By Heather Hamilton, PhD., LMHC, NCC, DCC | ©2022BreakThrough!
Resentments legitimately arise when we experience abuse of any kind, betrayal, indifference, insensitivity and much more. Exploring or challenging our resentments provides us with the opportunity to move forward with our lives free of emotional chains to the past. Letting go of resentments is just that. We acknowledge the pain inflicted by others and make the personal choice to choose peace of mind; rather than waking to another day of bitterness.
Each of us has an internal compass or sense of justice that’s unique to our character, preferences, culture, experience, values and more. While resentments are typically characterized as “negative” we have to acknowledge that resentment equally suggests that our being, our lives and values may have been violated or betrayed, and our responses (hurt, sadness, anger…) are valid. Our inner sense of justice has many features such as decency, fairness, and equality but unfortunately, we can get stuck in a mind or mood set of resentment which leads to depression and the development of other mental and physical health concerns.
First, exploring resentments helps to separate legacy resentments from more recent or ongoing resentments. For those who have experienced an early environment of abuse, the legacy period may end with leaving home. Legacy resentments may include statements like these:
- I resent being told I was stupid
- I resent being hit every time I made a mistake
- I resent my mother for never protecting me from being molested and later, raped
- I resent my Dad’s insane alcoholic rages
- I resent feeling scared every day I went home wondering what the night would be like
- I resent being criticized for everything I did or didn’t do
- I resent being told I was ugly, fat, lazy, worthless, a burden…
- I resent being constantly compared negatively to other children/siblings
These resentments are integral to “I” and self and the development of our self-view. Another Legacy category is the resentments that reflect more on parental choices, circumstances, and environments.
- I resent the cult-like belief structure my parents forced on me
- I resent never being able to make friends from fear of embarrassment
- I resent moving every 6 months because my Dad couldn’t keep a job
- I resent extended periods we spent homeless in campgrounds because of no money for housing
- I resent always being hungry because of my parents’ alcohol and drug abuse
- I resent feeling like I never fit in because I didn’t have access to any media and never knew what my peers were talking about.
- I resent my family’s view that women weren’t worthy of education or the opportunities afforded to my brothers like special food and athletic teams.
- I resent the image that my parents tried to maintain in public that was a total contrast to life at home.
- I resent that when __________________ happened; they blamed me instead of fighting for me.
Other legacy resentments may be those that were experienced in other contexts like school or other activities.
- I resent that I was bullied by ____ for__________
- I resent that teachers would__________________
- I resent that I wasn’t able to_____________
List your legacy resentments. Your categories may include others however, typically short statements or bullet points are the most efficient way to brain dump the past experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Also, this exercise is best done with no expectation of immediate completion. It may take a week or two to round out the lists as one memory may prompt the surfacing of another, days later.
After looking at these and other Legacy resentments the next challenge is to go back to the lists of your resentments and identify how the behavior of others affected your sense of self and achieving your potential. Some questions to consider: Was the environment so full of dysfunction that out of fear you spent a significant amount of time trying to please others and avoid conflict? Did you learn to hide or mask feelings or thoughts because it wasn’t safe to speak up? Did you learn to lie to avoid pain? Did you have to become secretive to survive? Did you become resistant to gestures of affection because of abuse or molestation?
Evaluate how legacy resentments and diminished view of self, carried into adult life after leaving home.
Some examples: I married a dysfunctional abusive person because it was all I knew. I felt that it still wasn’t safe to have my own thoughts or feelings that differed from those of others. I didn’t believe I could make a living on my own. I was trained to be subservient; to expect criticism and abuse.
Once the legacy resentment work is close to completion then it’s helpful to address the next periods or phases as well. In a similar fashion list those resentments and look for any patterns.
Lastly, explore current resentments in the same way. Likely some categories will surface. Those occurring within a marriage or relationship, work or school environments, home, and yes…those with our children and extended families. The goal is to find peace within ourselves. We get but a nanosecond of evolution to enjoy the majesty of this planet and universe. Go forth with purpose and contentment. Commit to peace for yourself! It may be as simple as reminding yourself “Take the best; Leave the rest!”
Once we can categorize resentments and how they trigger unwelcome emotions then we can see which core values, traits or behaviors are involved. If I feel that a core value – say RESPECT – isn’t being upheld then I have to consider what can I do differently?
If the environment is negative then I might challenge myself (and others) that for a week – we teach kindness. If that goes well then the next week might be a focus on patience. Once we process resentments we can better understand what our needs are. In order to enroll people in understanding and meeting our needs, we have to present an approach that is actionable, practical, measurable and when possible, inclusive and fun.
Now, Let’s BreakThrough!
Letting go of what happened to us in no way reflects our character, strengths, values, and potential. That was true then, and it’s true now! If you can, look at your legacy through the lens of today. It might be hard to be grateful for the knowledge that we’re kind, considerate, stable, loving, individuals who create safe spaces for others, given our past. This mindset, however, is key to the process of letting go. Letting go does not imply that there needs to be any “forgiveness”. As discussed in the trauma session and chapter of BreakThrough! we never have to accept the unacceptable! Efforts to do so may simply bring forth unnecessary internal conflict.
Short accurate statements are helpful at re-wiring our old thoughts into healthy present-based thoughts. We have to talk to our brains in order to heal and relinquish resentments.
- Bad things may have happened; they aren’t happening today!
- Just because someone said ___________; doesn’t mean it’s true!
- I may have been told I didn’t matter; I Matter! What I want matters!
- For today, I choose peace of mind.
The next section is an excerpt from Rosenna Bakari (2020) that discusses why forgiveness may not be an appropriate approach for individuals recovering from trauma. Visit Bakari’s website for two books she has written specifically to recovery from trauma and sexual abuse.
Forgiveness Has Evolved to a Modern-day Virtue
Even if the individual never had a relationship with the person who caused them harm, forgiveness is considered the high ground. Some mental health professionals and religious leaders consider forgiveness the holy grail of healing. Regardless of the depth of harm or the repentance of the offender, forgiveness is a therapeutic or spiritual objective. Any discomfort or negative emotions surrounding the inflicted harm is assumed to be related to a metaphysical bond between the offender and the survivor. “Don’t let someone rent space in your head” is the incentive given to forgive. The virtue of forgiveness has incentivized survivors of harm to wear it as a badge of honor sometimes. “I’ve forgiven the person who hurt me” is sometimes a spiritual pledge or an emotional emblem.
The Wrong Response to Trauma
Unfortunately, the virtue of forgiveness overrides the process of healing deep wounds. Justified anger is interpreted as a need for forgiveness, as are depression and anxiety. Forgiveness is more important than connecting to your inner child, taking care of your body, creating healthy boundaries, or letting go of secrets. I assert that forgiveness is the wrong response to trauma. Trauma is a complex experience that is lodged within the psyche. It can affect every aspect of a person’s life. While forgiveness contributes to the cohesiveness of a community, the individual who was harmed pays a heavy price. For several reasons, forgiveness should never be required of a person who has experienced trauma.
Trauma requires a focus on self, not another person. To suggest to a survivor that their healing is contingent on resolving a relationship with the person who harmed them is secondary harm. The suggestion can create more profound feelings of victimization. Healing requires survivors to focus on their relationship with themselves. As they heal their relationship with themselves, the forgiveness of their violator may or may not arise. Even in the absence of forgiveness, through processing emotions, survivors thrive.
You shouldn’t equate unforgiveness with hate or a desire for revenge. Since forgiveness is ill-defined, the unforgiveness is as well. Since “unforgiveness” isn’t even a word, we have to a seemingly opposite. But, there isn’t an opposite to forgiveness. Forgiveness exists on its own continuum.
Survivors deserve to be understood, not mandated by harmful norms of forgiveness. All survivors of harm have their interpretations of healing that don’t have to be judged on a forgiveness continuum. Many survivors patiently wait for their violators to die so that they can have a feeling of resolve. The death of their violator is a sign of favor from God. For that reason, they do not state forgiveness. They otherwise go about the business of healing and often thrive.
The virtue of forgiveness usually comes with an expectation of silence. In the absence of forgiveness, survivors are more willing to speak their truth and allow natural consequences for the violator. Lack of forgiveness is called into play when the survivor is no longer willing to protect the violator. When survivors focus on healing instead of avoiding consequences, living in their truth is often interpreted as revenge. Survivors take the blame for disruption in the family, job, or organization. Forgiveness is not always the high road; it is often the back road, merely the path of least resistance.
Focus on Mental Health
Every harmful act is forgivable by someone, but not necessarily by the victim. Everyone can forgive, but not to forgive everything. Perhaps someone who forgives the person who murdered their child has never forgiven their ex-spouse. That’s OK because the link between mental health and forgiveness is unsubstantiated.
Forgiveness, as a virtue, leaves a metaphysical trail of tears and an invitation for intentional wrongdoers to harm. It is another outdated evolutionary script that deteriorates cultures rather than builds them up. If we intend to support mental health, we must learn how to help people connect to themselves. Allow people in pain to explore its complexity instead of simplifying it down to forgiveness. Forgiveness requires no processing when presented as a task of adaptation. Forgiveness, as a virtue, leaves a metaphysical trail of tears and an invitation for intentional wrongdoers to harm. It is another outdated evolutionary script that deteriorates cultures rather than builds them up.
A Family Affair
Research shows that the gravest harm occurs most often between people who know and love each other. In cases of childhood sexual abuse, the closer the kinship between victim and violator, the more likely the victim is to never disclose the violence, even long into adulthood.
One in four women and one in eight men experience severe domestic violence. Adult rape victims know their violators in 90% of the cases. Reporting and conviction for these personal traumatic crimes are less than 5%. A culture of forgiveness has given a clear message that if you want to harm someone, do it within familiar walls.
Victims often internalize anger to extend forgiveness to a violator. Victims commonly boast about forgiving their violators while admitting that they hate themselves. They don’t make the connection between self-hate and offering unconditional forgiveness.
Peace through Unforgiveness
Often, peace is found within the status of unforgiveness. The condition of unforgiveness creates enough distance from the violator to process the pain. When enough of the pain has been processed, and the victim returns to a state of homeostasis, forgiveness may arise naturally. Forgiveness does not cause the pain to stop. Stopping pain causes forgiveness.
Trying to stop pain by forgiveness is like putting a box of cake mix in the oven and expecting to get a cake. That does not work, and you could burn down your house. You have to pour the cake mix into a bowl and add some ingredients. Once you mix in the oven, ultimately, you have to let the oven do the work. So, it is with forgiveness. Put the ingredients of healing into the wounds. If we stop passing down generational trauma through a dangerous culture of forgiveness, lives can be saved and fewer people will experience trauma.
We hope you have enjoyed this article from The BreakThrough! Program.
References & Related Topics
Bakari, R (2020) Forgiveness is the wrong response to trauma. Medium. Blog post Retrieved from https://medium.com/illumination/forgiveness…