Forgiveness vs Resentment

Forgiveness vs Resentment

I’ve recently been doing a course in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) by Russ Harris. I always enjoy learning new information and having the opportunity to reinforce older previously learned knowledge. Part of this study has covered the topic of forgiveness and its arch nemesis resentment. Russ Harris has summed up this topic in a simple and helpful way. I thought I would share this with you. So, courtesy of Russ Harris (author of the Happiness Trap) here are some ideas on forgiveness.

Why is resentment a problem?

In Alcoholics Anonymous they have a saying that is “resentment is like swallowing poison and hoping the other person dies”.
Hinduism teaches that resentment is like burning down your house to get rid of a rat.
In Buddhism, it’s taught that resentment is like holding a red-hot coal to throw at someone else.
We are the ones who get hurt by holding on to resentment, far more than the other person. In the clutch of our resentment we do find a way to inflict pain on the other person, but then after we are the ones who get consumed by all that pain and suffering. We get hooked back into the past and experience it repeatedly.

Antidote to Resentment = Forgiveness

Forgiveness means to give yourself back to what was there before resentment dragged you in and took over your life. Give yourself back what was there before the resentment started eating you up.
When we are hooked into resentment it is taking us away from a rich and meaningful life. It could be that we get caught up in unhelpful behaviours such as ruminating (stewing on things), drinking heavily, eating too much, addictions. It’s hurting you, so the goal is to give yourself back the life you had before – one that was not consumed with resentment.

How do you do that?

Firstly, name the stuff that is hooking you in. For example: “Ok here are painful memories from the past. Or here’s my mind pulling me back into the past. Here’s the resentment story. Notice and name it. Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings.

Then notice the painful feelings in your body. Notice and name them. For example, “I can feel pain in my jaw, or tightness in my chest”. Painful emotions – breathe into them, make room for them. Don’t be in a hurry to push them away. Practise self-compassion – being able to have empathy and understanding towards yourself (“Yes it has been rough I can understand why this has been a struggle for me”). Come back to the present moment, ground yourself. Notice what is here right now. “There is that resentment and painful feelings AND there is the whole world around me. There’s my arms and my legs. What are my values, what do I want to live for now? That is the past, what do I want to live for in the present? What sort of person do I want to be moving forward?” Use your values to guide your action on an ongoing basis.

Forgiveness is all for you. It’s giving yourself back. It’s got nothing to do with the other person.

Quite often when we are trying to get a deeper understanding of a new concept it can be helpful to learn via a metaphor or analogy. Here is a metaphor that Russ Harris uses that I think sums forgiveness up nicely.

Forgiveness metaphor:

When we have been really hurt by others (treated badly, abused) this can lead to a lifetime of suffering. This hurt can contribute to depression, anxiety, addictions and all types of unhelpful behaviours. When we are suffering it becomes very clear to the outside world how much we have been hurt, how badly we’ve been treated and how much we have suffered. If I start moving forward and living a rich and meaningful life, then the evidence of how poorly I’ve been treated or how much I have suffered is not as evident anymore.

We get STUCK

So sometimes we can get stuck. We then fall back into the same old vicious cycles so we can keep the proof of how we have been mistreated. We want to ‘keep the dead body’ as evidence. I can then prove the crime has taken place. If I get on with my life and live a richer and fulfilling life, then the body disappears. The evidence is gone.

In addition, this can have a domino effect to those who harmed us. For example, if your parents hurt you then they might interpret you moving forward as their proof to say she is doing well so that is evidence we didn’t do anything wrong. You were just making a big deal out of nothing. See I’ve been telling you for years to get your life in order.

What are our options?

As we start to reclaim our lives, it’s nearly like we are letting the ones who hurt us off the hook, in the sense that there is no more evidence for how badly they hurt and mistreated you.
There is then a choice for you to make. You can keep doing these things to hold onto resentment to keep the evidence there, or do you choose to do something different? Do you choose to let that evidence disappear and move forward? There is no right or wrong answer to this question.


If you are interested in learning more about ACT, here are some recommended resources:
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
by Steven C. Hayes with Spencer Smith (Russ Harris’ website)
And of course we also have ACT trained psychologists at Rockhampton Psychology Services.
Written by Judy Travis

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