Friday, April 16, 2010

Is Resentment Inevitable?

by Miki Kashtan

Recently I talked with a friend about why he harbors so much resentment towards his partner and their 13 year old child, that he sometimes reacts with intense anger to relatively minor snappy expressions. My friend, let’s call him Fred, wanted to free himself from the grip of unconsciously chosen anger, so he could choose how to respond.

Invisible Contracts
As we talked, Fred recognized that it’s highly unlikely that he can transcend his reactivity in the moment. It’s almost always too late. The moment of true power is earlier, when he makes his own choices about what he will or will not do.

Fred suffers from a common affliction I like to call being “overly nice.” Simply put, Fred tends to stretch towards his partner and his child, or say “yes” to what they ask of him. That “yes” often comes with an expectation, usually unconscious, that they will appreciate him later. Then, when they don’t show appreciation, he can easily experience it as a breach of an invisible contract they don’t even know they signed! No wonder he gets so angry.

Complete Ownership of Our Choices
The first practice Fred decided to adopt was simple: before he says “yes” he will check to see if he is genuinely able to do so without expecting anything later. Fred was shocked to discover how often he would then have to say “no.” I then offered him a middle strategy as well. If he couldn’t release his expectation, maybe he could be honest about it. He could say something like: “I'm willing to do it. I am so sad to say that I don't have the capacity inside to do it without building resentment. Would you like me to do it given how much of a stretch it is for me?”

Asking for What We Want
Fred was excited about how much freedom he could get just from learning to identify and honor his limits. For greater freedom, he decided to become equally honest and exacting with himself about what he wanted from his family and to take explicit action to make it happen. His continuous willingness to stretch had been hidden from his family, making it so much easier for them to take his “yes” for granted. Now he plans to be transparent about stretching so he could be seen.

He also intends to let his family know how much he wants appreciation, and to ask them to express appreciation whenever they notice it. Working his way towards expressing his need, Fred had further insight that self-respect is about how he treats himself, and has very little to do with how others treat him. This allowed him to glimpse the possibility of expressing to his partner in full the pain he sometimes experiences in their interaction, rather than masking his vulnerability with anger.

I heard from Fred that in the first 24 hours of applying his practice he already experienced much more freedom than before. He said “no” to his child on a number of occasions. He noticed how much harder it was to say “no” to his partner. Even without changing all his habits, he experienced growing clarity, self-honesty, and choice, and reduced resentment. I like to believe that many of us can increase our sense of power in life if we become more honest about saying “no” when anything less than unattached generosity is motivating our choice, and if we grow in our capacity to ask for what we want.


  1. I was recently talking with a friend and when I read you're opening paragraph it seemed familiar to what we were talking about only I called it 'implicit agreements.' And what I got out of it is that when we break an implicit agreement - using your example - Fred saying 'yes' when he wasn't really doing it with a full heart, is also a way of avoiding feeling 'guilty.'

    The implicit agreement in this case is that families take care of each other and maybe Fred is telling himself a story that saying 'no' means he's breaking that agreement to take care of his family and he feels guilty.

    As I reflect upon this I remember my last relationship when part of my practice was to say 'no' when I couldn't say 'yes' wholeheartedly and his reply was something like: "How can you say no to me? This is your partner talking, you can't say no to me."

    I like your middle strategy and the outcome. As I read it though I notice I'm feeling doubtful that lasting change could happen so quickly. I think my need is for trust and hope. It would seem to me that Fred's partner would need to be open to dialog about what's going on for Fred in order for this to work.

    I'd be curious about any response you have to this Miki.

  2. I am responding to a comment from "anonymous".

    When your partner said to you that he was your partner and you couldn't say "no" to him, he clearly had an invisible contract with you, which he was angry at you for violating. The invisible contract metaphor is different from implicit, because often the implicit agreement is, indeed, an agreement between two people. If you ask them, they would both recognize the existence of the agreement. The phenomenon I am talking about is when you have an expectation of someone else, and they don't even necessarily know about it when they "violate" it.

    Now, to your second question. Indeed, in my experience lasting change usually takes ongoing practice and doesn't happen immediately. At the same time, if Fred approaches a situation with an entirely different energy from what he had before, the outcome is likely to be different even if his partner has not changed, because she is in relationship with him, and if he changes the entire field between them changes, and she cannot any longer be exactly the same. This is part of the power that we have with each other. That said, I also want to say that I constructed the particular response I proposed to Fred knowing some information about the partner. If the partner were an entirely different person, I probably would have proposed a different piece to say. In my experience, in most situations there IS something you can say that is authentic and caring and could be heard by the other person. Our imagination is usually smaller than the actual possibilities.

    I hope this satisfies your curiosity.