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by Richard B. Patterson, Ph.D.

I would like to ask you, the reader, to begin by completing the following exercise; read it over first, then do the imagery:

You are seated at the edge of a vast lake. Nearby to where you are sitting is a dock. You see in the distance a boat moving in your direction. As the boat nears the dock, you get a glimpse of some faces that seem familiar. After the boat has docked, people start getting off the boat. As they do, you realize that all the passengers on this boat are persons toward whom you are holding a resentment.

After completing the imagery, make a list of the names of those who got off your resentment boat. Don't be discouraged if your list is a long one. When I first did this exercise, I arrogantly thought there might be only two or three people on my boat. I stopped writing down names after filling two columns of a page of loose-leaf. And there were still people getting off the boat!

What is a resentment?

A resentment would appear to be a cluster of anger and thought. To develop an anger, one must start out with a certain expectation of someone. Then when the person does not fulfill that expectation, there is a feeling of anger. Finally, one makes the decision to withhold the anger, to not communicate about it. The result is a resentment.

Psychologist Albert Ellis has written extensively about the negative impact of certain expectations in the form of shoulds and musts. His school of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Therapy or RET assists persons in developing more realistic expectations so that one does not set oneself up to be angry and resentful.

Thus, if I can revise my thinking from "My wife should be more attentive to my needs," to "It would be nice if she were attentive but my well-being does not depend upon it," then I am less likely to end up in a position of resentment.

Research has demonstrated the negative impact of unexpressed anger on a variety of health conditions. Helen Kaplan Singer documented anger and resentment to be a factor in certain forms of sexual dysfunction. Simonton, Simonton, and Creighton include identification and resolution of resentments as a key feature of their program of treatment for cancer patients. Crasilneck and Hall in their classic work on clinical hypnosis document the negative impact of a variety of types of emotional arousal on various systems of the body.

In fact, you may have noticed a physiological response to some of the persons getting off your resentment boat. That state of arousal, especially if chronic, threatens our health, a fact documented for some time. From the innovative research of Hans Selye to the current frontier of psychoimmunology, there is a long tradition of awareness of the negative impact of chronic emotional arousal on our health. When we resent, we are in a state of chronic emotional arousal.

Why we resent

If we know that resentments are not good for us, why do we allow them to develop in the first place? Some of us do not like confrontation. Others of us avoid anger. Sometimes we may convince ourselves that we can "think" our way out of a resentment. At other times, we may quite simply be afraid to bring it up.

So, with few exceptions, we all tend to develop a set of resentment. We may then actually convince ourselves that our resentments are good for us! After all, they keep us at some distance from someone who may have hurt us; so we hold onto them. But the holding on may have more to do with confusion over what happens when we let them go. We believe that if we let go of a resentment, we become vulnerable again. This need not always be the case.

The solution to resentments is an age-old prescription -- forgiveness. This will be the subject of a future article. For now, it is a step toward healing of resentments for us to identify them, but to do so without judgment. To paraphrase the old adage, to resent is human; to forgive is divine.


Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.


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