There is a quotation from the actor Carrie Fisher that I am sure she picked up in the rooms of AA that says, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
There is not a person alive who has not been hurt by the actions and words of another. For most people this hurt is a passing injury, that at some point we release allowing the wound to heal. Another word for this process of healing is forgiveness.
It is when we are unable to let go of actions or words that hurt us we develop a resentment. Resentment refers to the mental process of repetitively replaying a feeling, and the events leading up to it. A resentment is in a sense, the action of continuing to pick at the grievance/scab/wrong/damage so that it can never heal.
We don’t process the emotions involved in resentments in a healthy way. Instead, we re-experience and relive them in manners that affect us emotionally, physiologically, and spiritually with very self-destructive outcomes. In this process we are re-wounding ourselves again and again. The inability to forgive, to overcome resentment is one of the most self-destructive actions a human being can do to themself.
So what is forgiveness? In simple terms, forgiveness is a decision to relinquish/give up/drop/shed feelings of resentment and thoughts of revenge. The act that hurt or offended us might always remain a part of our lives, but forgiveness can lessen its emotional charge (and hold on us) while helping us focus on other, more positive parts of our lives. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.
So how do we forgive (what we currently feel is) the unforgivable? How do we let go of pain and betrayal?
It does not come all at once. Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. First, consider the value of forgiveness and its importance in your life at a given time. Reflect on the facts of the situation, how you’ve reacted, and how this combination has affected your life, health and well-being.
Then, actively choose to forgive the person who’s offended, hurt, or wounded you . If you can do these things, it will allow you to move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation has in your life
Think about the Carrie Fisher quote again, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” If you’re thinking about ways to get even and prove to another person that you’re right and they’re wrong, you might consider that the person who is the focus of your animosity may be feeling just fine, enjoying life, and perhaps not at all troubled by any of the interactions that are renting space in your head. Ultimately, resentment hurts you far more than the person toward whom you bear a grudge.
Here are some suggestions to help you move beyond resentments:
- Ask yourself “how is it helping me to stay stuck in this emotional crippling place?”
- Approach resentment as a circular process that exists to keep you stuck emotionally, and will never allow you to heal.
- Realize that you are using resentment to replicate old dramas and acknowledge that you cannot change the past.
- Examine how your resentment may come from mentally confusing events and people in your present life with events and emotional wounds from your past.
- Acknowledge that you cannot control other people and MAKE them feel what you want them to.
- Recognize that your resentment gives you only illusions of strength and the illusion of empowerment.
- Acknowledge your part in allowing the abuse to occur, forgive yourself for that, and make a decision to not let it occur again.
- Forgive when you can, and practice willful and deliberate forgetfulness when you cannot, keeping in mind that these acts are gifts to yourself rather than capitulation to the people you resent.
Fr. Richard Rohr speaks eloquently about forgiveness as a process rather than a single action: “Forgiveness is a decision, but making that decision doesn’t override the emotional residue that often takes much longer to release. That feeling of wanting revenge or wanting to assert your rightness or your victimhood—depending on the depth of your wounding—can take days, weeks, months and even years to dissipate.”
Moving past resentments does not simply happen to us. We have to actively choose to move forward and keep choosing it every day. The decision to move toward forgiveness and away from resentments is a decision to move away from fear and toward love, away from emotional sickness toward emotional health.
I will leave it to Nelson Mandela to give the final word on resentments and forgiveness: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”