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Esther Lederer: “Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”

300px-Ann_LandersIn the long run we inevitably hurt ourselves more than others do. Someone in the past did something that we found hurtful. They did or said something, or failed to do or say something, and we experienced physical or emotional hurt. It’s bound to happen. Each instance of hurt only happened one time in our past, and yet we have the faculty of memory that allows us to recall that incident over and over, and thus hurt ourselves over and over again. That’s how in the long term we can end up hurting ourselves more than the other person did.

Of course we often don’t think of this is as hurting ourselves. We tend to take the mini-dramas that unfold in the mind as being real, and indeed we respond to them as if they were real. When we recall someone saying something cruel to us we feel hurt in much the same way we would if they were here, now, speaking those words.

It’s absurd, really, that we do this — that we keep running through painful scenarios in the filmhouse of the mind. We watch the same movies over and over again, experiencing the same pain over and over again. It’s a form of self-torture.

In fact we often embellish the hurt, imagining whole scenes that never actually happened or imagining that we know the thoughts and motives of another person, as if we were omniscient. Sometimes we even invent scenes that might take place in the future, rehearsing for conflict. These imagined arguments and conflicts may never happen — the future is always uncertain — but we manage to feel the pain of them right now. Self-torture.

I sometimes find myself replaying clashes from the past. Sometimes I think I’m doing it to try to convince myself that I was in the right: “Look how awful he is. Hear the terrible things he says. I’m the injured party. I deserve sympathy.” But when I notice that I’ve slipped into one of these resentment-fests I often try to break out of it by thinking “Who’s arguing with whom?”

It’s obvious when I think about it that I’m arguing with myself. The figure in my imagination who looks like that Fred isn’t really him. It’s not a real person. It’s just neurons firing in my brain, creating a virtual reality representation of Fred (that weasel!) through which I can talk to myself. I create a virtual representation of Fred (the louse!) from one set of neurons and one of myself from another set, and the two parts of my brain have a battle with each other. Isn’t it crazy! And yet we do this all the time.

And it’s so hard to let go of our resentments sometimes. We can keep noticing resentful thoughts arising and try to let go of them and we can keep doing this literally for years and the thoughts will still keep emerging.

Ann Landers’ quote (Esther Lederer was her real name) is a good reminder about the ways in which, through resentment, we give space in our minds to people we have conflicts with. Although of course it’s not really them we’re renting space to.

As well as stopping myself short by reminding myself that both parties in these resentments are myself, I’ve found that I need to have empathy for myself. That, ultimately, is what I think I’m looking for in harboring these resentments. I want sympathy. The drama I’m imagining in my mind is played out for an audience. So who’s the audience? It’s me. But it’s not the same me who’s involved in the argument. That me, remember, is a virtual reality version of myself, conjured up to play a part in a struggle with the virtual Fred (that no-good hound!). No, I think who I’m looking for sympathy for, ultimately, is my real self. And it’s because I’m not giving myself empathy that I have to play the fantasy over and over again.

So why am I not giving myself empathy? Generally it’s because I’m too busy identifying with the virtual-reality me who’s busy fighting with Fred (the snake!). I’m too busy taking his part, thinking I’m being attacked by someone else, to realize that both actors in the drama are parts of me.

So what does it mean to give myself empathy? It means that rather than taking the part of the virtual me against the virtual Fred (the bounder!) I need to realize that I am in pain. The whole drama is unfolding because I, for some reason, am in pain. This isn’t the virtual me I’m talking about, but the real me. So I need to empathize with my pain.

First I need to acknowledge the pain and accept that it’s there. That’s often hard to do because we can feel a sense of shame around feeling pain, as if it’s a sign of failure or weakness.

Next I need to accept the pain. Pain is not something “bad” that has to be banished from our experience. Pain is unpleasant, but it’s simply another experience. So we need to allow pain to be there.

Next I need to send metta (lovingkindness) to the pain. I have to love my pain. Loving my pain doesn’t mean that I want more or it. It’s not a masochistic act to love your pain. Rather, it means relating to the part of ourselves that is in pain, not blaming ourselves and not seeing the pain as something to be gotten rid of, but simply offering the hurting part of ourselves our compassion. Sometimes this is wordless, and other times I use phrases from the Metta Bhavana (lovingkindness) meditation practice: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”

I find that in doing this I’m addressing the underlying sense of hurt that gives rise to the recurrent resentment. When I wish my pain well in this way I find that there’s a sense of reconciliation and even of relief, because I’ve finally realized exactly what it was I was looking for. When instead of simply appealing for sympathy we actually give it to ourselves we start to become healed. We’ve begun to address the underlying cause of our inner dramas and we realize that we no longer have such a need to rent out space in our head to conflicts.

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Comment from Amy
Time: October 31, 2007, 10:58 am

Thank you so much for this well-articulated description. I realized something similar recently – how much my resentment is about that part of me looking for someone to validate that I was a victim – I want verification – as if I can’t grant validation to my hurt and pain myself. I feel resentment when outraged – I feel powerless – but really, it’s all in my head. Yes, this is exactly what I’m wrestling with. Thank you.

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Pingback from Resentment Re-zen-did (get it? get it?!) « Cville Working Moms
Time: October 31, 2007, 1:16 pm

[…] Re-zen-did (get it? get it?!) This article on resentment does a great job of articulating something I’ve been realizing  – that I often get all […]

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Comment from Tara Brennan, www.tarabrennan.com
Time: October 31, 2007, 10:50 pm

We realize we are not this pain either. By going into it, instead of projecting it outward, saying yes, we have a chance of going past it into the larger reality of who we truly are . . . into Beingness. We accept, we empathize. . . we don’t fight. . . we don’t fragment . . . we come into more wholeness instead. Not that fun usually, but a healing process, so worth it in the end.

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Comment from Diane
Time: November 1, 2007, 4:26 am

thank you so much for this article… so much just rang my bell of truth… I felt healed reading it… recognising the pattern.

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Comment from Kirsten
Time: November 2, 2007, 6:04 am

Found this article to be extremely helpful and enlightening regarding resentment and validation … it has made me aware of how I talk to/treat myself on a profound scale. Thank you very much for the words of wisdom.

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Comment from Pat
Time: November 2, 2007, 9:05 am

Great article and just in time. Resentment is practiced by replaying the drama. Sometimes, it is that validation as mentioned by Kirsten. When I find myself on this kind of merry-go-round ride in life, I get off when I think I have had enough. The rides like this keep getting shorter.

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Comment from Kathy
Time: November 13, 2007, 6:33 pm

Reading this article seemed to come at exactly the right time – when I was encountering a strong reaction in myself to something that a friend said. I can see so clearly how much my mind wants to move away from the simple pain of my reaction into all sorts of stories about it. Great to have some practical tips at this time. Also, I read something else recently (think it’s from Bo Lozoff) about having the attitude of being a student rather than a victim.

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Comment from nanbudh
Time: November 13, 2007, 8:21 pm

It’s absurd, really, that we do this
Please, lets get one thing clear-one does NOT do it.It happens to one. Its ok to say that we need to do this in order to have a better living but we should not say as if we are actually willfully creating our misery. This is most certainly not the case. As Osho said, One cannot ask a sick person to simply discard a disease. Disease needs to be cured.
And i could not agree more, often such articles tend to make us of the view as if we actually created this misery. No, mind is naturally addicted to thought-repitition and it does so even against our will.

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Comment from Dean
Time: November 18, 2007, 10:56 am

A wonderful article, thank you !!

A single thought of insight is more powerful than a thousand thoughts of ignorance.

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Comment from John
Time: November 29, 2007, 2:58 am

Thank you for this inspiring and mindful article. I’m just trying to deal with rejection from someone I had very strong feelings for and I keep playing it over in my head. It’s fitting that I turned to the metta meditation and acceptance meditation to allow myself to breath and to feel pain. Meanwhile the Other is walking down someone else’s street and while I want to be generous with my metta, I need a bit more back for myself right now. And it’s hard to remember it’s a forward journey when I keep playing back the tapes. If I may, I’d like to recommend the Annie Lennox lp ‘!Bare’ to your readers. It’s a very moving journey through rejection, acceptance, hope and rebirth.

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Comment from Gabriella
Time: December 22, 2007, 9:31 pm

Thank you so much for this article. It comes at exactly the right time for me. I spend so much of my life replaying the anger and past hurts that I am actively seeking relief. My life has been on hold “healing” from the past, but there is this bitterness left that I can not seem to get rid of no matter how much I tried to understand it, analyze it. I need to embrace my pain, envelope empathy, practice loving kindness towards myself. It is not “out there”. My self is crying out for compassion! I physically felt relief the moment that I read the article. The other comments were lovely to read. I am not the only person on this journey. Thank you.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 24, 2007, 11:23 am

Hi Gabriella,

I’m glad to hear that you found the article helpful. I just wanted to say something about your comment about the sense of relief you felt upon reading the article. It is wonderful when we come across information that’s helpful and we can feel instantly much happier because finally we have a better idea of what’s been going on with us. Finally we have a sense of why (at least in part) life is unsatisfactory. But a diagnosis is not the same as a cure, so the sense of relief and perhaps also faith confidence that we experience isn’t going to last unless we take the next step and start on the cure. The cure for our emotional woes can include many things of course, but I always come back to lovingkindness and mindfulness as the main ingredients. I’d strongly suggest that you take up meditation in order to help you develop more awareness of your mental processes and to help you develop the habit of positive emotion that gives rise to more helpful thought patterns.

Good luck with your practice!

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Comment from InPain
Time: October 20, 2009, 7:36 pm

This expresses my conundrum perfectly. My relationship of 6 years is falling apart, and I feel paralyzed by my resentment, not to mention, fear of honest. I want so much to reach out and open up to my partner, because it seems like it would be a tragedy to have this relationship die because we were both too scared and too wounded to pull ourselves out of our respective trenches to really give love and trust a shot. But, basically since the beginning, since we touched on each other’s sensitivity, abandonment issues, anger, possesiveness, and hostility, we’ve been sitting in separate home-theaters, watching and re-watching these self-directed home videos. We sit, respectively, convincing ourselves that we are the more wounded one – we are the victim, we are helpless. It doesn’t help that we literally spend most of our time together watching TV, since we don’t even know how to talk to each other anymore.

It all feels like a terrible Catch-22.

This is a wonderful article – but tell me, how can I, in my wounded state, really reach out and tell him that I want to try, when I can’t even trust that I want to?

And, what do you do when you fear that your partner has no desire for self-transformation? When you fear that he really sees himself as a victim, with no power? When you fear that he would rather blame you for the rest of his life than admit to you how much he just hurts? When he is so afraid of the pain, he lashes out at you when you try and open these issues?

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Comment from Sunada
Time: October 29, 2009, 3:12 pm

Dear InPain,
The pain of your dilemma is coming through loud and clear! You’re describing a situation that’s obviously very complicated, and far beyond the scope of one brief exchange in a public forum like this. But let me offer you a few thoughts.

I think the first thing I’d suggest is that you really ask yourself what YOU want. And I mean what you want for yourself, independent of him. By this I’m not implying that you should break up and go off on your own (unless that’s what you want, of course).

My point is that we can’t control what other people do or think, and much less depend on them for our happiness. So the more you’re clear about what YOU want (whether or not he’s in the picture), the better prepared you’ll feel about navigating through the rough waters of this relationship. And by clarity, the key question isn’t whether or not you stay together. It’s about that wound — what’s the need underneath the painful feelings that are compelling you to speak with such an emotional charge? Strong feelings like that don’t come up in a vacuum. They’re there for a reason, and a perfectly legitimate one at that. So what is that need, and how can you meet it?

It’s only when we can be completely clear and honest with ourselves that we can then be clear and honest with another person. We can’t do the latter until we’ve done our homework on the former.

Do you think it would help to have someone work through this with you? As a Buddhist life coach, I work with people like yourself to find what they really need to feel fulfilled in the midst of difficulties like this. You can learn more about my services at http://www.mindfulpurpose.com. Please contact me if this is of interest.

Best wishes,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from can relate
Time: January 24, 2010, 3:40 pm

I chanced upon this article and read it because it is so relevant to me and perhaps I needed to see it…whatever. I am responding to “in pain” His ability, or method…or inability to deal with the situation the way you would like to see him deal with it will not happen. And it is no reflection on you. And I can guarantee that no amount of your time and energy will change the way he deals with this…and you cannot “own” how he feels or reacts. Trust me…I am someone who has tried in what sounds like a similar situation. It was like my (ex) became a reptile….attack and defend were all he seemed to know when he was hurting. Can’t change brain stem stuff. Good luck.

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Pingback from 4 New Year’s resolutions you should make | The 36-Hour Day | Work It, Mom!
Time: December 30, 2010, 11:39 am

[…] Let go of resentment. Esther Lederer — better known as Ann Landers — once wrote: “Hanging on to resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free […]

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Comment from Robert
Time: July 10, 2011, 1:45 pm

Resentment is a toxin that can kill you over time. Sadly there are some really evil people in this world that take pleasure in hurting other people. In my case I have a sister who is an attorney that is a true sadist and receives death threats from many people. She is incredibly viscious and puts me in a terrible mood becuase she knows exactly how to create the greatest amount of pain with her super toxic workds. She has a gift of pain! I have made a choice to walk away from this person and let her do her damage to others. There are some people that you should forgive and others that you need to avoid. Forgiving a sadist is good for your mind but the evil person will still be a sadist. You have to get the anger out of your heart and soul and find a way to be happy. Evil does exist and it is toxic. Stay away from it and try not to let it enter your heart and mind. Go to church and ask God for help and know that there are good people in this world and spend your time with them. Nice people do not want to hurt others and there are lots of nice people in this world.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 10, 2011, 2:58 pm

You wrote: “There are some people that you should forgive and others that you need to avoid.” But forgiving people doesn’t imply that you start hanging out with them! It just means that you stop obsessing about the hurt they caused you and then get on with your life. Forgiving someone doesn’t necessarily have any effect on them, and if getting involved with them in the past was a mistake then getting involved with them in the future is probably also a mistake. So, yes, do avoid people who are very harmful.

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Comment from Hurt needs healing
Time: July 16, 2011, 12:06 pm

I let someone into my life some years ago. He seemed vulnerable and lacked self-esteem. I gave him confidence now he’s a high flyer. We have hurt each other without knowing sometimes and at others it has become cruel manipulation. The damage we have done is immeasureable and we fight and make up and always I have to compromise. And we can’t let each other go. He will never tell me he loves me and I need to hear it because i tell him often. Though he isn’t worthy at times. I am chained to someone I cannot reach. He lives in my head, heart and occupies my thoughts and takes up too much space. There are times he shows he cares and times he shows nothing. He is cold and immersed. I feel i’m drowning with him at times but is never here to pick the pieces as I’m left alone feeling mentally tortured wondering where he is and who he is with when we are apart. I need to break the cycle. Friends tell me I am a good person and worry about me. And i worry about me. I make excuses for him hoping one day he will say the words I want to hear but the only changes in his life he is making seem to be for him. He sometimes tells i’m part of his plans for the future but maybe i’m just a crutch to help get him where he wants to be?. Again these are all unanswered questions i never have answers to. More space occupied in my head. I’m not living i’m “on hold”. I need to pluck the courage to leave but that’s the hard part.

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Pingback from Hanging onto resentment is letting someone — live rent-free in your head. | WIND
Time: January 6, 2013, 8:19 pm

[…] The full article is available at this link:  Esther Lederer: “Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your hea… […]

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Comment from muckibr
Time: January 7, 2013, 1:38 am

Hi! I just found out what a “scraper” blog is, and I think I may have unintentionally done that, as indicated by the “pingback” above. I had always thought that as long as I posted the full address of the source I was quoting from, it was covered by Fair Use Laws (Fair Use – 17 U.S.C. §107), but now I am not sure about that.

I promise you, I am not trying to steal your article, or take any credit for your work, and I have given full credit in my blog addressed back here. BUT, if you would prefer I remove your blog a excerpts from my blog I will certainly do that. Please let me know what you would like me to do.

I quoted your blog, because I believe your thoughts and philosophy are excellent. I’m sorry if I overstepped.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 7, 2013, 7:35 am

It can be fair use to quote the whole of a blog post, if you’re commenting closely on it — for example doing a blow-by-blow analysis. In your case you haven’t done that, but quoted (I think) the whole post in two chunks. But in this specific instance I give you permission to do so.

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Comment from muckibr
Time: January 7, 2013, 1:15 pm

Thank you very much Bodhipaksa! I’m still learning about this blogging stuff, and am bound to make mistakes, but I thank you for your understanding. Take care!

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