BRAIN HACKING 102: ON RESENTMENT
THAT DARN BLIND SPOT
As I always do, today I started my morning by sipping coffee on my balcony looking at the beautiful view of the Hamilton mountain. As my mind wondered, I noticed a mechanical buzzing sound, like an electric generator or an industrial air conditioning unit. I never noticed that before, but thinking on it it’s always been there. My mind has always chosen to block it out, the way our brain choses to ignore the view of our nose in oder to focus on what’s ahead.
This led me to wonder what else we miss on a regular basis. How many times have we looked for our house keys on our way out, went crazy looking for them just to realize they were in our coat pocket or in our purse? Are we really as clueless as a fish in a fishbowl, unable to see what’s beyond the glass? Can we transcend these internal filters, or at least become more aware of them? Can we compensate for these perceptual blind spots?
Truth is “we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” These are not my words—though I wish they were—, but those of Anaïs Nin, one of my favourite French writers. Like Jean Paul Sartre, her contemporary, Anaïs Nin believes that it is the specific experiences of our lives that shape our beliefs, and those beliefs inform our evaluation of the world we perceive. Our behaviour depends as much on the objective situation we find ourselves in, as on the way we construe that situation.
SOCIAL ANIMALS IN SMALL CAGES
A fairly recent study at the University of Texas found that on average we spend 30% of our waking hours engaged in conversations with others. We long to belong, to make significant connections with others. We are without a doubt social animals.
Each interaction has a certain set of expectations based on the nature of the relationship. Say for example in the context of a discussion which reveals opposing opinions; with an acquaintance you will be much more tactful than with a friend. At the same time, a friend’s disagreement will impose a greater strain on a relationship than a disagreement among strangers. Differing opinions may be seen not just as a lack of validation of a specific world view, but as an implicit negative judgment on the other’s person view. There is no such thing as agreeing to disagree in those situations.
We long for external validation, and the emotional investment, and expectations we place on others are the very reason why much of our inner turmoil is often caused by the frustration of these basic needs.
Things get even more muddled when it comes to relationships of a romantic nature. The stakes are higher, the emotional investment greater. And if driven by insecurities and fears we have a tendency to control our partner, get upset if they don’t abide to our unspoken rules, and revert to childish patterns, afraid of voicing those feelings. We’ve all been there: You expected a phone call and it doesn’t happen; you then retaliate by ignoring the person’s next call for an entire day just to show them how it feels.
THE FAIRNESS DELUSION
While the deep seeded conviction that people should conform to our standards of fairness activates that resentful behavior, it is our fear to lose that connection that forces us into passive aggressive patterns.
This is truly a double bind. On the one hand, if we judge people based on how we think they should behave, we will forever be disappointed and resentful. On the other, if we don’t own up to our emotional needs and examine them for what they really are, we will be unwittingly stuck in a cycle of misery. Hell is not other people, hell is being a slave to one’s own learned responses. And emotions are just that, learned responses.
It would be easy enough to see the cause of those negative emotions in the person that triggered them. However, whether you cut them out of your life or you manage to make them conform to the way things “should be”, who’s to say that ten more people in your life will not elicit those same emotions in the future? The more “ecologically sound” thing to do is to find the true source of that anger or that resentment, taking responsibility for those emotions, and acting on the faulty thinking that caused them.
First off, realize that fairness is relative, not absolute. What we deem to be fair is based on what we need and want, which may in turn not match what the other person needs or want. Keep your measuring stick to yourself, lest you trip over it and fall on your face one too many times.
Our beliefs are so powerful as to drive us to dismiss or distort any evidence that may contradict them, or conversely to seek out evidence that confirms them. It’s a design flaw, a blind spot that we must account for when negotiating how we move through life (which I am told is harder than parallel parking).
Secondly, the cognitive distortion known as the fairness fallacy is based on a strange form of self-centred thinking. If rather than setting standard for others to live by, we attempt to exercise empathy we might very well break this pattern. Be outward directed, rather than inward directed, and see what happens?
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes may very well snap you out of the compulsion to force others to conform to the way you think things should be. This emotional competency may ultimately lead you to live a happier, richer life.
FROM RESENTMENT TO RESOURCEFULNESS
So, how can you tap into this resourceful emotion we call empathy? Here are three things you can do:
1. Meditate or reflect on the resentment you are feeling and what it represents:
Focus on the person that has provoked this feeling. How do they make you feel? What are you thinking when you feel this? How does it feel to feel this emotion, meaning is it an empowering emotion or is it a defeating emotion? Note to yourself that this is a distinct state of mind, separate from your optimum self.
2. Begin a dialogue with the person that has triggered your resentment:
Snap out of that passive aggressive pattern, and actively engage in an exchange about your feeling. Don’t go on the attack, really listen to what the person is saying. Put yourself in their shoes, and make sure they know you are really listening to them without judgment. Try to explain your point of view (the difference between what should happen and what does happen, and why you feel your way is better) and how it may effect all involved in a positive way. Remember, it’s not all about you and your hurt feelings.
3. Try the following guided visualization* to activate empathy:
a) Remember a warm safe place you felt safe and loved as a child. Explore it with all your senses (how does it feel, sound, look?). Imagine this general feeling of safety turning into a bright all-enveloping light. Imagine yourself floating in that light, and and imagine a brighter spot fluttering right at your solar plexus.
b) Think about the person who triggered your resentment. Imagine them in front of you. Imagine a ray of light emanating from your chest to their solar plexus, as powerful as expelling a deep breath. Send that positive feeling of safety to that person, and hold nothing back.
c) Feel that connection between the two of you as deeply as you can, within that safe all-enveloping light. Don’t just watch that light, but imagine how the person receiving it may feel at that moment. Sit with this image for a while. Now relax, you’ll feel yourself surrounded again by that safe warm light. As that ray of light returns to you, you will feel filled up, happy, safe, and at peace.
SOME LAST CONSIDERATION
While options 1 and 2 are pretty easy to grasp, I can understand how this last one may be harder to get your head around. Believe me, I too tend to be a skeptic, but I also believe we should all try everything once, before dismissing it altogether. In a future post I will explain in more detail the mechanics of visualization and why I believe it works. In the mean time, try it out a couple of times and see if it works for you. If you feel something shifting, do let me know. If you feel I’m full of crap, let me know too.
In more general terms, if you find an emotion like anger or resentment is poisoning your day-to-day life, remember to follow the 4 “Rs”
1. Recognize: Identify the feeling (i.e. Resentment)
2. Realize: explore the deeper meaning or origin (i.e. Fallacy of Fairness)
3. Replace: substitute it with a resourceful emotion (i.e. Empathy) through reflection or vistalization
4. Repeat: until the new resourceful emotion becomes the standard response.
And remember, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit" (Aristotle).
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*The visualization above is the result of combining two separate exercises from the following sources:
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