While we’ve been attending to fear and how it inhibits parenting and lives well lived, it’s worth keeping in mind the relationship between fear and anger—and anger’s brooding distant cousin: resentment.
When we feel scared we may run away, freeze up or go into fight mode. This marks the workings of our primitive brain. Thus fear and threat are generally the root causes of anger.
When we are scared of things that do not truly pose a dire threat to us (but make us feel, and react, as if our very lives are threatened), or when we are scared that things may happen which in truth have already happened (like being, or feeling like we were, abandoned as children and thus chronically fearing abandonment) we move into the more neurotic realms of functioning, or perhaps dysfunctioning.
From a brain standpoint, when we are triggered into fear the blood flow to the part of the brain that does positive social connecting stops. Obviously being very angry and in the red zone tends to bring out the worst in our parenting; it also tends to blow up all sorts of other relationships. Thus anger management is a good thing to cultivate.
There is a more insidious sort of anger that can also get in the way of our relating: resentment. While anger relates to a clear threat in a given moment (even if the threat is to ego or sense of self or security), resentment is what festers in the wake of hurt, envy or perceived betrayals and slights. Resentment tends to relate to unequal power dynamics, where someone with physical, emotional or economic advantage hurts us and we are powerless to stop it.
Resentment has a way of carrying on within our own hurt and darkened hearts while those we resent go on about their business, often unaware of us and our hurt.
Resentment can also be a window into what we want but do not have, be it money, social standing, attention, power, validation or comfort. While we may live in a world that certainly seems unfair, and which often seems to favor the lucky with little evidence that the lucky are inclined to truly help the less fortunate (sure there is charity, but it is largely swamped by poverty, genocide, corruption and the like). Perhaps this shall change one day. What can we do to help it change?
Turning the other cheek may work for certain sages and prophets, but to us mortals that can look a lot like suppression, denial or sublimation rather than enlightenment, much less enlightened self-interest.
Perhaps a central brain/social/emotional problem with resentment is that it is a bit like a low-grade-infection—not quite as big and clear as overt anger, and yet a chronic stress on the system. If the angry brain does not read social cues, does not succeed in empathy and does not seem playful or engaged, then the person laboring under the burden of resentment may be at a social and neurological disadvantage in which negativity begets further negative interactions, deepening isolation and distrust.
Whether letting go of the past, or working a program of sobriety for example, identifying resentment is a first step to releasing it. One must acknowledge that one feels hurt, maligned and carries anger. A good strategy is to write a letter outlining the full and specific nature of the hurt incurred—and then NOT to send the letter. Instead one uses the letter to articulate and contain those feelings and, in essence, validate them for one’s self.
At this point we are well served to forgive and let go in our own minds. Many people resist this, feeling that the person or group that did the hurting doesn’t deserve forgiveness. The point here isn’t to debate if “bad” people deserve forgiveness (although I believe that when we feel safe and good about ourselves we are generally kind, although compassionate and generous usually takes a little hurting of our own to fully grasp the importance of empathy; and hence the blithely clueless “let them eat cake” sorts of half-baked charitability in the economically, although not necessarily emotionally, very fortunate). The point is to recognize and release resentments for one’s own good—and for the good of our children.
When we are unconscious about our resentments, or blocked in releasing them, we may be at heightened risk of projecting them onto others. A classic dynamic I have seen is where a certain child reminds a parent of their own parent; the parent then treats that child as a remnant of the parent they resent, sometimes taking out hurt on the child who becomes a sort of screen for the parent’s projection.
For example, my mom lost her dad early in life. I am named after him, and I was often told that I reminded my mom of her dad. I was also characterized by my mom as a “little old man” when I was a child and told that I was “wise beyond my years.” Obviously my mom loved her dad and she loved me, but she may have also resented her dad for “leaving her,” by dying young. Perhaps my mom’s unconscious retaliation was to “abandon” me by sending me to camp at a young age or by being often preoccupied and not giving me as much attention as I craved.
While this is a tepid example compared to overt mistreatment, it is meant to illustrate how resentment, like unresolved trauma, can transmit anxiety and problems with relating and attaching to our children.
So, please consider your resentments. Consider writing about them. Consider truly forgiving, especially if you are feeling like explaining the awful injustices and wounds you have suffered, if you are feeling angry about them and disinclined to forgive but rather to imagine revenge. Feel free to recount your wounds if you think it might help (you can be fairly sure that those you resent most keenly are highly unlikely to be reading anything you write here), but also please consider practicing loving kindness as an act of power and liberation.
It might not bring you fame and fortune, but it just might bring you the feelings you ultimately seek underneath every possible fantasy: the feeling of being free, abundant, creative, playful, loved and loving, of being interconnected with the everything. What we want is not “all good” but rather is the ability to feel a full range of emotion and experience, free of crippling fear and toxic resentments.
Trust that if you are reading these words you are currently safe from immanent harm, you are not being chased by tigers or threatened with weapons in this living pulsing moment. It can be hard to keep that clear when we feel scared or angry. Parenting has a way of pushing our envelope, thus it is a brilliant teacher rife with teachable moments for us as well as our kids.
So, here’s to some sort of virtual hug, a validation and at the same time an encouragement to relinquish whatever resentments we’ve been dragging around, letting them slip away like dewdrops from leaves (to crib from Herrigel, who learns to release an arrow in this spirit from a Japanese Zen Master).
Perhaps we dip into a bit of sadness and sorrow together as we let down our guards. I think of times I’ve hurt my kids’ feelings and it pains me deeply. But perhaps free of resentment we can repair, we can offer apologies and make amends with those we realize we have wounded (even, or perhaps especially, as we have tended never to get such apologies from those who we resent).
Freer of our resentments, perhaps we curb (if not stop) the cycle of sarcasm, of impatience, of unconscious moments of festering cruelty, not so much becoming all peace and light, but becoming flexible and adaptive as human beings, mostly not angry and more able to bounce-back and repair when we do get triggered. Then we feel things and let them go, rather than getting stuck in multi-year cycles of resentment-filled doldrums.
Here’s to such days ahead, between us all in a rippling and expanding understanding of what it means to be family—to cultivate safety and calm in ourselves and our children, and hope it becomes a trend in our world.