There’s a difference between retelling an embarrassing story to make your friends laugh and actually dealing with the negative feelings it brings up. Both can be methods for processing trauma, but the latter is necessary for true mental, physical and emotional well-being. Not every embarrassing moment we experience will linger long after, but some do. These are the moments that can fester inside us. They turn into grudges we hold onto, trapping us and preventing us from achieving our potential.
If this sounds familiar, get ready for eight letting go of resentment exercises that will help you move on with your life. Releasing a grudge and learning to forgive is not easy, but it’s worth it.
What is resentment?
Resentment is the chronic bitterness one feels after being treated poorly. Synonyms include anger and umbrage, though resentment is more closely associated with the negative emotions that linger after an incident, rather than those popping up during one. For instance, you may feel anger while your boss talks down to you in front of your team, but you’ll feel resentment later that day as you recall what happened. Resentment also typically persists over time and becomes second nature, which is why it’s so hard to shake.
Why is letting go important?
Hanging on to feelings of resentment is bad for you—literally. Studies have shown holding grudges increases blood pressure, heart rate and nervous system activity. Alternatively, embracing forgiveness can improve overall health by reducing stress levels.
Beyond physical health, letting go can improve one’s mental health, relationships and career trajectory. Healthline reports built-up anger directed at one party can bleed over into other relationships. Resenting a close friend for lying to you could manifest in yelling at your kids at the drop of a hat. Professionally speaking, according to Forbes, employees who are able to thoughtfully consider constructive criticism and move past any initial anger it causes are 42 percent more likely to love their job. Unfortunately, less than 25 percent of employees are able to do so.
Why is moving on so hard?
Ah, the million-dollar question. If moving on were easy, a simple, “I’m sorry,” would resolve most conflicts. We’d all live in Whoville and there would be no Grinch. The key to moving on is forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn’t come easily to most human beings. It requires patience, compassion and vulnerability, three traits most of us have to work on regularly.
Plus, Robert Enright, PhD, notes revisiting resentment often evokes feelings of euphoria (i.e. retelling an embarrassing story to make your friends laugh). When your friends continually confirm you have a right to be upset, why fight them?
The problem is, resentment eventually becomes a habit. Soon, all of your stories will be saturated with resentment and your friends will grow tired of hearing the same bitter tale over and over. So, start singing a different tune. Below are eight unique exercises to help you let go of resentment. Get rid of that grudge and move on with your life!
8 Letting Go of Resentment Exercises
1. Define it
You can’t heal if you don’t know what is broken. Pinpointing the source of resentment is step one of letting it go. To do this, it’s most powerful to speak it out loud. Telling a friend, a therapist or a family member how you feel can be incredibly liberating. If this isn’t possible, write a letter you never send. You could write to the person responsible for your anger without censoring yourself; you could write to a loved one who supports you; you could just write it in a journal for yourself. The important part is to nail down the cause. This can be incredibly difficult because it brings up negative emotions and asks you to revisit pain. You might cry. That’s OK! Tears are your body’s way of relinquishing stress.
2. Use a meditation app
Resentment, anger and anxiety are all second-hand emotions, which means they stem from primary emotions like embarrassment, vulnerability and pain. When learning to let go, it’s important to give those primary emotions space to exist. Dr. Jud Brewer, an expert on anxiety, developed the Unwinding Anxiety app to help people dramatically reduce negative secondary emotions through mindfulness. Other apps, like Calm and Headspace, guide folks through meditations targeted specifically to harnessing the energy of negative emotions and repurposing it into something positive. This can be a great way to crack the surface of resentment so you can tackle pain and move forward.
3. Break up with your resentment
Ex-partners, ex-friends and toxic people in your life are common causes of resentment. You’ve broken up with them, so why not break up with that lingering anger? Clarity Clinic advises creating as much distance as possible between you and your ex. Move through your environment and get rid of (or hide from view) anything that triggers resentment. Sell that book your emotionally abusive ex gave you! Donate the sweater you wore when your boss belittled you! Afterwards, surround yourself with people who love and respect you. Treat yourself to a new sweater. Read a book recommended by someone you admire.
4. Change your perspective
Two psychologists, Özlem Ayduk from the University of California-Berkeley and Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan, studied the effect of self-distancing on negative emotions. Self-distancing is the act of replaying a scenario in your mind as though you were watching it from across the room. Revisit the event that is causing you resentment without guessing what the other party involved thought or felt in the moment. What actions did the person take? What words did the person speak? Think of this exercise as trimming away your emotionally charged interpretations, clarifying the facts instead. In practicing self-distancing, participants in Ayduk and Kross’ study were able to approach their healing process from a self-reflective and problem-solving space, rather than an emotionally reactive space.
5. Embrace the grudge
Revenge-thirsty grudge-holders might like the sound of this exercise at first, but it goes beyond simply allowing grudges to stick around. Sophie Hannah takes an unconventional approach to healing in her book, How to Hold a Grudge. The gist is this: You’ve got to learn something from your resentment. It can’t just sit there, taking up space and doing nothing. Hannah insists you feel all of the feelings associated with the grudge and write down its entire origin story, highlighting what you believe was the right thing to do back then and what would be the right thing to do today. Then, reflect on what you learned from the experience. This exercise does not explicitly ask you to forgive, but it does ask you to thank the source of your resentment for teaching you a life lesson.
6. Switch shoes with the source
Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes gives you great insight into where they’re coming from, where they’ve been and why they act the way they do. As Judith Orloff, MD, explains in her book, Emotional Freedom, understanding another person’s trauma leads to greater compassion for others. Compassion, or genuine sympathy for the misfortunes of others, is a key ingredient to forgiveness. When we consider the fact that a person’s behavior likely has more to do with their baggage than our performance, it changes the way we view interactions with this person. It’s also worth writing down actions you may have taken that harmed the other person.
7. Choose a positive mantra
Urban Balance, a Chicago-based team of more than 150 licensed therapists, advocates for the power of positive language. Rather than allowing thoughts of resentment to cloud your mind, choose a word or phrase that evokes feelings of gratitude or understanding. Experiment with different phrases that mean something to you and that actively help shift your mindset. It could be something like Aristotle’s, “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” Perhaps it’s simply a word, like “release” or “forgive.” As soon as feelings of resentment creep in, stop them in their tracks with this mantra. This exercise can feel a little syrupy at first, but over time it can help eradicate or mitigate negative feelings. It also acts as a nice compliment to the other exercises on our list.
8. Swear off slander
One way to ensure resentment lays down roots is continuing to spend time and energy talking about the person who caused it. Greater Good Magazine outlines several ways to forgive; one is to stop saying mean or unfavorable things about the source of your anger and resentment. This doesn’t mean halting all discussion of this person, but it does mean biting your tongue when you feel the urge to relive a painful story (i.e. retelling an embarrassing story to make your friends laugh). You don’t have to sing their praises but making a conscious effort to avoid negative language will set the stage for forgiveness.
Letting go of resentment is a marathon, not a sprint. Each tactic on our list works different muscles and may not work for everyone. Try each, hang on to what helps and let go of the rest.