There is a saying that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. I have to say that personally every time I find myself sitting with a resentment it has boiled down to that. I had expected that a person would do something (or not do something) and they did not act as I had expected. find myself feeling perturbed or sometimes downright angry about it. It's that kind of self-righteous indignation that can feel so powerful and intoxicating. It has real lasting power. So what is at the root of this strong emotion?
The word resentment comes from the French "re" and "sentir", meaning to re-feel. Which is such a great insight into the experience, because when we hold on to a resentment we are literally re-feeling the original upset. Which I find a useful thing to contemplate. If I was so unhappy with the experience the first time, why on earth would I keep deliberately re-feeling it? The entomology points out the futility of the situation. If you are resentful that, for example, your spouse forgot your anniversary, then by holding on to that resentment you continue to re-feel that original hurt. Ouch.
I find that people who have trouble with letting go of resentments are often very sensitive. If I am the sort of person who gets their feelings hurt easily (which, by the way, is NOT a bad quality, it's just a personality trait like being extroverted), then if I let myself forget that you hurt me I won't keep you at a distance. And then if I am not keeping you at a distance you have a chance to hurt me again. If I am a very sensitive person (sometimes called a Highly Sensitive Person), then it takes me longer to process my hurt feelings and they tend to run very deep. So it makes sense for me to really hold on to my hurts so that I don't forget about people who have hurt me. I can keep them at arms length by holding on to the resentment, or re-feeling the original hurt on a regular basis. That keeps me holding them at bay and not letting them close to me. Which reduces the chances that they will hurt me again. It's a good strategy if your primary goal is not getting burned twice.
Let's just say that most therapist are highly sensitive people so I *may* know a thing or two about resentments. Enough to know that while they protect you from further hurt in one way they also rob you of the opportunity to deepen intimacy in other ways. If we don't let people matter to us, if we don't let them in to our hearts, then we also cannot feel all of those wonderful feelings of intimacy, love, acceptance, joy, humor, delight and other things that people can revel in together.
The Recovery Podcast has a great episode on resentment. That is where I learned about the origin of the word. For people who are using 12-step programs there is a teaching that resentments are going to interfere with you successfully "working your program", which is to say getting past your character defects and becoming a better person. Some alcoholics I know (ones in recovery) have said that resentments and shame are two of the biggest risks for relapse. I would argue that shame can actually be tied to resentments we hold against ourselves. If I had an expectation that I was going to be the best mother in the world and then once I had my kids I realized that sometimes I come unglued and yell at them, I may feel shame. Underneath that feeling, I would argue, is (1) my expectation that I "should" have done better and (2) my continuing to re-feel my disappointment in myself. Which sounds a lot like holding a resentment against myself. A part of me may feel that by continuing to re-feel my anger and disappointment towards myself I can force myself to not make that mistake again. However in my experience what usually happens is that we walk around feeling so crappy about ourselves that we don't have a lot of emotional resources to actually learn to do better.
A better strategy may be acceptance. In this situation acceptance of one's own shortcomings and failings to live up to one's standards can be a pathway to letting go of shame (aka self-resentment). It's also a powerful exercise to ask oneself now and again what expectations one is holding. Good places to check for hidden expectations are towards yourself, towards your significant other, towards your children if you have them, towards your boss, or your career, or your friends. Really anything that matters to you. If you find expectations, think about challenging yourself to let go of them. Ask yourself if you can imagine accepting the person or situation however it is on an moment-to-moment basis. See what kind of freedom that can bring.
A note of reality here-- just as with my blog on acceptance I am NOT saying that one should never have basic expectations of safety, decency and the like. I think it's perfectly OK to expect that the person in the grocery store line is not going to spontaneously turn around and clock you for no reason. There are some basic expectations that I think we all have that allow us to leave our house and move around in the world without feeling terrified.
Likewise I am not saying to settle for mediocrity in all areas of life and have no aspirations. I personally think that aspirations are different from expectations. If I aspire to make six figures and instead I end up making half of that I can still be happy. It was a goal but not an expectation. To me an expectation is the belief that something SHOULD happen. As in, I am entitled to it. If it does not happen that's not "fair". The word stems from Latin meaning "an awaiting". We don't wait for things that we are not sure will happen. We wait when we feel confident that they will/should happen. So if the thing we are waiting on does not happen, we feel surprised and let down. That is different from having a goal, which one understands is potentially going to happen but also may not. I fully believe in setting goals but not expecting any particular outcome and, most importantly, having the mental flexibility to accept whatever outcome does occur.
Since humans are pretty messy, imperfect creatures it's not a bad habit to check and ask ourselves are we actually creating expectations that are setting us up for future disappointments and resentments? And are we willing to let go of those? Consider the possibilities that choosing acceptance over resentment and expectation can bring in to your life. Dream big but know that nothing is promised. Accept the imperfections in yourself and others. Stay open even when things don't go the way you wanted. Live bravely.
Wishing you health and healing,
As always if you find this blog helpful PLEASE "like" it on Facebook or "tweet" it on Twitter. Or share on any other social media you use! And feel free to leave a Comment, I do respond to all of them! Thanks.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.