Letting go of resentment

We often talk about letting go as something that we have to “do”. We frame it as a task, an active process. But in the end, letting go is about stopping. It is about doing less, not more.

On the other hand, holding on is something we “do”. We run the scenarios in our heads over and over, imagining what we could have said or should have said or will say next time.

When we hold on to those things that bother us, that hurt us, that made us feel betrayed or small or less than, we are completing a task—most often trying to maintain a sense of safety. Not effectively, not logically, but in that way that we taught ourselves as children because no one in our lives taught us how to do it differently. While this might have helped as children, it doesn’t work out so well as adults. It holds us back from opening fully to what life has to offer.

Holding on in this way is incredibly painful. The initial event that caused the pain is often long gone but we still keep it going. Eventually, we mistake the basis of the pain, blaming the initial event instead of owning that we keep that wound from healing so we can re-open it whenever we want to feel the rush of anger or self-pity or a whole range of other things.

We all hold on to resentment and hurt at times. Learning to let go of them is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves. Here are a few things you can do to start the process of healing.

List. Our resentments are sometimes so automatic that we fail to even notice them when they come up. The first step is to recognize that we have several levels of resentment. There are the hot resentments, the ones that, if you stop to think about them, can make you angry within a few minutes—or even a few seconds. But below that, hiding in plain sight, are the rest of them, some more intense than others. Some older than others. Some we want to deny.

Make a list of these resentments. You might want to categorize them from hot to cold or new to old or in whatever way makes sense to you. Come back to the list the next day, read it through, and add any that you might have forgotten.

Breathe. This is a brief mindfulness exercise. First, find a quiet place to sit, even just for a few minutes at first. You may want to do this longer as you go along, but start with a few minutes with the goal of working up to at least 12 minutes or more. There are lots of free meditation timer apps available if you want to time it.

Breathe in. Through your nose. Fill your abdomen first then your chest. Feel how the breath enters. Feel what moves. Your ribs. Your back. Shoulders. Stomach. Notice how your body stretches to let the air in. Notice how it loosens like a balloon. And like filling a balloon over and over, the more you breathe the looser the body gets.

The goal here is to simply notice how things loosen as you breathe. Not because you are making them loose. Not because you are forcing anything. Your body loosens simply because you notice the breath going in. The breath filling your chest, moving your torso. And the breath going out.

When you have that down, keep breathing and bring in one of your mild resentments. Start with an easy one. Where do you feel it in your body? How does it feel there? What thoughts come up along with it? Is it the thought leading the physical sensation or the physical sensation leading the thoughts?

Now imagine that the next breath you draw enters that place in your body where you feel the resentment or into the center of the thoughts that surround the resentment. Imagine the same loosening you felt in your torso now starts to happen in the resentment. Each breath loosens it a bit more and a bit more.

Picture yourself holding onto the resentment, your hands and arms ache with the effort and the muscles seem locked. Now each breath brings some relief to that effort. Each time you draw in breath it fills to bursting those locked muscles. Each time you exhale some of that ache goes with it, some of that effort to hold, some of that strain.

Keep breathing into the tension and imagine releasing it until you can picture yourself letting it go completely.

Notice. The most important part of this exercise is to take the time and space to notice what is happening. Perhaps the resentment you worked on is gone. Maybe it seems worse. What happened does not matter as much as what you do with what happened.

Pay attention to the process and any patterns that emerge. If you zone out or start fantasizing about revenge every time you bring up certain resentments that says a lot about the the tools you have and the tools you still need to get by in the world.

By going through an exercise like this you start to reshape the way your brain works with these issues. It takes time. Start small and work up. You have a list of resentments to work through. You may have to work on one resentment for a while before moving onto the next. And some of the “hotter” ones may take longer. It’s a skill like any other and the more you work at it the better you will get.