Defining Resentment

Medically reviewed by Brianne Rehac, LMHC
Updated March 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Each of us moves through a range of emotions throughout our day. Sometimes these emotions are positive and help our relationships and lives thrive. Other times, our emotions can begin to negatively affect our lives and interactions with other people. Resentment is one such emotion that has the ability to seriously harm our connections with other people, especially in close relationships. 

If you’re wanting to move past resentful feelings, it might help to start with understanding what the word “resentment” means. Then, with the right tools and support, you can sort out your feelings, deal with the situations involved, and learn to let go of the emotions that are holding you back.

Rawpixel
Has resentment made its way into your relationships?

Definition of resentment

To understand how resentment can affect aspects of your life, it is necessary to define resentment itself. The Cambridge University Press offers a seemingly straightforward definition of the word “resentment”, defining the word as “a feeling of anger because you have been forced to accept something you do not like.” Resentment, therefore, can result from unfair treatment, injury, or insult. It develops when you feel like you aren’t getting what you deserve, or what’s fair in a given situation.

There is much more to the word resentment than the Cambridge University Press can offer in a simple definition, however. Moving past resentment involves feeling your emotions, expressing how you feel, and understanding how you got to that place. It may require forgiveness, empathy, compromise, and compassion, as well as seeing things from a different perspective. It often involves focusing on the good things as well instead of dwelling on what’s wrong. 

Though it can be difficult to move past, it is possible to let go of resentment if you can understand it and put in the effort to let go of it.

Components of resentment

While the Cambridge Dictionary definition does cover the basic idea of resentment, it fails to address the complexity of feelings that come along with it. The word ‘resentment’ is more than just a simple synonym for “anger” found in a dictionary or thesaurus. Its meaning consists of three main components: persistent anger, unfair treatment, and dwelling on upsetting experiences.

Persistent anger

Resentment is not just a quickly passing feeling of anger. When you’re resentful, the anger involved can persist over time. It can be an intense emotion that’s hard to shake, and if you don’t do something to address bitter resentment, it may continue or even get worse. The angry feeling may appear to go away but will often bubble to the surface again and again if not addressed. 

Unfair treatment

Resentment comes from a belief that someone, something, or the world in general has mistreated you and that you’ve been on the receiving end of some type of wrongdoing. The feeling of indignation may be a result of negative interactions, betrayal, or displeasure from someone you care about. 

Anger is a little different because you can be angry without necessarily thinking you’ve experienced an injustice. With resentment, however, someone may have actually done something wrong or treated you unfairly. Examples may include being dismissed, belittled, or on the receiving end of a perceived insult. 

Sometimes, though, people get caught up in feelings of resentment because they misunderstand what happened or the other person’s intentions.

Dwelling on upsetting experiences

Do you ever find yourself replaying upsetting conversations and events over and over in your mind? Ruminating over distressing situations can be an extremely painful experience as you continue to endure negative emotions. When someone is resentful, they usually dwell on hurtful experiences rather than work through them. 

When issues are not expressed and worked through properly, they may come up later. Often, these issues can come out during inopportune moments, such as during a fight, making it more difficult to address the problem at hand. Expressing your emotions clearly instead of bottling up your feelings can help prevent this.

What can cause resentment?

So, where does resentment come from? Note first that what may cause resentment for you can be very different from what causes it for someone else. The following are some of the most common causes of resentment.

Inequality in relationships

When one person in a close relationship has more power than the other, the less powerful one may feel resentment towards their partner. They may keep an unwritten log of the ways they are more supportive in the relationship, further increasing the feeling of resentment.

Rawpixel

Sometimes, there isn’t an easy way to equalize the relationship. However, you can get beyond the sense of resentment if you can learn to deal with it effectively.

Abuse and neglect

You might tend to feel resentment, anger, and perhaps fear if you experienced abuse or neglect, either as a child or later in life. This is understandable, as you certainly didn’t deserve to be treated poorly by your abuser. 

Yet, these negative feelings can become self-destructive after a while. Once you’re out of the abusive relationship, a therapist can help you shift your focus to get beyond those feelings and build a more positive future.

Health problems

Often, health problems can create situations where resentment crops up. Medical issues put many people in a position that requires them to do things they’d rather not do. Caring for someone who is ill or injured is a huge responsibility, and if the person you’re caring for you is uncooperative or unappreciative, it can be hard. Feelings of irritation and grief can complicate this resentment too. Health problems can feel like a huge loss and create an unequal power dynamic between caretakers and the people they care for. 

In one study, caregivers of people with dementia completed resentment rating scales. The results showed that they were indeed resentful, and when the person they were caring for behaved in manipulative or willful ways, they were even more resentful. In addition, people may feel considerable resentment if there’s an inability to cure a health problem.

Being humiliated

Humiliating experiences or even cruel words often lead to lingering feelings of resentment. Maybe it was a small instance that you couldn’t let go of or a bigger issue that has been brewing for some time. 

You might resent the behavior of another person whom you believe caused the embarrassing event or said something you took offense to. Or you might blame yourself and feel that life has let you down by not preparing you well enough for that moment. Maybe you didn’t have the words to stand up for yourself or the courage to act at the time – and are now filled with resentment. 

Even years later, a memory of humiliation can bring about the emotional response of bitter resentment and feel very real.

Prejudice and discrimination

Many people face prejudice and discrimination related to their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other aspects of who they are. Interestingly, both people who discriminate and those whom they discriminate against may feel resentment. 

For example, scientists conducted two studies – one in the 1980s and one concluding in 2011 – and determined that racial resentment was a factor in why white policymakers didn’t and still don’t create programs to address racial inequality.

Envy and jealousy

While envy and jealousy are often seen as synonyms, jealousy usually has a more negative connotation. However, the definitions are very similar; many people feel bitter indignation that someone else has what they want and can’t get. 

The other person may not have done anything to hurt them directly – the anger and resentment come from the idea that they feel it’s unfair that they don’t have what they want or need while someone else does. The resentful person may subscribe to the notion that they can’t have what they want and blame the other party for it.

Rejection

Rejection is often a source of resentment. You might face rejection when you ask someone on a date, apply for a job, or offer to help someone. If the other person turns you down, it can feel unfair or intensely personal, like an insult. A sense of frustration may arise from the inability to change or control the rejection. Anger and shame can turn to resentment in these situations.

Effects of resentment

While resentment can cause you a lot of pain and keep you stuck in the past, it’s important to remember that emotions aren’t “right” or “wrong.” They’re just the way you feel. So, you don’t have to blame yourself or feel bad about yourself because you feel resentment. There may be a great deal of truth in your opinion that someone has treated you unjustly.

Still, dealing with the feeling and moving past it is critical to your mental health. Here are some of the ways resentment can affect your life. 

Relationship issues

Resentment can be toxic to close relationships. Couples who experience resentment towards each other may have more unsatisfying relationships. They may stay together while still filled with a sense of wrong, or they may split up to get away from those bad feelings. If you do end the relationship, dealing with your feelings can help you move on to better relationships in the future.

Strong, uncomfortable feelings

The feeling of resentment can be very distressing. Other uncomfortable feelings such as jealousy or ill will toward others may come along with it and linger. You may develop feelings of regret for the things you did or said or the way your life turned out. You might begin to feel inadequate if you believe you expressed resentments poorly or didn’t handle the situation well. 

These intense feelings can disrupt your life and may even lead to other mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

Avoiding conflict

If you often feel resentful, you might begin to avoid conflict. Because you haven’t let go of the resentment, you may not feel ready to face difficult situations. It’s understandable if you don’t want to be hurt anymore, but facing challenges is one way to find more satisfaction and happiness in your life. 

Many people find that working through their resentment frees them to deal with new conflicts as they arise and helps them get what they desire and achieve their goals.

How therapists help with resentment

A therapist can help you deal with resentment in several ways. Treatment usually includes self-expression, learning, and putting into practice what you’ve learned. In therapy, you may learn how to stop thinking about a past emotional injury and embrace new methods to guide you to greater happiness. Here are some examples of the tasks involved in overcoming feelings of resentment.

  • Expressing your emotions: Finding appropriate ways and the right words to express your emotions can be helpful. Just talking to your counselor about your feelings can be a start. Another method is showing your feelings through artwork or music. Sometimes, counselors suggest writing a letter to the person who has wronged you and then, once you’ve got the angry emotions out and have expressed yourself, destroying the note. This way, you can be free to get things off your chest without worrying about the repercussions. The purpose of this exercise isn’t to communicate with the other person, but to face your emotional response and the situations that caused them. Journaling is another useful tool for self-expression.
Getty/Halfpoint Images
Has resentment made its way into your relationships?

  • Identifying the source of resentment: What is causing your resentment? Resentment may come without you knowing its source at times. If that happens, one of your tasks will be finding out what happened that caused you to feel resentful or why you regarded someone with resentment. Your therapist can help you explore the possibilities and come to your own answer. And even if you know what you’re resentful about, you can go deeper to find the specific words, actions, or circumstances that are generating that emotion.

  • Recognizing patterns of resentment: Another question you and your therapist may delve into is whether your resentment is an isolated incident or not. For some people, resentment can become a way of life and they can get stuck in their own web. The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote about resentment being directed at something outside of a person but eventually becoming a value system or pattern. By identifying long-term patterns of resentment, you and your therapist can work towards overcoming them.

  • Checking your perspective: It also helps many people to have a therapist who can guide them in seeing other perspectives on the circumstances that created their resentment. Sometimes being able to see the situation from another angle can help you feel less mistreated. By seeing another person’s point of view for a moment, you might realize they didn’t mean to harm you at all.

  • Assessing and choosing thoughts: Sometimes, it’s not so much what happens to you that’s painful. It’s what you think about what happened that fuels the resentment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy offers tools to help you assess the thoughts behind your resentment, decide whether they’re accurate and helpful, and choose the thoughts and behaviors that will benefit you most.

  • Learning to accept and forgive: The act of forgiveness may be a behavior that benefits you. If you’re harboring hard feelings or resentments toward someone for long periods of time, your constant resentment may begin taking a toll on you. Learning to forgive an insult can strengthen your own well-being. Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation, forgetting, or excusing harm. To forgive is to make a decision to let go of resentment so that you can live more peacefully. It’s a decision made for yourself.

  • Calming techniques: While you can use your mind to help you in letting go of resentment, thinking obsessively about the source of your pain can make the feeling more intense and long-lasting. Sometimes, calming techniques can make it easier to let go of hurt and anger. Many therapists teach their clients mindfulness meditation, systematic muscle relaxation, or other methods that help them relax and focus on something other than their pain. Affirmations or mantras may also help. For instance, you might try repeating a calming “word of the day” or a short sentence when you begin to have negative thoughts and feelings.

  • Building self-confidence and self-esteem: If you’re struggling with feelings of inadequacy, your therapist can help you build your self-esteem and boost your self-confidence. They can do this by helping you recognize what triggers your low self-esteem. They can also assist you in challenging your negative beliefs and encourage you to take risks and work toward goals that can increase your feelings of self-worth.

  • Adjusting expectations: Setting reasonable expectations for fairness might also help you feel less resentful. There’s rarely any guarantee that the world will give you precisely what you want or even what you need. By recognizing that life isn’t always fair, you might be able to avoid intense feelings of deep resentment and displeasure when things don’t go your way. At the same time, it’s still important to stand up for yourself when you’re being hurt, discriminated against, taken advantage of, or abused. The goal here is to find the right balance between your expectations and what’s actually possible.
Once you work through your resentment, you’ll no longer have to focus on it or let it consume you. At some point during your healing process, take some time to think about what your life can be like without that unpleasant feeling. What are some examples of how you’ll feel and behave without the burden of resentment? Your therapist can help you envision this by encouraging you to make new plans for a future without resentment.
Online therapy can be effective for individuals and couples alike. One study found that couples teletherapy was an “effective way to improve client functioning.” Clients, families, and clinicians alike reported high satisfaction with their experience. In general, couples responded well to teletherapy and viewed their experiences “very similarly” to that of traditional therapy.

Takeaway

Resentment is a complex emotion that develops for a variety of reasons and can affect someone in a multitude of ways. Since resentment can be detrimental to your relationships and quality of life, it’s important to confront resentful feelings head-on so that you can move past them. 

Letting go of resentment can be an act of self-love in which you choose to look after your own well-being and mental health. Online therapy can help you address your past and lead you forward to a future without bitterness. It takes self-awareness, time, and work to let go of such strong emotions, but is a decision that can help you live more freely.

Seeking to improve your mental health?
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started