I have been researching gratitude for the past 25 years, mainly in the field of education. No matter what the context or country, when I raise the topic of resentment in my workshops, the mood of the discussion starts to shift. Participants are generally more engaged, and relieved to know that it’s OK to struggle with the idea that gratitude can be applicable to all situations. Many come up to me afterward and ask me, “OK, I get gratitude, but how can I be grateful when I feel so resentful?”
In researching the interplay between gratitude and resentment, my focus is on the smaller “everyday resentments” rather than those that arise from personal or collective trauma, gross inequities, or historical injustices, for example. No doubt you have experienced everyday resentment in your life: a brother or sister who appeared to be favored by your parents; a neighbor who won’t deal with their barking dog that keeps you awake for hours; a colleague who undermines you behind your back; a partner who doesn’t do their share of the housework or looking after the children…and the list goes on.
Resentment is known as the “emotion of justice,” as it is usually accompanied by the sense that we need to hold on to our resentment in order to take a moral stance on unacceptable behavior. To give up our resentment can often feel like we are letting the other person off the hook or condoning their behavior.
Philosopher Robert Roberts’s analysis of the concepts of gratitude and resentment shows that they are mirror opposites of each other, completely opposite states or ways of being. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have both gratitude and resentment as part of who we are. We can’t have functioning relationships without some gratitude, and most of us are rarely totally free of resentment. What it does mean is that if we are wanting to be genuinely grateful to someone, we can’t be resentful toward them at the same time. Firstly, we need to address any resentment we may have toward them.
Perhaps this perspective can give us a new way to think about gratitude. It isn’t just about feelings or actions that help us be more thankful for what we have; instead, any action we take to move away from resentment is a step toward gratitude. In my new book, Untangling You: How Can I Be Grateful When I Feel So Resentful?, I explore a range of strategies that can help us to make this shift.
How resentment detracts from well-being
The meaning of the word resentment comes from the Old French word resentir, which means “the re-experiencing of a strong feeling.” Two distinguishing features of resentment are that it causes us to ruminate—that is, to go over and over the situation in our minds—and that it lingers over time. We are often initially so shocked by what has happened to us that the disappointment, frustration, or anger we feel becomes lodged and it’s difficult to move on.
Although research on the health implications of resentment is still in its infancy, and not nearly as prolific as that on gratitude, some evidence suggests that resentment has the opposite effect on our well-being than gratitude.
In one of the few books covering resentment research, On Resentment: Past and Present, various contributors describe the negative effects of resentment as including anxiety, depression, and embitterment. Contributor Pilar León Sanz, historian of medicine and medical ethics, summarizes the impacts of resentment as detailed in more than 270 articles that were published in psychosomatic medicine from 1939 to 1960. She concludes that these studies showed that resentment could be implicated in the development of ulcers, gastric disorders, heartburn, cardio-respiratory symptoms, cardiac disease, intolerance to exercise, headache, backache, joint pain, insomnia, and stress.
Of course, this does not mean that resentment is the only cause of these ailments, but the evidence is significant enough for us to ponder whether it could be playing a part. Indeed, it’s common to find the impact of resentment discussed in our everyday language, such as complaining that someone is a “pain in the neck” and makes our head hurt, or that we feel hurt by another “in the pit of our stomach,” or that someone has “hardened our heart” or left us feeling “broken-hearted.”
Research suggests that, adjacent to resentment, unforgiveness and rumination lead to a similar erosion of health. For example, according to neuroscientist Emiliano Ricciardi and his colleagues, people in these states may have trouble sleeping, experience changes in cardiovascular activity and stress-related hormones, and, over time, develop clinical conditions including depression. In other studies, people who cannot forgive tend to experience stress that accelerates the aging process and leads to a variety of diseases. Likewise, rumination has been found to have a negative impact on healthy coping and to be a contributing factor in chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer.
Moving away from resentment
Gratitude has an amazing power to illuminate where it is missing and, in particular, where its opposite—resentment—is residing. We can start to notice this in situations where we want to express gratitude but find it hard to do so authentically because we are actually feeling pain or a reticence of some kind. I often describe this as “murky” because we know something isn’t quite right, but it’s also hard to give it a name or to acknowledge it fully to ourselves, let alone the other person.
To start, we might take one difficult relationship where we recognize that we have resentment and make this our focus for a period of time. It is best to choose a situation just a little out of our comfort zone, rather than anything traumatic or in need of professional help. For example, if your workmate is promoted when you thought you were the likely candidate, your relationship with that person may have fractured when you heard the news. Yet you need to work with your colleague and want to find some way of getting along and getting over the seeming injustice of not being selected.
However, we might be too afraid to admit that we are resentful because we want to keep our image of being a nice and positive person, or we don’t want to upset the status quo. Unlike other more “upfront” emotions such as disappointment, anger, or frustration, resentment tends to carry a sense of shame. It exposes us, making us seem a bit weak or not the sort of person we would like to think we are, or would like others to see us as.
In order for resentment to come out of hiding, we need to acknowledge it. We need to find ways of giving our resentment a voice, a shape, a place at the table for discussion, without shame or guilt, without self-judgment or the judgment of others. Only then can we see how much our resentment is robbing us of our gratitude and destroying our relationships and sense of well-being.
Just by giving the hurtful, murky, stuck feelings a name—resentment—and recognizing its damaging effects on our well-being and those around us, we can be more empowered and motivated to do something about it. Although it may take some time, we can gain a greater sense of objectivity and a greater sense of agency in the situation because we see that we can choose our response in moving forward. This opens the door for us to remember what we were grateful for about this person in the past. When we recall this gratitude, we have a greater capacity to attend to the relationship with the other person rather than the pain of what has happened.
Moving toward gratitude
Another important point to consider is that any step away from gratitude is a step toward resentment. In other words, when we let our gratitude slip, we are more likely to allow resentment to creep in. As gratitude researcher Philip Watkins argues in his “amplification theory of gratitude,” it plays a crucial role in helping us to remember the good in the other, so that our memories of the bad don’t take over.
Leading on from this, if we create families and workplaces where people feel valued and appreciated, we are reducing or even warding off the toxic impact of resentment that can often cause conflict or low morale.
One powerful way to enact this is through warm greetings. My research has shown that greeting with a heart of gratitude—with a heart of recognizing what we have received from someone—can help them to feel a sense of connectedness to us, a sense of belonging. We do not necessarily have to use a “thank you” or appreciation in our greetings. The power lies more with the inner attitude with which we offer the greeting.
Another way to help gratitude to thrive is to grow our cross-cultural awareness of the different ways it has meaning for others. We can make efforts to understand how a person from a different socio-cultural background likes to give and receive gratitude—and in turn offer gratitude in ways that are meaningful to them, whether that’s through checking if effusive or overt offerings of gratitude are customary in their culture, or if they would feel shy or awkward in receiving gratitude, for example. By doing this, we are again recognizing them in ways that enhance the relationship and sense of belonging.
Importantly, none of this means that we use gratitude to cover up our resentment. This would be putting a positive veneer over a negative situation that is crying out for attention. Rather, the approach I am advocating is that we take up gratitude as a practice, where we take small steps away from resentment and therefore toward gratitude. The notion of “practice” means that this is not just a one-off action, but something we try out over time, with a clear purpose and in sustained action. It also means that it’s OK to not get it right all the time. We are not trying to be perfect, as we are practicing something new.
I wrote my new book to answer a question asked by my research and workshop participants, and with the hope that it can help people around the world take courageous action. Addressing resentment can allow our gratitude to play the important role it has in giving us more personal and collective peace and harmony.