“I love it when resentment shows up” declared my friend Kim, “because it shows me when I’m living outside of where my boundaries are.”

This is the most succinct and appreciative definition of resentment I’ve heard.

Kim’s observation brings up for me a strong visual. If I imagine that my boundaries are placed, like a fence, around a garden where I grow all the things that keep me nourished and enjoying life, then resentment shows up to let me know I’m likely foraging for food, in an empty scruffy yard, 3 lots away. Resentment is a reminder that some part of me has forgotten that I have a garden that it’s my job to tend.

Resentment is a form of low simmer anger. It can sometimes stick around for years, and other times, might rise up in a situation where you are not speaking up for yourself, but you wish to.   The anger embedded in resentment is often tied to a perceived injustice towards you or in your circumstances that you’ve acquiesced to, but not willingness. This is ofter due to perceived social consequences if a boundary were reinforced.

At work, it’s not uncommon to feel resentment towards the boss for giving other people better assignments.  Or, we resent the work on our To Do list that is going to spill over into our weekend.  Or because it feels like “busy work”.  Some people even find themselves resenting the people at work who take days off work in order to be with a sick kid, while they never get sick, or get a day off work. Resentment comes in many forms.

Are you experiencing resentment in some part of your work life right now? And if so, what or who are you resenting?   And what’s your why?

Resentment is rarely a solo emotion, but often recruits and brings forward other emotions – including often envy, or jealousy, or shame.

For our purposes, though, we’re going to focus our attention on resentment itself, as much as possible.

Instead of hiding from your resentment or repressing it, I invite you to embrace it, to allow it to return home, greeting it like you would a lost and valued child. If you’re like most people, you have likely banished this emotion because of the discomfort it breeds.   Only this time, we’re going to sit down with our resentment and invite it again to tell us the stories about our boundaries, with the intent that we’ll figure out what action it is that our resentment needs us to take.

As a form of anger, resentment when it is present, is asking us to answer two questions:

What must be protected?   What must be restored?

 (These two questions are from Karla McLaren’s seminal book, The Language of Emotions.)

As a boundary protecting emotion, it inevitably is showing us something about our boundaries that we too, have not been attending to, an action that we need to take that we have been negligent in undertaking.

As Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying, “Come Watson, the game is afoot!” Let’s dive in to when you’re the one feeling resentment:

Diving In:

1) Take a moment, and write about the situation and/or the person(s) you are aware are connected to your resentment.

If you have resentment about a LOT of different things, then choose one.

Writing is somehow more clarifying because it creates a modest distance between you and the situation when put into words you can read.  So, go ahead, pull out that piece of paper and write. Aim to describe in a straightforward way, perhaps not trying to be too “adult” about it all or dressing it up.   Saying “I don’t really care”, or “I just have to accept it” to yourself is not the point here.   You do care.  Something does need your attention.   We know this because your emotion is telling you this! Thank you resentment!

2) Now that you’ve written the situation out, begin by asking the first question, What must be protected?  

Your answer may have you exploring questions like:

  • What’s in my interests in this situation that I’ve overlooked or ignored?
  • What desires do I have, that this situation may be blocking me from fulfilling?
  • What beliefs do I have that I’ve been ignoring or overlooking while my resentment has grown?   (For example, you might have a belief that you should only be expected to work Monday through Friday, etc.)
  • What beliefs do I have that have limited my action in this area? (Beliefs such as, you can’t say no to extra work or unreasonable deadlines without serious consequences, etc.)

3) As you get clarity about what aspect of your values, your voice, your interests or your personhood needs your recognition and protection, it’s time to ask the second question, What must be restored?

This question helps in identifying some potential “actions” you could take that would be address your resentment.

Write your answers to this question.

If you’re not sure what needs to be restored, try versions of these questions such as:

  • What would satisfy my sense of fair play in this situation?
  • What would be a satisfactory resolution, if any?
  • What needs does a solution to this situation need to encompass?
  • If no external change is deemed desirable or possible (i.e. you can’t undo someone else’s promotion), then the question to ask is, what needs is this situation showing me I need to pay more attention to?   Is it a desire for more recognition or appreciation? More time for rest and relaxation? Less feeling of obligation?

If it helps, you can imagine holding an interview with your resentment, asking it to tell you about why it is hanging around and what actions would help it go lie in a hammock somewhere, and have a sleep?

4) By now, you will see some themes, as well as some useful specifics in your answers.   Things like, “I want to say no but…”.   Or, “I don’t like it when they just assume I’ll give up my weekend…”. Or, “I don’t like myself very much when I don’t say no”.   This is all EXCELLENT information.   You and resentment are having a conversation. You may not yet know what your decision is, or how to implement it, but you are becoming better acquainted with some of the why of your resentment.

You are most likely discovering your boundaries. The part of you, that knows where you’d like to have a fence and what is enclosed by the fence, and what is outside of that for you. At this time.

You can decide now, what action you want to take. For people who have a long history with allowing resentment to become like wallpaper to big chunks of their lives, it’s important to choose one small change to begin with.   Just one. Although it IS possible to try to jump over the three huge yards that lie between you and your true garden, it is sometimes best, to simply take one step back in the direction of where your true garden and nourishment is.

Often, it boils down to, defining: What action will move me closer to where my true boundaries are in relation to this situation? What one small step can I take that would decrease the resentment I feel and increase my sense of moving towards my true boundary?

The kind of actions that often allow resentment to recede will, of course, need to be guided by the context in which your resentment arose. But they could include:

  • speaking up for your needs or desires (I’d be excited to do “x” kind of assignment in future)
  • testing one small no on something that has a small risk attached to it
  • renegotiating assignments or workloads or deadlines (Is there a way in which this work could be due on Wednesday, so I can have my weekend free?)
  • booking a conversation with the hiring manager about the skill development that you could undertake to be considered for future promotions
  • challenging your assumptions about what you “must” do (just because I’m the best at “x” – eg. organizing events, doesn’t mean I always have to do it, and next time, I’ll check in with myself before I volunteer or accept)
  • saying no more often, or reviewing what you currently have on your to do list that you could have said, or will say, “no” to in future
  • making peace with the situation as it is, by working to understand it, and also asking the question – can I live with this being how things are? yes or no, or do I need to take steps for moving on to another situation, or employment context to satisfy my requirements?

In my next blog, I’ll write about what you can do if a colleague or a staff person’s resentment is interfering with workplace dynamics in unhealthy or disruptive ways.

Meanwhile, if you’ve noticed that you’re kind of living in that scruffy, weedpatch three doors over, and you want to talk about getting back to your own lush garden patch and ditching the pervading resentment…call me! Let’s talk.