Resentment (definition): Bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly.
Ouch. That’s a pretty negative definition, but think about it: Resentment is a harsh word for an intense feeling that has repercussions in our lives beyond the particular situation that caused it. What causes resentment? Politeness, in most cases. In other words, we get bitter when we don’t share our feelings in the moment, out of a fear of creating tension. Maybe the situation that triggered the feelings was an insult delivered by a colleague or a slight at the hands of a family member that we let slide because we wanted to “rise above” it. Or perhaps it’s a political situation that we never brought up because it was impolite to do so. Whatever the trigger, ignoring it breeds resentment, which affects our ability to lead, communicate, and connect.
Resentment in the workplace
I was recently coaching someone who opened up to me about the resentment she had been harboring toward her direct report. Months prior to her realization, the direct report made a comment that really hurt my colleague. The comment passed without another word, and the person who delivered it was completely unaware that it was taken negatively.
Things went on as usual, but my colleague found herself unable to communicate authentically, less motivated to provide thoughtful advice and acting distant. All of this came out of the resentment she felt that could be traced way back to that one passing comment, which was never addressed.
It’s a poison
My favorite quote about resentment is from Malachy McCourt. “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Bitterness, the key ingredient of resentment, has so many negative effects on a person that it has even been linked with health problems in some studies. I think of bitterness that comes from resentment as a poison that affects not only our own health but also the health of our relationships, careers and sense of self worth. So how can we make sure to keep clear of this poison in our professional and personal lives?
The key is addressing issues effectively as they come up. We have often internalized a belief that to be professionals, we must internalize our feelings and appear to “rise above” insults. We think of a physical injury as something that needs to be addressed right away. What would happen if we respectfully addressed emotional injuries immediately, too? In the moment there would be tension, yes. But then what? Certainly not a months-long bitterness hidden from others that hinders our ability to lead.
The politics of resentment
It’s hard to get away from politics this year. And while my instinct is to shy away from writing about political issues that might seem impolite or stir tension, I also have to ask why not? In fact, I might argue that our political culture is a breeding ground for resentment. Even though we live in a democracy, we aren’t encouraged to discuss differences of opinions for fear of seeming impolite. Do you see how this also could encourage bitterness?
Let’s imagine a country where we spoke openly and freely about our belief systems, religion and even…gasp…our politics. In this imaginary America, the Thanksgiving table was not rife with quiet tension where people were afraid to discuss their political party affiliations or voting records. Instead, generations were able to politely disagree with each other, welcome the tension that came from different opinions, and learn something from each other.
Wouldn’t it be nice to create a space to evaluate our political and personal feelings honestly among our colleagues, family members, and community members? In this perfect scenario, we could address a small insult in the moment and avoid the bitter poison that it brings with it. We could truly evaluate each political candidate based on what they were saying without all the bitterness that poisons the well.
The Opposite of Resentment
What’s the opposite of resentment? Is it forgiveness? Yes, and perhaps it’s also love, transparency, and kindness. It’s also a deep-rooted care about the community we live in and the people who live in it, whether we agree with them or not.
Imagine if my colleague who felt resentful had a filter of love and connection from the start, rather than a filter of fear of seeming unprofessional. Through a loving and transparent connection with her team, she could communicate about her emotional injury in the moment rather than worrying about being perceived as professional. When you have a relational foundation that allows you to take a risk in that relationship, by speaking up or creating some tension, you avoid resentment and all that comes with it.
I believe there needs to be a paradigm shift that invites people to engage things that may create tension. It will bring us closer, build up that protective relational foundation and maybe—just maybe—create a more welcoming and positive political climate.
What’s on your resentment list today? How can you move past it, stop taking the poison?