Resentment comes up frequently as a discussion topic. It feels like it’s a bit overdone, especially when you feel like you have few grievances or think you’re an easy-going person who doesn’t get angry quickly.
So what gives that the Big Book and meetings place importance on resentment? Is it as bad as it sounds? What does it mean for someone who feels they have no grievances?
It boils down to maintaining serenity and staying in a “fit spiritual condition.” We lose contact with our higher power when we hold bitterness toward another human being. When we devote significant headspace to how we will get back at someone, we can’t be content in the present moment. Nowadays, it’s called giving someone space in your head “rent-free.”
Finally, according to AA’s basic text, we are sure to drink if we remain in deep resentment for long. We lose the all-important conscious connection with God.
What is Resentment?
The textbook definition for resentment is “bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly.”
It is a perception that someone has slighted us, and we become sore from it. Another person’s words or actions hurt our feelings. The Big Book calls resentment the “grouch” and the “brainstorm.”
The Big Book also considers resentment the “number one offender,” as the personality flaw that blocks us from achieving spiritual connection (p. 64). Therefore, taking stock of our resentments can lead to a beneficial discovery of our actual personality makeup, the root cause conditions that led us to drink. Reaching a spiritual connection leads to physical and emotional wellness.
Resentment doesn’t always have to be toward another person, either. We can hold resentments toward institutions or principles or even ourselves. For example, we can resent organized religion as an institution or “keeping a positive attitude” as a principle.
How Does Resentment Impact Recovery?
Anger is a poison to peaceful sobriety. It blocks us from our connection with our God. The AA basic text makes clear the impact that resentment plays in our recovery:
It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die. (p. 66)
So the implication is that holding onto anger is a dangerous game. Ordinary people may be able to handle anger much easier.
However, unlike regular drinkers, alcoholics spend countless hours in our cups imagining grand schemes for how we might “get back at someone.” We become so angry that we devote little attention to much else. We have a poor ability to handle resentment in a way that doesn’t damage our own lives.
For example, we could be holding onto anger that a coworker threw us under the bus in front of the boss at work. We may be on the lookout for ways we can cut them down, waiting for a moment we can highlight their poor performance. We sink hours dreaming up all the ways we could then smear them in the eyes of the supervisor.
The AA program believes that shining light on the things that anger us, honestly looking at them with another person, and trying to clean them up are potent practices for bringing you into a spiritual way of life.
Though these actions are uncomfortable, they can be the missing ingredient for why we never sought a higher power who might help us. We kept spinning our wheels with blaming others and piling up more problems in our relationships.
Alcoholics Stay Mad without an Escape
Also, unlike ordinary folks, alcoholics cannot resolve anger. We continue to believe others and the world itself is wrong, and that’s as far as we get. But this belief doesn’t resolve the pain in ourselves that anger produces.
We drink “at” people, often for years. This means we turn anger towards ourselves. We hold grudges for so long that alcohol becomes the only escape we have. We imagine extreme triumphs over the people who wronged us, with the confidence alcohol brings, but in the end, we return to our ruminations.
Thankfully, the steps offer a better solution.
What Role Do the Steps Play in Dealing with Resentment?
With the steps, we, at last, learn new methods of conquering resentment to no longer control us.
Steps 4-9 are the main solutions for anger. They are the “house cleaning” steps. They involve taking an honest inventory of ourselves and the resentments we hold, confessing them to another person, and making amends as part of cleaning up the past.
These steps are naturally uncomfortable. They’re asking us to do things that most of us have never done before. Taking an honest look at ourselves in step 4 is painful. And it asks that we don’t focus on the ways that the other party has wronged us.
However, taking total stock of our resentments is a very fruitful exercise that can bring us much more clarity when we’re through. It uncovers who we are, which we have run away from for years. When we review them with another person, likely our sponsor, we learn the root causes and personality patterns that lead us to drink. In this way, our resentments become assets for discovering our real nature.
The following steps 5-9 are ways to get rid of these resentments. We discuss them with another person and correct them by making amends. We can rebuild relationships that we have destroyed with our anger or at least clean up our side of the street so that they no longer take up space in our minds.
For instance, we may have an old acquaintance whom we hated for stealing the woman we crushed on. We may have then taken a loan from them we never intended to pay back. As part of cleaning up the past with steps 4-9, we openly talk about the story with our sponsor and learn a plan of action. We face the difficult tasks of approaching the other man, expressing our hard feelings, and paying back the loan that they offered us.
Looking at Our Role in a Resentment
A large part of self-discovery is finding our role in our resentments. Of course, other people are often wrong and harm us. But to understand how they affected us, we have to put that aside for a moment. This reveals how we perceive the wrongs in a way that damages us. The Big Book states,
Referring to our list again. Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened? Though a situation had not been entirely our fault, we tried to disregard the other person involved entirely. Where were we to blame? The inventory was ours, not the other man’s. When we saw our faults we listed them. We placed them before us in black and white. We admitted our wrongs honestly and were willing to set these matters straight. p. 67
This exercise of step 4, putting aside the other person, is an essential aspect of learning the root characteristics of our personality. We discover our pride is affected, or fear has made decisions for us. As these shortcomings become clear, a pattern emerges where we can see the scenarios that dictate our lives.
We find why we end up with the same type of romantic partners, why we gravitate to certain kinds of work, and other people’s behaviors that cut down our self-esteem. We cannot see this if we only focus on how the other party has harmed us like we always did before.
How to Avoid Building New Resentments.
The best way to avoid creating new resentments and causing others harm is to keep doing what we believe is right. We run our problems across other alcoholics who have experience. We should also bear in mind that people in the world are sick in the same way we are. They react with unhealthy habits and harm other people, even if they aren’t alcoholics.
Additionally, doing the nightly inventory of step 10 helps reveal any festering anger or amends that should be made. Often we slowly build up anger and problems that we should have addressed earlier.
Reviewing our lives each night helps uncover these issues before they start impacting our waking moments. Discussing them with another person and making right any harms we cause are good practices for keeping us in serenity.