Overcoming Resentments

Resentments are at the heart of addiction and recovery.

Strong emotional memories are a main driver of addiction. Learning how to identify and purge them is essential to recovery

By Ryan Blackstock,  Psy.D. 

Resentments pose considerable problems on the path of recovery. In the AA Big Book, they’re listed as the “number one offender” and a luxury that the recovering person cannot afford to carry. I believe this is part of the core emotional work in recovery—to purge these longstanding emotional cancers. To help, I’ll offer a working definition of resentments, provide categories and give some insight into how to work on them.

Resentment is actually a much broader term than we might initially consider. The word itself is made up of three parts: prefix re-, verb sent and suffix –ment. Taking the suffix first: –ment typically refers to a state of being applicable to the preceding verb. Treatment is the state of being treated, containment is the state of being contained, banishment is the state of being banished, and so on. The prefix re- simply means a returning or bringing back. Revive means essentially to re-live or to bring back to life (vive is a form of the French verb vivre, which means “to live.”) A revival can be a physical or medical comeback, or it can refer to the return of a type of music, fashion, etc. Another example: Remember means to bring something back into your mind. (The origin of the word is from Latin, arriving in English through French.)

So we are left with sent, which is not the same as the way we commonly it in English, such as “I sent a check in the mail” or “I sent someone to the store.” The sent we are focusing on here also comes from Latin, from a verb meaning “to feel.” So resentment for our purposes means “a returning to a state of feeling.” This definition is fairly broad. People usually associate resentments with anger, but by my definition, this would include a wide array of feelings—which will be important later.

Resentments are housed in our emotional memory. Especially in addiction, these can be memories we attempt to drown out through our use.

Every human being has resentments across their lifetimes. We are conscious, thinking creatures who by our very natures contemplate both the past and the future. I think resentments in their purest form are meant to inform us about important events that affect our values. As a psychologist, I would say that helping people work through resentments, whether they’re in recovery or not, is quite common.

Resentments are housed in our emotional memory. Those are often the strongest memories we have, and some of our earliest. Remembering is a byproduct of consciousness, and sometimes we remember experiences we would rather forget. Especially in addiction, these can be memories that we attempt to drown out through our use.

Two Types of Resentment

It’s important to make some distinctions about resentments. At the simplest level, I can place them into two basic categories: root and survivorship.

Root resentments are the most common. They’re typically relational, and they’re pertinent in that they need to be resolved in order to strengthen recovery. When I say relational, I mean they’re directed at someone—a family member, an employer, a neighbor, a judge, etc. That can also include the self, as well as God.

Survivorship resentments are also interpersonal, but they involve a vast power differential. Typically we would associate these with traumas such as sexual assault, physical and psychological abuse, trafficking or child abuse. Much clinical work is done in the non-addicted populations to resolve survivorship resentments.

Root Resentments

Frequently in recovery, people have resentments in both camps. The reason I place them in categories is that the strategies vary depending on the type of resentment. Naturally, there is some overlap in the work. In terms of root resentments (and this is what I think the AA Big Book refers to), it’s crucial to examine the interpersonal dynamics at the core of the resentment. The questions to ask are:

  • When I think about this resentment, what was my responsibility in it? When I tell this story, what part am I leaving out?
  • What part did I play? How might my addictive actions help bring this about?
  • And perhaps most importantly, what use is it to continue holding on to this?

The last question is important because root resentments have addictive utility. That means we can use these to justify other actions—they become the backup plan, so that if there isn’t any other reason to drink or use, you can pull up a resentment, and there is your rationale. This is part of what makes resentments so dangerous. Addictive utility is always there.

Resentments are like having a little notepad in your pocket that tells you all the reasons you “should” or “deserve” to use. You don’t notice it all the time, but the list is there.

The other facet of root resentments is that often they evolve. What happens typically over time is that a root resentment grows and becomes more self-centered, meaning there is less responsibility remembered on our part and more blame toward the offender. Root resentments often transform the truth of the situation—that both parties had some responsibility in the way events unfolded—to one of passivity, where we had no responsibility and the offender is entirely to blame. These are also long-lasting. I have met and worked with numerous people who, when I asked about the nature of a resentment—for example, “What happened between you and X that there is such animosity?”—can’t even recall, to my surprise and often theirs. The feeling persists, but the facts around it are lost or vague at best.

What are resentments in a nutshell? I sometimes use this analogy: In AA people carry coins, and in NA they get the keychain tags. These are tangible little reminders of all the reasons we have to stay sober, and of the progress we have made. Resentments, in contrast, are like having a little notepad in your pocket that tells you all the reasons you “should” or “deserve” to use. Many of them revolve around self-pity. You don’t notice it all the time, but the list is there.

Survivorship Resentments

Now to survivorship resentments. I give these their own category as they’re often staples of what is worked on in therapy, both for people with a substance use disorder and for those without. In cases of abuse, neglect, rape, exploitation, etc., we don’t ever take the stance we would in dealing with root resentments—such an approach would essentially be victim-blaming. When we’re talking about survivorship resentments, we’re essentially talking about trauma.

As a clinician, I can tell you that often what sustains these resentments, particularly the ones aimed at the self, is self-blame. It’s very normal for survivors of trauma to assume they might have had the power to change the events—If only I had … or I should have just … . Part of the healing from this kind of trauma is to purge that sense of self-blame. What makes that so hard, you might ask? The simple answer: People do not like to feel powerless. And yet life often results in such a feeling, in very painful ways. Part of the work in survivorship resentments is to try to come to that reckoning, which is both gut-wrenching and eventually liberating. The good news is that many therapists are trained in what is now called trauma-informed care and can help with this.

I’ll make a fairly bold statement here: The longer a person holds on to resentments without working on them, the lower their quality of sobriety and life will be, and the higher the risk of relapse they will carry. It helps to think about a pie chart of emotional memory. What percentage of it is full of resentments? The goal for ongoing recovery is always to reduce this percentage.

The Danger of War Stories

One other tidbit about types of resentments. Remember I defined a resentment as a “returning to a state of feeling”? So far we have generally talked about negative emotions—anger, hurt, guilt, shame, pain, sadness, fear. But what about joy? Can you have resentments that are joyful? The answer is yes, and here is how that manifests itself.

A war story is essentially a memory that glorifies drug-use experiences. They unfairly paint addiction in a light that ignores its basic destructive nature.

In treatment we call these “war stories,” and the approach is that you should not tell them. A war story is essentially a memory that glorifies drug-use experiences. They are often strange tales that usually have some entertainment value. In all honesty, some of the funniest stories I have ever heard in my career were war stories. But in early recovery, these can be detrimental. They function just like a resentment.

In telling the war story, the person only talks about the excitement of the experience—what we refer to clinically as euphoric recall—or the unsuspected twist. Often in early recovery what is left out of war stories are the painful consequences. They’re missing because the addictive utility in a war story is always how fun the experience was; the story ignores the overarching consequences of loss of family, friends, jobs, freedom. That’s why we discourage war stories in early recovery—they unfairly paint addiction in a light that ignores its basic destructive nature.

How to Work on Resentments

There are many ways to work on resentments. I was trained in an era in which experiential therapy was used a lot. But in no way have therapy or the 12-step programs cornered the market on working on resentments. They are a human problem and have existed throughout the ages. Religious and spiritual traditions often have effective ways to work on them.

My basic stance is that an individual must come to terms with the truth that is in the resentment. This is also part of what I refer to as the genius psychology of the 12-step programs. I don’t think anyone who gets into recovery has just one resentment. I would say they easily number in the dozens, maybe in the hundreds, depending on the case. The strategy, which is also seen in qualitative research, is to focus not on the instance but the pattern. What is the common denominator across resentments? There may be several themes, and that’s OK. The fourth step essentially asks a person to look at this, and the purpose of Step 5 is to get another pair of eyes on the data. Part of working on a resentment is fully understanding it.

Once we understand the basic nature of a resentment, we can begin to work on it and let it go. Sometimes that’s characterized as turning it over to a higher power. The action in working on a resentment is to cultivate awareness of its nature and, with that awareness, change the ways you respond or act in the here and now. And I can assure you, it takes a bit of practice before it gets easier.

The Costs of Resentments

One last point: Resentments eat up a lot of a person’s emotional and psychological energy. You only have so much space for feelings. Once you’re full, something has to go for something else to come in. Most feelings fade over time—some quickly, others slowly. Resentments consume both space and time, and when a person is surrounded by them, they don’t see how affected they are. One of the reasons I named these common types of resentments root resentments is that they’re like an emotional weed—they strangle our emotional energies, and they’ll keep popping up until they’re dealt with at the root. If you only treat them on the surface, they’re bound to crop up again.

One of my favorite cases that illustrates this is from a man we’ll call Jim. He was a commercial airline mechanic (and an alcoholic) in the 1960s and ’70s. He talked about the resentments he had toward his boss regarding company policies, getting passed over for promotions and so on. Jim worked really hard when he got into recovery, and he eventually told this story after he had completed his ninth step. He’d made an appointment with his boss to talk about his resentments and make amends for his behavior. In the meeting, he went on for 10 minutes about all the grudges he’d held and how regretful he was that he’d worked so many years in this condition. At the end, he asked if there was anything he could do to make things right.

His boss looked at him and simply replied, “Heck, Jim, I didn’t even know you were mad.”

By working through your resentments, you both decrease their addictive utility and open your emotional world to new experiences.

This was a lesson and a new level of awareness for Jim, and his story has stayed with me throughout my career. He said he came away from that just kind of stunned. He’d lived and drank for years over these perceived slights and the sense of unfairness. But at the end of the day, he was the one who suffered. Jim explained it best to me, and if you haven’t heard this before, I’m now passing it on to you.

“Having a resentment,” he said, “is like me drinking poison, hoping that you die from it.”

From Resentment to Freedom and Happiness

If you are in recovery, working through your resentments is a top priority. By doing this, you both decrease their addictive utility and open your emotional world to new experiences. People can feel trapped in a cycle of feeling a certain way—miserable, frustrated or, as the Big Book mentions, “restless, irritable and discontented.” In the 12-step program, Step 4 is meant to help a recovering person quickly come to terms with how many resentments they’re carrying around, and to begin to purge those in the following eight steps.

As a person in long-term recovery, I can tell you something about resentments. If you’re diligent about purging them, and you develop a practice of not accruing new ones, in time you’ll notice a change. Over time, it will become harder and harder to hold a resentment. They just take up too much time and energy. It’s very much like how you don’t know how good sobriety can feel until you’ve been that way for a while (I’d say about six months at least). But this process takes hard work, and I think it helps to have a lot of social sober support while working on resentments.

The payoff is even mentioned in the AA Basic Text, and it’s the first of the 12 promises: You will “know a new freedom and a new happiness.” We might even argue that in healthy recovery, you become resentment intolerant over time. It doesn’t mean that an issue might not get under your skin from time to time. That still happens to me. But you will be in a place where you have both the knowledge and the tools to effectively work on those issues, and live resentment-free.

Ryan Blackstock  PsyD, LP, CAADC received his doctorate of psychology from the Center for Humanistic Studies in 2006 and has worked as an addiction counselor since the early 1990s. He earned a distinguished service award from the National Kidney Foundation (Michigan chapter) for pioneering a substance abuse education program for people awaiting organ transplant. Blackstock teaches at the Michigan School of Psychology master’s program. In his free time, he enjoys game design, playing heavy metal and studying symbolic aspects of ancient Egypt. 

Photo: Andre Hunter