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