Thirty years. That’s how long I held a resentment from an episode that happened back when I was a kid. The incident involved getting a hand-colored, Barbie coloring book page from a girl down the block, who we’ll call Stacy.
I remember being overjoyed that Stacy would gift me with such a fine item – colored by her own talented hand! – even though I also remember most of the colors were scribbled and way outside the lines. I went to bed that night thinking how truly loved I was.
The doorbell rang the next morning, and Stacy was on the porch. She was with Aileen, another girl from down the block who was the same age as us.
“Can I have that coloring book page back?” Stacy asked in a matter-of-fact manner. “I want to give it to Aileen instead.”
With my soul crushed yet my upper lip held strong, I remember retrieving and returning the coloring book page. Then vowing to hate Stacy and Aileen for the rest of my life.
Even if my hatred of them wasn’t necessarily shown on the surface, it festered deep inside for decades. Over a stinking coloring book page. Yet I still clung tight to the grudge, unwilling or unable to let go, allowing the resentment to merrily eat me alive.
Why do we hold grudges?
For me, holding the grudge was kind of like a badge of honor. I’ll show you two, I was saying, I’ll hate you and hate you for the rest of my life. So there! Erstwhile, Stacy and Aileen were likely going about their respective lives without even remembering the incident – while I’m sitting in a therapist’s office discussing it at the age of 32.
Grudges come with an identity, Psychology Today points out, automatically putting us into the role of “the person who was wronged.” Our anger fuels a kind of strength which, in turn, provides a sense of solidness and purpose. Letting go of the resentment means letting go of being this “wronged” person who we believe deserves extra special compassion and love at every turn.
Not letting go of the resentment, however, has even worse consequences. One of the best analogies I’ve heard about holding onto resentments is attributed to Carrie Fisher (for the record, I recall hearing she resented her role as Princess Leia):
Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
Getting rid of resentments
When it comes to getting rid of resentments, you have a host of options. And no, killing the people you resent is typically not one of them. One of my favorites is to grab your journal or a piece of paper and write about it. When you put things down on paper, they magically seem to leave your head. Two resentment exercises I’ve used with success include:
- The nasty letter
- The resentment list
The nasty letter
Here’s where you let all the anger out in a really nasty letter to the target of your resentment. Tell them how you feel, why you feel that way, and what they did to contribute to this feeling. Go ahead and cuss, draw gruesome doodles, and use all caps if you wish – since you won’t be sending the letter anywhere.
You’ll be using the letter to spew out all the poison that’s in your system, and then burning it in your tiki chiminea (or other fire-proof area). Not only does this let you rant, rave and rage with no holds barred, but you’ll also gain insight into the core of the resentment.
In the case of Stacy and Aileen, my anger stemmed from being hurt and feeling ashamed and less-than, as if I wasn’t good enough to be the lucky keeper of the prized Barbie coloring book page. I wasn’t really mad; I was sad. And I felt like a reject and a loser.
Burning the letter helps you let go of the resentment, serving as a tangible way to watch the resentment go up in smoke.
The resentment list
Another way to get to the core feelings behind a resentment is with the resentment list. Here you want to make a note of:
- Who or what the resentment is against
- Why you have that resentment
- The true feelings behind the resentment
- Your part in the resentment
In the Stacy and Aileen scenario, my resentment list looked something like this:
- Who: Stacy and Aileen
- Why: Took away Barbie coloring book page that was originally gifted to me
- True feelings: Sadness, shame, hurt, unworthiness
And my part? At this point in time 30 years later, my big part in the resentment was holding on to it for all those years. Enough already. Geesh. I was finally able to let it go, but only after doing the work that helped me get rid of it.
You can also use what you’ve learned about your resentments, and true feeling behind them, as a guide for your behavior going forward. Remember how you felt when someone “wronged” you in a certain way so you’re not apt to do the same to another. You can bet I shall never, ever in my life ask someone to give me back my hand-colored Barbie coloring book page.
NOTE: The resentment list suggestion is actually based on Step 4 of Alcoholics Anonymous, proving you don’t have to be an alcoholic or in recovery to benefit from the steps. See for yourself with this dandy workbook.