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Resentment's Benefits

Mar 28

Resentment is one of the most unproductive and harmful human emotions, reflecting inner demands rather than external circumstances. Many people spend more time ruminating on alleged wrongs done to them than on wrongs they have committed to others.

It's a waste of time. It's a waste of time. It's deafening. But there are benefits to this common passion. It assures us of our powerlessness. It also permits us to maintain our perception of ourselves as inherently good, regardless of our actual actions.

Perhaps the most common of all the pointless and harmful emotions to which humans are subject is resentment. Few people, if any, have not spent many hours, if not years, of their lives ruminating on the alleged wrongs done to them. People, in my experience, tend to spend less time thinking about the wrongs they have done to others.

Because we live in a society where injustice is constant, everyone believes he or she has good reason to be bitter. However, our indignation is in no way proportionate to the purported cause.

Even those who have had incredibly wealthy lives full of opportunity, by all accounts, manage to resent, and frequently quite violently. They compare their lives not to the lives of hundreds of millions of people who are less fortunate than them, but to an unreachable ideal or to the lives of a select few who are even better off. After all, no one is so lucky that he or she is unaware of someone who is more luckier.




People who have been subjected to atrocious treatment during civil wars or other disasters, on the other hand, are frequently devoid of animosity. If any more proof were required, this is it. This most destructive of emotions is driven by inner desire rather than external conditions.

Despite the importance of resentment in our lives and the harm it does, psychiatrists and psychologists pay it little consideration. Resentment is a superb rationalizer: it shows us selective interpretations of our own history so that we don't see our own errors and don't have to make difficult decisions.

In recent history, personal resentment has played a significant role. It was a way of life for Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. Men who rise to prominence never forget the minor slights they were subjected to as children, and they seek vengeance on their previous tormentors. The guy who had denied him a scholarship to the United States was one of the first of the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian tyrant Mengistu was responsible for. Macias Nguema, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, who murdered or exiled a third of his country's inhabitants, was so unsure of his own scholastic abilities that he labeled everyone wearing spectacles or possessing a page of written matter as an intellectual and ordered them to be slain. Unfortunately, these examples might be multiplied several times.

Allesandra Mussolini, Mussolini's granddaughter, spoke at a rally in Naples recently. Even though there were only around 500 people in attendance, they were able to raise a terrifyingly deep-throated chorus of "Duce! Duce! Duce!" (along by the fascist salute) in the courtyard of the castle where the rally was held.

Except when it came her turn to speak, La Mussolini, who is attractive in an exaggerated way, was visibly bored by the entire proceedings. To the untrained eye, she appeared to care as much about her fans as a poultry farmer does about his hens. Any promise she made to them was obviously untrue and ineffective. As I looked around at the features distorted by synchronized hatred, I was shocked to see how many of these modern-day Fascisti were lame (like Goebbels) or otherwise disabled, little and cruel guys looking for an adversary to blame for their unhappiness.

The majority of animosity, on the other hand, does not lead to political action and remains entrenched on a personal level. It's evident to me that this feeling serves a vital purpose for my patients: it hides the amount to which their own decisions and actions are to blame for their misery. People would rather play the part of innocent victim of misfortune than the main perpetrator of their own sorrow.

Parents are likely the most popular target of animosity, since they are typically blamed for all of our flaws and shortcomings. How many times have I heard a patient complain about his mother or father, about how one or both of them wrecked his self-esteem or hindered him from accomplishing anything important by undermining his confidence? (I used to play this game when I was little.) However, I can't recall a single patient who made any kind of concession for his parents' background. Our own parents, who sprung into the world fully formed, committed original sin, not Adam and Eve. Unlike ours, their flaws stem from sheer malice rather than a bad childhood.

Whatever object it attaches itself to, there is a kind of sour pleasure or even bitter happiness in such anger. It nearly becomes a vocation or a way of life for many people. They repeat in their thoughts the injustices they feel they have experienced, almost as if it were a chant. They find the repetition comforting, since anything that is wrong may take on the appearance of truth if it is repeated frequently enough.

So, what are the benefits of resentment? It's often reassuring to know that our failures in life are not due to a lack of skill, energy, or desire on our part, but rather to a circumstance beyond our control that has stacked the deck heavily against us. Moral flaws are the same way. As a result, blame does not attach to us, and we are able to maintain our picture of ourselves as inherently good, regardless of our actual behavior. Any good we do reflects our character, while any bad is a reflection of our upbringing.

Being a victim of injustice permits us to hate others while being hated by others. They may look down on us because of our failure, but failing in an unfair society is hardly a failure. It is, on the contrary, a symbol of moral superiority. Un such a world, success necessitates a level of insensitivity and indifference to the destiny of others, or, in other words, sociopathy.

Furthermore, any attempt on our side to improve our circumstances is worthless if the world is unfairly stacked against us. In some ways, this is disturbing, but at the very least, it relieves us of the terrible need of change. It protects us from the potential of failure, which we must categorically blame on ourselves. We can stay the same while proclaiming anathema to a harsh world. And such condemnation has always been a lot of fun.

There is one more benefit to feeling that one is a victim of circumstance. Our alleged victimhood instills in us a sense of self-importance. It seems cruel not to have engaged in the suffering throughout this century of atrocities, which includes the First World War and the Armenian genocide, Stalinist tyranny and the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward and the Khmer Rouge (to mention a few). Admitting that our lives have been comfortable and easy exposes us to charges of triviality and complacency.

It is commonly assumed that only victims have something profound to say to a world where Auschwitz could occur. Because we all assume we have something significant to say, we must all be victims. As a result, we feel compelled to exaggerate the wrongs done to us in order to make them look insurmountable.

In therapeutic practice, I frequently face a patient's unwillingness to do anything about the condition that he or she is complaining about, a predicament that he or she attributes to the malice of others. Any proposal, whether practical or therapeutic, is received with a barrage of arguments and a fearful demeanor. Because if the patient's position improved as a result of his or her own efforts, the patient's previous belief of pure victimization would have been shown as untrue and self-serving. And it's never easy to give up a complete philosophy of life, especially when it means admitting that years of one's life have been squandered.

Taking away people's illusions that they have been mistreated and that this treatment is the fundamental reason of their misery and failure may be brutal at times. Because if anger persists long enough, the potential of reform is effectively eliminated. It is sometimes nicer to leave the patient with his or her bitter delusions intact when there is nothing better to offer in exchange.

Criminals have a strong sense of resentment. Their skins are paper-thin when it comes to any injury done to them, but elephant-thick when it comes to the harm they have caused others. When it comes to explaining their actions—snatching a pocketbook from a stranger, breaking into someone's home, even stabbing someone to death—they immediately fall back on stories of a traumatic upbringing, abusive and neglecting parents, and so on. It makes no difference whether this is a post-facto justification for their acts or the underlying motivation behind them; their animosity is a roadblock to change. When I question them, "What is the actual link between your despised father and the person you robbed?" they respond, "What is the actual relationship between your hated father and the person you robbed?" I'm attempting to begin the illusion peeling process.