Walks of Mind
Illuminating What Goes on in our Mind
Please enjoy reading this walk. It has been
created by John Cochrane for your interest and, hopefully, benefit.
Oh No You Don't!
Resentment and Blaming - The Fear Alarm
©John Cochrane 2005-2006
I’ll bet that if you are honest there are times when you find yourself getting anxious and outraged for no real reason, almost as if you are just looking for something to be angry about. Or do you ever find yourself making snap judgments about people that you see as you go about your daily life? Or do you hold strong opinions about how things should be and how much better everything would be if those stupid what’s-its would just get their act together? If you do any of these then the chances are that you are holding some resentment, and probably more than you care to admit.
I am going to stick my hand up here and say that I have spent a good deal of my life in resentment of one form or another. During that time there have been long periods when I, like many people in this enlightened age, have maintained that I have not been resentful, and I see now that that was something of a pretence. The truth is that my resentment, of myself and of other people and of life itself, stayed hidden at a largely unconscious level until I learned more about what resentment actually is, and then put in some serious work to reduce it.
But what actually is resentment and how do we recognise it?
I’ve looked up some dictionary definitions of resentment. The dictionaries vary, but looking for the common threads gives something like: Resentment is indignation or ill will that results from thinking ourselves wronged. Well, that’s at least a useful start but we can go much deeper.
Resentment can show in many ways, for example as prejudice, sarcasm, pointed or superior comments, put-downs, bursts of barely controlled anger or rage, cold anger, moodiness, jokes at someone else’s expense, complaining, and general grumpiness. Resentment can also show as institutionalised divisive opinions held by society at large.
Blaming is one of the primary behaviours that accompanies resentment and is often an indicator that resentment is running. Blaming has become so deeply accepted as a ‘normal’ part of life that it is now embedded in the legal, political, and religious framework of most societies.
In this walk we look first at what resentment is and why it exists. As with other walks we start with an assumption that the things that go on in the mind are there for a reason, and the initial challenge is to identify that reason. We resent and we blame because it has, or has had, a survival value. Resentment is a device of the mind and it is designed to enable us to make the most of certain situations in life. But what is it?
We move on to look at some of the major ways that resentment can become used as a coping mechanism and why this actually does not work. We will look at blaming, one of the major behaviours that comes from resentment. We will also look at how to begin to break some of the habits of blaming and resenting.
This walk is a little different to the others in that we spend some appreciable time towards the end of the walk focusing on some of the ways to change, how to get off resenting. I want us to do this for two main reasons; firstly because the very natural process of resentment shows as a widespread and insidious behaviour pattern that impacts our modern-day lives in many negative ways and secondly because we can learn more about how blaming and resentment play themselves out as we work on the change.
Forms of Resentment
Resentment is indignation or ill will that results from thinking ourselves wronged.
It seems to me that there are actually two main forms of resentment: resentment that has an easily identifiable and significant cause, and resentment that shows as an attitude or behaviour pattern. We can become angry and upset over a single event and we can also be resentful as a way of being. For the moment I’ll name these two forms of resentment as Particular and Themic Resentment to help us look at what is actually going on here.
A ‘Particular Resentment’ is one that has a particular cause. It could come from being bullied or abused at some time in the past, or we were the victim of crime, or we were subjected to some other personally traumatic event. We can probably clearly remember the cause and we are well aware of what we don’t like about it. We tend to hang on to the original event and we may keep on re-visiting it in our mind.
‘Themic Resentment’ appears more as an on-going attitude. It is identified more by the behaviour that we find ourselves performing and the thoughts that we find ourselves thinking than by any one event or easily identifiable cause.
It further seems to me that Themic Resentment is key to many types of personal and group antisocial behaviour, including racial and political intolerance, anti-agism and anti-youthism, and many types of anti-authority or apparently subversive behaviour.
I think it is fair to say that when these are running, both forms of resentment can be thought of as our a reaction to something that we find unpleasant, in the first case a major event or trauma and in the second a series of ongoing issues and situations. So that dictionary definition looks OK so far.
Resentment as a Fear Alarm
Resentment is also widely recognised as somehow negative or destructive. We make judgments and we feel anger, though we may also have some self-judgment going as well, or even shame. But our anger, our coldness, our sense of separation have no direct effect on the situation. Even if we are in a position to actually do something, our anger will tend to have us over-react or react destructively. On the face of it, resentment and blaming seem pointless and self-damaging activities. Resentment uses up personal time, saps energy (through a focus on negative thoughts), promotes angry and rejecting emotions, encourages self-criticism, has little or no effect on the object of our resentment, and may well have us repeatedly re-living an unpleasant past in our imagination.
So what is resentment for and why do we find ourselves resenting so easily?
One appreciation is that when I experience a situation that may have a hint of danger for me, a situation that I am not sure that I like, or that I do not really want to accept, resentment seemingly gives me a practical and easy way to deal with it. It is easier to simply, and automatically, reject the whole situation than to think through to exactly what is the true source of my problem. By getting into my righteousness and my judgments I can easily become dismissive and rejecting without being particularly conscious of what I am doing.
I may, for example, see someone dressed in a certain way in the street or on television that makes me feel uncomfortable or even angry. Notice the wording here, the person that I see ‘makes’ me feel a certain way – I have become a victim to my own reaction which seems to appear out of almost nothing. My mind has reacted to something, a trigger, that may be too small for me to initially notice consciously. My mind kicks into resentment and the first I am aware of it is that I am feeling uncomfortable or even hostile, I have some damning judgments running, and I am likely to be feeling some level of anxiety or anger.
In the natural environment, which the human mind was designed for, the conscious mind would be challenged indeed if it had to deal with all the potential sources of threat. Big and obvious threats would not be too much of a problem. If we come across a snake we can initially avoid it and then perhaps find ways to attack it, maybe with rocks or branches, to kill it or to drive it away; our standard fear and anger responses will deal with obvious threats just fine. But there would be smaller and less obvious threats, including threats coming through social relationships or invasions of tribal land. These might require a firm response to remove the threat before it grows, or perhaps attention over time to keep the potential threat contained. Maybe we come across signs that our family watering hole is being used by another group, or by some animal that we don’t recognise. Or perhaps there are certain young males from a neighbouring group that are hanging around more this year than last. There is no obvious immediate threat, so simple fear or anger might not be triggered. These low-level threats might slip below the ‘radar’ of conscious attention unless we have developed some way of becoming sensitive to them.
Think of it this way; to deal with inconspicuous but potentially important threats our mind would have to evolve a rapid and primarily non-conscious alarm system. The actual thing that triggers the alarm would be relatively small; the way someone looks at us, a footprint in the mud, a noise from the bush. In order to be flexible and appropriate, this alarm system would have to be based on learning rather than inherited responses. The alarm would be largely non-conscious to allow complex processing to be done quickly giving an appropriate and timely response to a small trigger.
One way for our mind to do this would be to amplify an initial response by calling up memories of past experience and even memories of the last time we reacted in this way and perhaps even the fearful predictions we made at that time.
In our mind a form of logical sequence is started; footprint equals intruder, intruder equals possible trouble, trouble equals danger to self and others, danger equals effort to protect, effort to protect equals time spent, time spent equals less time to hunt, less time to hunt equals less food, less food equals struggle through dry season, struggle through dry season equals move to new area, move to new area equals probable confrontations, and so on. This is a cycle that starts at a non-conscious level but is escalating and will become conscious at some point. It results in some important outcomes; a sense of self-righteousness (indignation) due to the big consequences we are predicting, a bunch of rationalisations and justifications to support this, and the triggering of anger and perhaps feelings of fear. The small starting point has been translated into an important issue and we are now motivated to act.
The survival value of such a feedback and alarm system seems very apparent to me. Particularly for handling repetitive situations where we have the chance to learn more each time. This is a cycle that makes use of personal and shared experience (learning) and applies this to a wide range of social and environmental situations. And of course. Resentment is valuable for preserving us from threats that might otherwise pass unnoticed until too late. Not only that, under this model, resentment probably links in to the most active parts of our mind to access memories, to create new memories, to set up associations between thoughts and enable automatic deductions to be made, and to trigger anger to motivate us into action. And as the whole thing is set up to deal with threats, we can fairly say that resentment is actually fear-based even though our actual feelings of fear may not be strong.
My non-conscious mind is able to associate memories of events, beliefs, and emotions together. These memories are not dealt with and assigned to the past, like old files in a forgotten filing cabinet, they are stored as active warnings for the future. When the resentment alarm is triggered, these memories are rapidly brought out of storage and put to use. They are added back in to my low-level response to give a larger amplified response. This action is indeed rapid. In the blink of an eye, before I have a chance to see the cycle start up or do anything much about it, I have a store of memories and beliefs all adding together to produce a response that is big enough to get me moving. And the cycle can repeat and repeat for event after event, each time adding to the stockpile of memories and thoughts ready for the next time.
I’ll sum up and go further. Resentment allows us to react to a potential threat that we might otherwise be almost unaware of. Resentment is a fear-based mechanism and is one of our mind’s most important ways of getting us to wake up and take action, just like a fire alarm. In this case the action that our mind is trying to get us to perform is to reject through the triggering of anger. Our internal rationalisations add up to a set of accusations or blames, we become angry ‘because’ of these thoughts. When we are righteously angry we have the motivation, the emotional strength, to deal with the threat. Resentment alerts us to danger and gives us the power of anger to deal with it.
A Step Too Far
This process of mind, where resentment acts as a learned feedback loop to get a reaction to an otherwise low-level issue, is essentially a Themic Resentment and tends to show as a general feeling of ill will. We may experience this at times as a grumpy or cross emotion that has little direction initially and which does not have much in the way of a discernible cause. Indeed the underlying cause may be very difficult to get at and may even be one that we are hiding from ourselves. The actual cause may be one of our hidden beliefs or a memory of unpleasantness that is triggered by some current and apparently minor event. Once triggered, the amplifying effect of resentment will quickly race us past the point where we may be able to deal directly and openly with the situation and can, if left to run for a period, drive us into anger and stubborn ill-will. This is the mental territory where we refuse to forgive, where we find ourselves ‘standing our ground’, and where we have the righteous energy to ‘deal’ with the situation, albeit in a prejudiced and negative way.
The mind has roused us. A minor irritation or false interpretation has been converted into a significant event. Our anger and frustration have been triggered and we are ready to take on the world. The mind has gone too far though, instead of simply waking us up to the initial cause, real or imagined, we are now under the influence of strong emotion - and an emotion that has its normal controls removed because of the blaming nature of resentment.
Resentment is a natural defence against possible danger, bringing a small event to consciousness so that we can handle it decisively. But this internal feedback loop is perhaps too effective and too self-supporting.
At the time our Fear Alarm activates we may indeed recognise the inappropriateness of our reaction, though much of it is largely non-conscious. We may consciously recognise the anger and frustration as falsely based though we will also have some self-justification running as part of the resentment. We may well fight against our own feelings at the same time as we live through the drama that we have unconsciously created. This internal fight to control the resentment, to deny and internalise the emotions, can actually make the resentment grow - we resent ourselves for feeling these unwanted emotions, we resent ourselves for behaving ‘badly’. This resentment of self then feeds back into our resentment cycle rather than controlling it and we can end up losing the control we seek to impose. We allow our anger to surface or we close down. We burst out or we numb out. Either way, we are the loser and part of us knows it. We have failed to deal with the situation, we have felt inappropriate emotion, and we judge that we have behaved poorly. We carry forward guilt and self-resentment, ready and waiting for the next ‘event’.
By becoming more aware of our resentments rather than trying to subdue or ignore them, and examining what triggers them and the rationalisations that we have put in place, we learn to defuse them; to work on the cause of our resentment rather than the symptoms.
We can also learn more about those things in our environment that we are not yet making conscious choices about. Once a resentment has been triggered we may adopt a state of mind where we reject the whole situation rather than identifying the particular and perhaps individual cause of our unrest. How often do you decide that you don’t like such-and-such without being able to say what it is that you actually don’t like? How often do we tell ourselves that we don’t like the latest form of popular music, or some particular trend in politics, without getting clear that it is actually the images of people in power or young people with wealth that we are objecting to, and perhaps we are objecting to these because we are jealous and it reminds us of our own limitations?
As an aside, there is another way to view this particular ability in action that does not normally have a direct association with resentment. When our unconscious mind takes our current situation, compares it with memories of past events, and gives us some feedback (that may be in the form of a fear or a judgment), then we may experience this as the working of intuition. Intuition gives us information about a situation in such a way that we are not usually conscious of the source of that information. In some cases the source is actually our own unconscious memories along with an interpretation of those memories that match low-level pieces of information that we are getting from our current reality. If we get an ‘intuition’ about someone as we are talking to them, it may be based on observations of people we have met in the past. Fundamentally this is the same process as the resentment amplifier though intuition is broader, it is not just aimed at producing warnings about potential threats.
Resentment as Protection
And if we now have a basic simple model of the mechanism of resentment, how does this explain why we miss-use resentment so much in modern society? It will help if we look at some particular benefits, again taking an evolutionary viewpoint.
An important element of resentment that I mentioned in passing above is the way that memory appears to be used. Memories in resentment seem to me to be set up for easy retrieval and are used to support the main theme of our resentment. Memories are made available very rapidly to the resentment cycle and some of these will come to consciousness and some will not.
The memories that do not readily surface may be simplified memories or combined memories that show themselves as judgments. For example, my judgment tells me that people who wear hats whilst driving are going to be inattentive, though I have no particular or singular memories of incidents to support this. My mind has come to a conclusion about some aspect of life that I am holding as offering a potential threat and made that available to my resentment processor. Next time I see a driver in a hat I am likely to get thoughts about how some drivers should not be allowed on the road because they are such a danger to others, and what a stupid-looking hat that is anyway! This is Themic Resentment in action.
But I think that there is a more direct memory process going on that resentment either makes use of or is responsible for. I think that resentment is intended to be a general-purpose ability that allows us to use our experience, learn from it, and apply it automatically into the future. Memories of experiences that are traumatic are a vital part of this. If we are attacked, abused, or threatened it will be useful if we remember that event clearly so that we can avoid it happening again. Our resentment-related memories will be held in a special way, so that we can review them and have them ready for instant access. This is a process that allows us to become sensitive to particular sources of danger.
I suggest that these special memories will not be treated in the same way as normal everyday memories that may be assigned to short or long term memory. It will not protect us from danger if we gradually forget about being attacked or if it takes us more than an instant to recall. I believe that these memories must be kept as ready-access memories. By associating the memory with a resentment we gain the ability to constantly review and renew the memory and to test the resentment beliefs against current experience.
Important, traumatic, and otherwise ‘memorable’ events thus become set up as Particular Resentments. As part of the functioning of this resentment process is to compare current experience with the original big event in order to provide warnings for possible repeats, once these resentments have been set up they will tend to continue to colour future thinking. Once I have a resentful memory of abuse or hardship in place, I will tend to be looking for the signs of further abuse in all my relationships. And I will be well prepared to judge and blame to support my fears.
Resentment is in part a natural defence that aims to protect us from re-experiencing dangerous events.
Resentment Protects us From Rejection
This is another way that resentment can show itself; through its contribution to our growth from an infant to a self-reliant adult. This is a straight follow-on from realising that resentment is designed as a method of defence. I’ll use a much-abbreviated version of my own experience as an example.
'They don't love me', ‘nobody cares’, and ‘I’m on my own’ are deductions, beliefs that I must have put in place at a very early age when I sensed that I loved but that my love was not returned, and this gave rise over a period to sometimes deep feelings of sadness and loneliness. If you have ever watched a young child attempting to check in with a busy parent you will perhaps have some idea of just how early on we can start to make these deductions.
As I grew through childhood I further came to believe, at some level, that I was not loved because of who and what I was, I blamed myself for my feelings of loneliness. So, I decided that I must change – I must become someone else in order to become acceptable. But I never knew what that other self should be like, all I had to go on was an ongoing sense of disapproval and rejection - I was picking up on what I believed was negative feedback and I tended to discount the positive. In my mind at times I held myself as always failing, never enough, always excluded, and always confused and having to try new things. When these beliefs were running it would be easy for my thoughts to be extreme, to hold things as ‘always’ so.
There was one reliable way that I found that I could recover my sense of self-importance, and that was when I was sufficiently angry that this made other's negative feedback irrelevant, and the way to be angry (and at the same time unafraid of rejection) was to be resentful, blaming, and superior.
Of course, at the same time I judged myself for being angry and for ‘never’ being myself, and this would feed back into and reinforce the rejection belief.
My beliefs about being loved or not loved, my sense and fears of isolation, and my reaction through separation and anger built up a series of hooks into my mental defences. These are the same defences as I mention in other walks, a series of fears and beliefs that define a zone of being that I am ‘comfortable’ with, the internal area that defines my ‘self’. The mechanism of resentment in action here contributed greatly to my sense of self when I was believing myself unloved. With my resentment running I have strong defences. I am uniquely defined and strong in my ‘self’ (and alone of course). However, I am also now inside my defences with self-blame running, my comfort zone is actually a place of discomfort and my ‘strength’ is the strength of despite.
This started with my infantile feelings of love and caring for others, and my misbelief that these were frustrated. As an adult, my love and caring is still there and I am not dependent on the showing of love from others to continue to be the loving and caring man that I am. The aloneness of youth and adolescence is often an illusion.
Resentment seeks to protect us from fears of isolation, and it reinforces our ego. Resentment gives us strength in isolation.
Resentment as Coping
Let’s look at another way that resentment gave benefit in the past but now can be used in a way that actually undermines rather than supports us. This one makes use of the ability of resentment to generate anger.
We look in another walk about how many of us get to believe that life is difficult or hard or challenging. As I grew up ‘life is difficult’ became more and more embedded as one of my deeply-held personal beliefs. It was not something that I was constantly aware of but it would colour my thinking and, when active, it would directly affect my appreciation of life and would generate fears and demands about how to deal with life.
And of course, ‘life is difficult’ will tend to go along with ‘I’m weak’. When faced with a challenging situation my initial deep reaction was to get into fear about my ability to handle life, after all life is difficult and I’m weak so I’m going to have difficulty coping. Oh, and by the way, I’m on my own to deal with it and others are uncaring, life is unfair, and so on, and so on…
But there is one way that I could believe myself to be strong; I could get angry. When I am angry enough I can overcome any obstacle, so my mind tells me, and I have no real worries about the outcome. When I am sufficiently angry I can risk all to achieve what I want.
The only problem is – how do I get myself angry to order? That’s simple, as it turns out, I just have to get into my resentment. In my resentment I can do blaming and when I am blaming then I can be righteous. When I am righteous then I get the ‘right’ to be angry and to show my anger. I am justified, because I am right, to behave in whatever way I want to get what I want! Familiar or what?
So through calling up resentment I can give myself the angry energy to cope with life being difficult. And what better subject for resentment than ‘life is difficult’? Isn’t it just so unreasonable of life to be so difficult? to be so demanding? to be so challenging? And I can even blame life for me being angry, after all, I wouldn’t have to go through all of this if life were not so challenging. No problem at all to get resentment going!
Resentment helps us to cope with repressive and difficult circumstances.
But there is a problem with this form of resentment and the blaming that goes with it. Blaming is part of a victim way of thinking. By blaming something that is not ourselves (life itself in this case) we also make ourselves into the victim, the one who is not to blame and has no responsibility. If something else is at fault (life) then to be righteous and blame we must imagine that we have been damaged (our rights to an easy life are being infringed). But as victim we have reduced ability to act. We have to suffer a loss to be a victim and the loss that we suffer through blaming is a loss of our options and ability to deal with or cope with the situation effectively.
The more we blame, the more angry we can become and the more powerful we believe ourselves to be, and the more ‘right’ we have to use that power. But the more we blame, the more we become the victim and the less ability we have to use that power. As a victim we make ourselves impotent. So we end up with a belief in our own power so long as we are angry but in order to get angry we get a reinforcement of our beliefs that we are the victim and that life is something to be survived!
We have tapped into resentment to attempt to overcome a challenge but if we are not careful we can become more and more trapped in resentment. We use resentment to empower ourselves but over time we end up disempowered. We end up on an addictive cycle with the apparent payoff of being the ability to cope with life but with the consequence that we believe more and more that we cannot really cope and that life is a continuous struggle for survival.
In a broader sense, Themic Resentment can seem to be adopted by society in general. And this gives a possible clue to one of the additional evolutionary functions of resentment. Just as resentment basically provides each of us with a defensive capability for dealing with low-level threats, resentment also provides a way for groups of individuals to bond around a single cause.
By sharing our resentment we can collude with each other and offer ‘moral’ support to each other. This creates an external feedback loop that reinforces our own resentment. Like-minded others will feed us justification for our righteous indignation and we shall gather together against a common foe. So, resentment can also be used to create groups that are willing to face up to adversity and challenge, a clear survival benefit.
What we have looked at so far covers some of the reasons why we have an ability to resent. I have also pointed out how resentment can become self-reinforcing. But what is actually wrong with something that seems to give us the ability to cope with difficulty, survive rejection, and protect ourselves from danger?
The major problem is that we are no longer living lives where low-level threats are likely to develop into life threats. Our Fear Alarm keeps going off at the wrong time!
Resentment, at best, only ‘seems’ to offer protection or motivation. Much of the apparent protection offered is a pretence, it is not protecting us from reality it is protecting us from our own beliefs about reality and many of those are just plain wrong. The perceived danger is, if we choose to look at it truthfully, an invention of our mind and we don’t actually need to protect ourselves at all, and almost certainly not in the way our resentment has it set up.
Life may have challenges but it is not intrinsically and implacably difficult, and nor am I so weak that I need to bolster my energy by being constantly angry. People may reject me, or my ideas, but that is not the same as my prediction that everyone will reject me because I am unloveable. I do not have to behave in extreme ways for people to approve of me, in fact I am more likely to be genuinely appreciated and acknowledged if I drop the acts. My automatic judgments of others are nearly always derived from my hidden fears and are nearly always off the mark, and they make it much more difficult for me to appreciate others as individuals. And drawing broad conclusions from one-off events has me reliving those events and making fear-based choices that are not appropriate.
Resentment primes our mind with fear. Unknowingly we become the willing victim of anyone that knows how to manipulate that fear or happens to do it by accident.
And, of course, resentment uses judgment and blaming as key parts of the process. Something in us, our authenticity and our caring nature, suffers whenever we make or repeat those judgments and blame. Resentment impacts us and our sense of personal well-being, our self-esteem, whenever it is running. There is a huge personal cost to spending much time in resentment.
Motivating ourselves through anger is a very poor second to motivation through excitement, interest, and engagement. Also, through blaming we actually reduce our belief in our own capability.
So, it turns out that resentment is inappropriate, ineffective, potentially addictive, self-undermining, and inhibits our ability to engage with the real world. But, resentment has strong survival benefits and it is the inappropriate and largely unconscious use of resentment that causes problems rather than the alarm system itself.
To stop the Fear Alarm ringing so much we need to turn down the gain.
Dealing With Particular Resentments
The clues that have given me a much improved ability to successfully deal with resentment are understanding what is going on and truth-telling. It is relatively fruitless, in my experience, to try and fight simply by choosing to deny or suppress the appearance or symptoms of resentment, the mind is too well evolved and developed to permit this simplistic stratagem to work well.
The resentment cycle works by keeping judgments and memories relevant to the underlying issue ready and waiting to warn about the future. When we recognise the underlying issue and the connections and beliefs that our mind has manufactured then we are able to deal with resentment in two basic steps:
With Particular Resentment the originating issue or event is still well known and it helps to focus on accepting the reality of that event. Part of what started the resentment building was a wish to deny reality, to deny that this event has even happened.
Let me give you an example of how to take this further. To identify the important issues I first take a little time to become aware of the emotions and thoughts that I have associated in my mind with the original event. I re-live the event in my minds eye. My emotions may be strong and difficult to accept and it may help to imagine the event as an impartial observer at first rather than first hand. After all, if I were easily able to deal with the emotion then I would have done so when I first had the issue to face. I do not have to ‘come-to-terms’ with the event. I do not have to ‘forgive-and-forget’. These are not my aim at this time, though the more accepting I become that the event did indeed happen the more easily I am able to move on. Forgiveness is important, but not necessarily applied to the actual events. My primary aim at first is simply to accept that life happened, whether I wanted it to or not. I choose to accept that I experienced what I experienced, that I had a time I did not ask for nor like, and that I took in hurt around it. Through this process of realisation I find I can let go of the event itself and move on to the thoughts and secondary emotions that I have linked to it in my mind. Now it is important to accept myself for having my reactions and my initial unwillingness to face up to the event. I behaved as I behaved, I did what I could do at the time, my response happened and I can let that response go as well.
The more I become aware of the ways that my mind has constructed lines of thought linked to the original event the more I can look at these one by one and choose what to do about them. By addressing each line of thought I can state a new truth; I challenge the automatic associations that my mind has made and I replace these with thoughts that I now hold as true. By dropping the blaming and self-justification I also remove the relived hurt and my anger. By accepting what has happened I am able to choose how to carry that forward, perhaps with some specific actions or with some specific intentions about how I will be if similar situations re-occur.
Dealing With Themic Resentment
Themic Resentment has a long-term aspect, my mind may start with an original event but this has been added to by many others. Older and slight resentments can be more difficult to deal with because the original hurt or outrage has been swamped. Re-triggering of the resentment by new situations, the way that the mind runs resentments together, and any previous attempts to understand or think through our resentments, will have built layer on layer of thought and emotion until the original event and feelings may be very difficult to remember and focus on.
In these cases my experience tells me that the resentment appears as a general response to life rather than as a single long-held act of ill-will. Themic Resentments, including self-resentment, leak out as sarcasm, judgmental put-downs, displays of anger and frustration, and may be a strong source of ‘me-me-me’ behaviour.
Here I have found it important to really expose the cycle of resentment and then dig out all the apparent benefits and behaviours and to state my truths for all of them. As resentment is derived from an original fear, a perception of potential danger, it can be very important to identify what this feared scenario actually is.
To deal with Themic Resentment I prepare myself to face up to some possibly unpleasant truths or beliefs. This process can take some time, and it really helps me to write out my findings and to add to this over a period of days or weeks, until I can read through the thoughts without getting any emotional response and the outward behaviour symptoms are gone.
For many, the main behaviour that is associated with Themic Resentments is blaming. Below we shall look at some of the ways that this can play itself out and how to stop getting into blaming, and so how to defuse Themic Resentment.
A strong feature of blaming is that by blaming we reduce our own demand to be responsible. If we blame a given issue on someone else (or even on our own irredeemably failed personality) then we escape the blame ourselves. By making someone else at fault; ‘I missed the bus because you were talking to me’, ‘We can’t afford a holiday this year because your phone bill has been so enormous!’, we get to be free of fault and innocent of blame. By blaming we attempt to become free of guilt, free of responsibility, free of any need to be judged, and free to not take any meaningful action.
This is the cop-out form of blaming, this one blames to achieve escapism. Of course, by reducing our level of responsibility we also reduce our power to act. If we were only late catching that bus because of being talked to then we are also implying to ourselves that there was nothing else that we could do to catch the bus on time. We collude with ourselves in a ‘little’ deceit, in order to perpetuate the myth that we were late because of someone else. We conveniently ignore our abilities to break into the conversation, to run to the bus, to leave earlier and allow time for conversation, and so on. In short, we make ourselves a victim.
By blaming we get to pretend that we are not responsible and we abdicate our power to something that is beyond our control. By blaming we become more and more powerless. As a victim we lose our ability to choose and to act. So, by taking what may initially seem to be an easy route of avoiding responsibility we end up quickly and inevitably converting ourselves into a bystander. And there’s an extra trick that our mind can play here; if we are to be the victim then we must also be apparently unable to deal with the act of blaming. Our mind will create the blame and will present it in such a way that we do not even think of questioning it. This aspect of blaming is what can make it so hard to deal with; it just seems to appear in our mind as an unquestioned truth, because the ‘reasoning’ of resentment is hidden from our conscious mind.
You would think that we would get a little fed up with this path to apparent failure and powerlessness, but don’t forget that as a victim we can seek the support and compassion of others, we can rest happy in the false knowledge that we don’t really have to think too much or take any possibly unpleasant action, we can accept that avoidance is OK after all. Poor us.
Every child knows that by blaming, whether truthfully or falsely, we increase our chance of escaping unpleasantness. Blaming can thus become associated with relief and can become an automatic response to the threat of unpleasantness.
This one actually works in the opposite direction to blaming to become a victim. Here the blame is to avoid becoming a victim. By blaming someone else we attempt to avoid the adverse judgments of others and particularly the adverse judgments of people in positions of authority. By blaming we get to keep our freedom and can avoid ‘paying the price’.
However there is also a deceitful side to this form of blaming which rarely allows it to happen subconsciously - this is conscious manipulation of surrounding society to maintain or boost our perceived position within that society. This is fundamentally an antisocial behaviour pattern that can have the appearance of offering individual benefit, at least in the short term and so long as we are able to get away with it (and if we are OK with being so obviously selfish, ie if we are able to avoid our own self-judgment).
I think of this type of blaming as righteous indignation. By blaming we can pretend to ourselves that we are superior to the one that we blame. This is a blame we can sometimes find ourselves using in public, as our less conscious mind attempts to find support for our false view of ourself. ‘Look at all these people in the queue ahead of me! Why do they choose to come out for their dawdle around just when I’m in a hurry?’
As there is a learned link between blaming and a boost to our pseudo self-esteem and ego, our ‘clever’ mind can also use this one in reverse. When we are beginning to lose our sense of self, when we are feeling ‘down’, when we are sorry for ourselves, then we can simply do a little blaming and lift ourselves back up again. ‘Look at that guy wasting his time dressing like an idiot. At least I know what I’m doing with my life.’
When I recognise this one in myself I know I am onto a very inhibiting set of behaviours. When I find myself just looking for something to blame then I know that I am beginning to get into a ‘poor me’ state and I’m looking for some way to boost my self-esteem.
Blaming is also a logical product of the causal world that we like to think we live in. If every outcome has a cause then every situation has something, or someone, that is responsible for that cause. No matter what happens, there is always something or someone available to blame. And society supports this blaming view of life through a litigious legal system where there is nearly always a victor and a vanquished blamee and through family and sociological upbringing that stresses that we have to behave in certain ways or face the consequences.
By holding it that every consequence, every event, has someone or some group at cause, we get to believe that the world is a fair place, that if we are wronged then we can receive justice. We can get to believe that other people are fundamentally fair, or at least subject to responsibility, and that the society that we live in will give us rights. By adopting a blaming attitude we can reassure ourselves that we have a place in society and that society has a place for us.
Sometimes (for much of my past, read ‘often’) I am just in a grump and looking for something to get angry about. Even though I tell myself that it is not so, I keep on reacting with anger to the stuff that is going on around me. In this mood, I am constantly finding things difficult and intolerable. Everything seems to be stopping me from just getting on with my own life. I would be perfectly OK if only it weren’t for this thing or that person.
Recognise this state of mind? This is where we have contained our anger, sometimes about some completely different event, and we still have an unconscious want to express that anger. We are literally looking for a way to express our anger and in a way that is ‘safe’. Through blaming we can be ‘justifiably’ angry, we can express our anger in a way that we have previously refused ourselves.
I suspect that road rage and extremes of physical and psychological abuse in the home may often come out of a highly dysfunctional way of ‘controlling’ anger. When we use blaming to justify our expression of anger we are giving ourselves permission to behave without consideration. The anger that we express is not about the situation that we find ourselves in, so it is inappropriate. The anger that we express has no effect on the real issues in our life and so no amount of anger expression will get the job done, and we may express much more anger than we intend. By seeking to express anger rather than let it go we are choosing to not look at or deal with the real issues of our life.
It is a widely-held observation that whenever we do blaming, of any kind, we will also tend to get into self-blame. We will blame ourselves for judging others, we will blame ourselves for blaming. When I find myself blaming I will also tend to accuse myself of being weak-willed and untrustworthy, I blame myself for being angry, and I blame myself for acting out superiority.
Self-blame can add to the ‘poor me’, victim-based nature of some of our blaming and this just get us into victim more quickly. As a victim we are more inclined to blame, and so the cycle continues and feeds off itself.
Let’s look at this another way. I’ll show how this may play itself out for me if I do not catch it. My self-blame is expressed as a series of judgments about myself and then a series of demands about how I must behave. The judgments will be self-condemnation; ‘I’m lazy’ for example, or ‘I’m a fool’. The demands are often representations of what I imagine society wants of me or what I think that other people would choose to do if they were in my place. My demands to ‘work harder’, or to ‘stop being selfish’, or to ‘stop making so many mistakes’ come through as an imposition. Emotionally and physically I feel ‘down’ and ‘heavy’. I experience an emotional shame as an expression of my growing beliefs about my own guilt. I get a growing wish to withdraw and feelings of caving in. Once activated, a 'guilty' mind gives me no peace.
Self-blame is generally ineffectual though. It lowers self-esteem, leading to increased feelings of isolation and even self-hate. It takes our focus away from seeing opportunities for change, and can leave us with additional resentment about our situation.
However, when we are blaming ourselves in this way then we can get the same apparent benefit of motivating ourselves through anger. If I blame myself for being inadequate, and then I get to be angry about that, then my anger gives me energy that I can use to overcome the obstacles that face me and to ‘prove’ myself.
This is the ‘coping’ benefit that we’ve already uncovered, that gives us the energy to cope with a difficult world. And, of course, no matter what we do to ‘prove’ that we are not weak and inadequate, we know that our ‘real’ motivation is actually coming from the anger and that even when we behave in a capable and powerful way it is just the power of anger; our actions do not change our underlying belief of self-worth.
Odd, given the number of ways that we can find ourselves blaming others, that we tend to frown on blaming when we see it in others. Few people love a whinger, tell-tales are not usually enthusiastically applauded, not many get medals for casting the first stone.
So what is this counter to blaming? Why do we engage in blaming ourselves, even apparently against our will, and find it such an unpleasant trait in others? We are faced with a paradox in that many of us don’t like blaming, we don’t want to do blaming, but we can find ourselves doing just that, in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways.
Part of it, of course, is that we know that it is not in our interests to be on the receiving end of blaming. Blaming is an antisocial sport and some of our disapproval of our own blaming comes from an appreciation that it is basically destructive.
Part of it is that we just don’t notice what we are up to. As blaming is about justification, we get to believe that what we are doing is perfectly normal and reasonable. We are self-righteously justified to feel the things that we feel (normally anger in some form), and justified to behave in the ways that we behave. It is easier somehow to see others blaming and to disapprove of them for doing so.
Problematically the apparent payoffs for getting into unconscious blaming can seem to outweigh any rationally-based desires we may have to stop. As long as we act in a relatively unconscious way we will continue to resent and to blame, although we may pretend otherwise even to ourselves.
So how do we genuinely get off it?
The first key to quitting is recognition of just what we are doing when we are in our blaming state of mind. Which of the various blaming modes are we in? For a particular case, we can look at what we are doing with our blaming and what we are getting out of it as a direct ‘benefit’. Following this process gives us the vital insights into what we are really after: Are we wanting to express suppressed anger? Do we think of ourselves as inadequate? Are we reacting to some sense of injustice done us? Perhaps we are just feeling down (overwhelmed) and trying to generate the energy to cope?
Once we have identified the act that we are putting on, the behaviour pattern and justifications, then we can look at the triggers and causes for that particular blaming behaviour. We repeat the same behaviour time and time again in response to some common initiator. By becoming clearer and clearer about the nature of our behaviour and the typical initiating circumstances we can identify our own ‘learning’ pattern, what it is that we believe. By identifying our deep beliefs we put ourselves in a position to change.
Before we can change, however, we must actually want to change. The want to change comes through understanding how our behaviour fails to serve us, engaging our deeper passions, and choosing to be a different way.
We have looked above at some of the common ways that our mind will use blaming as a means to gain an apparent benefit. In fact these ‘benefits’ are mainly illusions. Do we really want to be grumpy, angry, full of hurt, accusative, and merely surviving life?
To strengthen our want to change we must also recognise the drawbacks of blaming. Blaming separates us from others, blaming denies our powers of judgment, blaming makes us a victim, blaming fosters our feelings of guilt and self-hate, blaming encourages others to distrust us, blaming hides the real issues in our life, blaming turns us into a character that we generally don’t want to be.
Blaming, and the resentment that underlies it, are normal processes of the mind that are largely non-conscious and that are learned. This means, just as with all the behaviours and belief systems that we are looking at in these walks, that change is possible but that we do not have a direct conscious control of the results of that change process. The more that we can engage our full mind, including our feelings, our learning processes, our memory, and our passion for change the more success we are likely to achieve. One simple way to do this is to go through the list of false benefits and drawbacks repeatedly until you get a shift of feeling. This shift of feeling indicates that you have engaged your deeper mind, your deeper passions.
This approach to quitting blaming can be listed as 5 steps:
But isn’t step 5 just pie in the sky? How can I just magic up a different solution? How can I just adopt an alternative set of behaviours and responses? The fact is that our new solution will depend on our own particular situation.
What we are doing in the first four steps is clearing the way to the fifth. By becoming clear about the issues and our current behaviour we are giving ourselves the power to make new choices. Where previously we behaved automatically and unconsciously, which denies consideration of alternatives, now we are able to choose. Once we have a genuine want to change, as supported by the fourth step, we are ready to complete the change by choosing what to change to. Usually the new solution, the new behaviour, is obvious once we have fully completed the first four steps.
Quite a long walk this one.
We started with a definition of two basic forms of resentment; Particular and Themic. These help us to identify what resentment actually is. We established a possible underlying mechanism for resentment as a simple early-warning mechanism with direct survival benefit. Resentment is our Fear Alarm and it uses memories and thoughts that are stored at a largely unconscious level to identify potential risks in our current environment.
We went on to look at the ways that this warning mechanism, based on personal experience and learning, can be used to offer survival benefit in different situations. These include having a way to become sensitive to possible low-level dangers, having a way to avoid situations that have proven threatening in the past, having a way to cope with difficulty - to survive the tough times, having a way to cope with personal feelings of isolation and personal adversity, and having a way to bond into groups to face shared adversity.
Having identified these historical benefits for resentment we moved on to look at why resentment, and the blaming that often results from it, is often not appropriate in our modern society and may cause us significant problems.
We completed the walk with a simple set steps that we can use to switch the Fear Alarm off and change our response to it in the future.