Learn about where resentments come from and how you can respond when they show up in your life.
Resentment is the combination of unpleasant feelings and thoughts you experience when you do not get what you feel you deserve, or when you see other people get something you think they do not deserve (Feather & Sherman, 2002). It is the feeling you experience when you have the thought, “that’s not fair!” When we think we have been wronged in some way, or somebody else has been given something we deserve (but don’t have), we are liable to feel resentment. We see the situation as unjust, as a threat to the status we want to have in the world (O’Dwyer, 2020).
Resentment is not a pure emotion, but rather a particular manifestation of anger. Broadly speaking, we feel anger when our expectations are violated or when our boundaries are crossed. In the case of resentment, we have expectations regarding the things we think we deserve to get from the world. When we do not get them – and especially if somebody else gets what we wanted, instead of us – the situation seems morally unjust to us, and from this belief, resentment emerges (Rawls, 1971).
The causes of resentment might already be taking shape in your mind. One source of resentment is narcissism (Nauta & Derckx, 2007), something we all experience to some degree. Since we are all the main characters in the stories of our lives, it is natural for us to resent when those stories don’t unfold just as we’d like. This can take the form of both events that threaten our sense of self and events that suggest our life plans aren’t going to work out (Nauta & Derckx, 2007). A common flavor of this kind of resentment is what we experience when we fail to “get ahead” in a culture that puts an extremely high value on professional success (Wink, 1991).
Relatedly, we feel resentment when other people get to do things we aren’t “allowed” to do. “Allowed” is in quotation marks because a common cause of resentment is seeing other people do things we don’t give ourselves permission to do. For example, observing strict religious practices can make people resentful of the people around them who do not live by such restrictions (Nauta & Derckx, 2007).
A final cause worth mentioning is one that psychologists in particular have focused on: relative deprivation. This is the idea that seeing other people who have more than you have – regardless of how much you already have – can make you resentful (Mark & Folger, 1984).
How To Let Go of Resentment
Here are several steps that may help you let go of resentment (Worthington & Wade, 1999):
1) Don’t retaliate or avoid. We often want to get revenge when we feel resentment, to restore balance or justice to the situation. Or we try to avoid thinking about the situation at all. Both of these actions will make things worse. Instead, focus on making internal changes.
2) Check your entitlement. You might ask yourself, “Did I have unrealistic expectations for the situation? Was I expecting special treatment? Did I believe that someone owed me something?” If you can identify a mismatch between your expectations and what was likely to happen, you may reduce your resentment.
3) Accept what happened. You cannot control anything about the past. All you can control is your reaction in this moment. Acceptance can be a good way to do that.
4) Forgive what you can. Most of the things that go wrong in our lives weren’t done intentionally. People are trying their best, even when they hurt you. See if you can find it in yourself to forgive.
5) Find something to be grateful for. This might involve trying to empathize with the other party in the situation, looking for a silver lining, or finding a humorous aspect of the situation. Remember, gratitude for the situation is the opposite of resentment.
Members of Twelve Step recovery groups place a big focus on resentments. In fact, one of the steps in their recovery consists of listing out every single resentment they can think of, then telling all those resentments to their sponsor (their mentor in recovery). This example emphasizes how commonplace – and significant – resentments are in our lives. We don’t want to hold on to this ubiquitous, but poisonous, feeling. So when you feel resentment, try to break that spell. It will always be better for your mind and body than holding onto a grudge.
Feather, N. T., & Sherman, R. (2002). Envy, resentment, schadenfreude, and sympathy: Reactions to deserved and undeserved achievement and subsequent failure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(7), 953-961.
Mark, M. M., & Folger, R. (1984). Responses to relative deprivation: A conceptual framework. Review of Personality & Social Psychology, 5, 192–218.
Nauta, R., & Derckx, L. (2007). Why sin?— A test and an exploration of the social and psychological context of resentment and desire. Pastoral Psychology, 56, 177–188.
O’Dwyer, S. (2020). Meritocracy and resentment. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 46(9), 1146-1164.
Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge University Press.
Wink, P. (1991). Two faces of narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 590–597.
Worthington, E. L., & Wade, N. G. (1999). The psychology of unforgiveness and forgiveness and implications for clinical practice. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 18(4), 385-418.