rather than at the level of labelling the person “You have been mean to me” is a judgemental statement for example- what behaviour have you seen that makes the person “mean”? It is also important as the resentee to pay attention to your own behaviour: In what ways could you have responded to the other party in ways that are incongruent with their expectation? How did you manage their expectations before or after that incident? A typical case here between couples is where the husband was “Expected” to remember his wife’s birthday or anniversary, but forgets. Neither party is WRONG, they just value the “Anniversary” differently, thus creating a perceptual gap.
Sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? You are absolutely right! When the cliché is thrown around “Work on your relationship” this is the stuff that they are talking about. I am not sure if it ever completes, but if you value the relationship, both parties have to commit individually and collectively to do the work that is necessary. An important question all the time is how much you value the relationship!