The Key to Letting Go of Resentment

Someone has done you wrong, and you can’t let it go. You’ve tried to breathe, meditate, or find closure, but nothing seems to work long-term. Maybe you even have moments of relief, but before long, you’re back to bitter thoughts of this person or situation taking up prime real estate in your mind. If left unchecked, resentment will poison your life and happiness. But what to do? Today I’m teaching you how you’ve been approaching resentment all wrong and the one evidence-based way to get it right.

10-minute read

I’ve been “studying” resentment for years because we talk about it A LOT in 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. It famously says on page 64 in the Big Book of AA that “resentment is the number one offender (to self and ego). It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” In the 12 steps of AA and NA, we do a fearless and searching moral inventory in step four, where we list and identify the cause and effects of our resentments. Then later, in step ten, we have an ongoing daily practice of this moral inventory and focus on having the humility to admit when we’re wrong.

I’ve long said that everyone should go through the 12 steps because it’s really an instruction manual for living a happy, healthy life. Early on, I did a lot of fourth steps as I attempted to let go of my resentments not just of other people but of myself. I resented myself for being an addict and wasting so many years of my life. I resented how I looked or my failed relationships. I could heap the resentment on myself just as well as I did on others! As much as working the 12-steps of recovery helped me, I will tell you that it wasn’t until I learned and started consistently practicing the tool I’m going to teach you today that I really got a handle on my resentments of others and started to also learn to forgive (and even like) myself.

What Exactly is Resentment, Abby?

Do you bring up old resentments from the past with your partner? Maybe you feel like your dad has been insensitive and hurt your feelings. Maybe you work hard at your job all day, and your boss never shows any appreciation. There are many situations that can lead to you feeling resentful in your relationships.

I want to point out first that resentment is different than anger, hurt, frustration, or disappointment. These are all feelings you have in a moment. Resentment is what you feel when you think about the situation later. So, anger in a moment turns into rage, anxiety, or depression all day long.

The word resent means to “re-sense” or “re-feel,” and that’s what you’re doing when you play a situation in your head over and over. It’s one thing to feel a feeling, such as anger, in a moment. It’s another thing to replay a scene or a conversation in your mind dredging up the hurt and anger again and again.

Resentment is basically chronic bitterness and rage. As I’ve discussed before, rage is different than anger because rage is anger plus helplessness. It’s that helpless feeling that spins you out of control. The big problem with getting rid of resentment is that it’s a habit of thought. It becomes a pattern of how you react to things.

The reason you’ve tried tools in the past and they’ve failed is because you’re not approaching this like changing a habit. You’re approaching it with the idea that you “just need to stop thinking about it” or “let it go,” but you don’t give yourself the proper tools to do that.

Why is Letting Go of Resentment So Important?

We know from the research that holding on to resentments is destructive to both your physical and mental health. Studies have shown that holding on to resentments increases your blood pressure and heart rate, contributes to chronic pain, and is correlated with heart disease (to name a few). As if that wasn’t bad enough, holding on to resentment and rage has been linked to depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and rockier interpersonal relationships, including romance, parenting, and career.

Here’s what it all boils down to. When you ruminate all day about your anger, hurt, and resentment, with a particular person, you flood your brain with stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine because your brain, literally, thinks it’s under attack. All of these stress hormones keep your limbic system activated, which means the thinking, rational part of your brain is shut down. It’s now difficult to concentrate on anything else (your brain thinks the lion is still chasing you, so trying to finish that Excel spreadsheet is a bad idea because your brain thinks it should be thinking about the lion!). This makes it impossible to think of effective ways to resolve whatever’s happened or to remember all the great tools Abby taught you! It’s the worst Catch-22 there is.

How to Let Go of Resentment

The mistake most people make is that they approach letting go of resentment as something they need to resolve, which is impossible due to this whole limbic high jacking I just discussed. Further, focusing on the other person is keeping you stuck in a victim role where nothing changes. You’re thinking, “If this person apologizes, then I’ll be able to let go of my resentments,” or “If this person can listen and show me that they understand my viewpoint, then I’ll be able to let go of my resentments.” But that’s not where you need to focus. In fact, this keeps you in the negative, unending cycle!

Instead, you need to remember that resentment is a habit of thought, so you need to approach this as breaking a habit and have a new way of thinking about the event or person. The habit of thought at the bottom of your resentment is this: “If x happens, I’d feel better.” If my partner apologizes, I’d feel better. If my boss acted a different way, I’d feel better. If my dad acknowledged my wants and desires, I’d feel better.” If, if if…

The only way to feel better is for you to take responsibility and control. Here’s your aha moment: Clinging to resentment is a sign that you’re out of control! Since you’re the one out of control, it’s not up to someone else to fix it. The more resentment you feel, the more out of control you are. And you continue to be out of control because you’re acting like a victim (you might hate hearing this, but I’m here with some tough mama love)!

There is only one way to begin the process of letting go of resentment: you need to change your perspective so you can shift your thinking. You feel the way you think, and without that shift, you won’t be able to move forward and feel better.


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I have a client who was feeling resentful after her birthday dinner. She’d gone out with her partner and two other couples to a wonderful restaurant. At the dinner, her partner made a joke at her expense, and she felt criticized in front of her friends. She got angry in the moment but was trying to have a good time, so she let it go in the moment, although she said she was slightly uncomfortable for the rest of the dinner.

The next day she said something to her partner, but he dismissed her with, “I was just making a joke! You get so sensitive!” When she pushed, he finally acknowledged it with an “Oh, yeah, sorry,” but she, of course, didn’t feel like that was enough. She confessed that she’d been replaying that night and what her partner said over and over. Because she was in this frame of mind, she started remembering “all the other times” he’d acted like a jerk, and she got more and more angry and resentful.

I explained to her that when she had these recurring thoughts, she was putting herself right back in that situation. She was seeing her partner say the thing, watching her friends laugh, or noticing her best friend looking away because she felt bad to see this interaction. She was living in that moment again, so all the same neurons were firing, and all those same neurotransmitters were being released. She was stuck in the resentment habit of thought as the lion kept chasing her.

Self-Distancing is the Answer

What you want to do instead is replay that conflict but change your visual perspective with something I’ve discussed in different ways before called self-distancing. Psychologists Ozlem Ayduk of UC Berkeley and Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan have been conducting research on self-distancing, and their studies show that it’s highly effective in letting go of anger and resentment. What you do with self-distancing is replay the event but from a third-person perspective, instead of a first-person perspective.

In their research, Ayduk and Kross asked participants to recall a conflict from a close personal relationship that was still unresolved and extremely upsetting. Some of the participants recalled the situation from a first-person view, where they were right there in the moment with that other person. Others used self-distancing and recalled the situation from a third-person view where they were that proverbial fly on the wall.

What they found is that the participants who used self-distancing experienced much less intense emotional and physical reactions. Physically, they had less of a rise in blood pressure, and it went back to baseline quicker, and emotionally they felt less triggered and less emotional reactions overall. And here’s a kicker for some of you, these people actually stated that they experienced more closure!

When you’re using this technique, you want to be careful to stick to the facts. Don’t try to guess what anyone else is thinking or feeling. Don’t assume you know what they really meant. The only “evidence” you’re using is the actual words spoken and what actions you can observe. What you’re doing is trimming away the emotionally charged fat. You’re getting rid of your interpretations and getting more clarity on the facts instead.

Getting back to my client and her resentments over her birthday dinner, I asked her to picture herself at that dinner again, but this time I asked her to take that “fly on the wall” perspective. I told her to picture a video camera above the table, and instead of watching the scene with her own eyes, I asked her to imagine seeing what happened from that more distant, third-person perspective. I told her to picture herself outside her body watching the scene.

She said that she was still unhappy about what happened, but she was able to have much more perspective about what happened and wasn’t feeling so triggered. She said she realized that what she was really feeling was embarrassed and dismissed. As we talked, she was able to get in touch with compassion for herself and knew that her friends either didn’t notice the slight or were on her “side” about it. Her friends would feel more annoyed with her partner than ashamed of her.

We started discussing her relationship from a new perspective. Instead of complaining about her partner, my client started taking responsibility for what she was allowing in her relationship. She had grown up in a house with this kind of behavior, so it seemed “normal” when she first started dating her partner. She’s now seeing that it’s a reflection of him but, more importantly, of what she will and won’t accept. The focus of our sessions turned to problem-solving and how to set up better boundaries with her partner (and others). She started focusing on taking real responsibility for her life and relationships.

When you practice self-distancing consistently, you’ll find that you start to be more self-reflective instead of focusing on others. You then find more self-efficacy and problem-solving instead of being emotionally reactive. You’ll also start letting go of resentments to yourself. In this case, my client stopped beating herself up for not voicing her needs more and, instead, started changing her behaviors.

Wrap Up

Acceptance and forgiveness are needed at some point as we’re letting go of resentments, but these are very hard things to do when your brain is hijacked and you’re wrapped up in blame of yourself or others. Start with changing your thoughts, and you’ll absolutely start to change how you feel and act.


Listen to my Loving Kindness Guided Meditation to develop feelings of acceptance, compassion, love, and kindness towards yourself and other people.

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