Resentment, Like Holding Onto Hot Coals

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”  ~Buddha

Resentment is an extremely bitter diet, and eventually poisonous.  I have no desire to make my own toxins.  ~Neil Kinnock


According to the Oxford American Dictionary, resentment is defined as “bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly. The definition includes the fact that people can harbor resentments going back many years.”

Resentment has also been called the experience of a negative emotion, such as anger or hatred, felt as a result of a real or imagined wrong done to them.

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A perfect example was given to me by a couple who complained about their younger son, now 38 years old, continuing to harangue them about his childhood. Despite being quite successful at his career, he loudly blames them for all of his troubles. His is not an occasional diatribe but continues every time he talks to them over the telephone. It has gotten so bad that his father, on whom the greatest amount of scorn is heaped, will no longer speak to him. His son is not bothered by this break in communication. Instead, his mother has to hear about all of the past injustices.

Another example was of a woman patient, a combination of many patients, who bitterly complained about her common law husband who eventually moved out of their apartment because he could no longer tolerate her. She blamed her father for never having time for her while she was growing up. Then, she blamed her therapist for not allowing her to finish her therapy and for charging too much money. While she did complete her treatment, she left with these complaints intact despite the fact the quality of her life dramatically improved since starting therapy. She was no longer depressed, completed her undergraduate degrees, had a professional career since graduation and had a vastly improved relationship with her son and daughter. She had to hold onto her resentments. Perhaps that is what enabled her to successfully terminate her therapy. However, she remained blind to how her complaining had a negative effect on other people. I never heard from her again but sometimes wonder how she got along afterward.

Colleagues of mine in the field of mental health often referred to these people as injustice collectors. Not only did they continue to hold on to the negative past but viewed every incident in the present as another example of how unfair life is to them.

Parents are the most common object of resentment. As with the couple cited above, they are the people who are most frequently blamed for all failings and failures alike. Many young patients have complained to me that they “Would not be depressed except by the way they were treated by mom or dad.” I have heard patients blame their addiction on their parents. In fact, I have heard patients blame their parents for everything from poor school grades to business and work failures to failed relationships.

What is so interesting is that, in blaming parents or others for one’s misfortunes, there is a failure to take responsibility for what is or has happened. The 38 year old son never looks at his behavior to gain an understanding of the role he plays in his present day successes and failures.

None of this is to suggest that parents are innocent or that they never did wrong. We know that there are parents who abuse, neglect and reject their children. There are those parents who are over protective, authoritarian and dictatorial. There are also those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. In all cases, even the best parents are imperfect, make mistakes and sometimes can be unjust.

An important step for all adults is to acknowledge that what happened in the past cannot be undone and that what we can do is build better lives for ourselves in the present and future. To do this is to take responsibility for one’s behaviors and choices in the present. Many patients have told me that they want their parents to admit their wrong doing. When asked how that would help them, most gave answers that were vague. Of course, the real point is that there is nothing to be gained from asking a parent for admission of guilt, even if they did so. What is really called for is that the adult now forgive the parent. Why?

There is no better way to hold onto the bitter past than to relive horrible events that happened then. There is no better way to relive the awful past than to continue to blame others, whether parents or anyone else. Resentment is malignant. Remember Buddha’s quote that anger and resentment are like grasping a hot coal that can only burn yourself.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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