How to Short Circuit Toxic Emotions
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
- Nelson Mandela
All human emotions – even the "negative" ones – have evolved to serve a purpose. Anger, for example, can motivate us to defend ourselves when threatened. Disgust has evolved to drive us away from toxic contaminants which could make us sick. Sadness, which might on its face seem a wholly painful and unpleasant feeling, can be a fundamental precursor to compassion and empathy for others. There is, however, one negative emotion that is uniquely toxic, particularly when it outstays its welcome: resentment.
Resentment is a complex emotion. It's best described as a prolonged feeling of profound bitterness grounded in a sense of unfair treatment, or in darker feelings such as jealousy or envy. Can resentment, like the other negative emotions described above, serve a good purpose? In small doses it can. Its emergence is a sign that something is off kilter. Maybe someone is taking advantage of us and we need to speak up and say our piece. When leveraged in a positive direction, resentment can motivate us to want to right a wrong or pursue justice.
But while resentment can be a motivator to achieve something positive, it can’t be the singular motivational force. Allowing resentment to linger persistently comes at a steep cost, for both our brain and body.
Harboring negative emotions triggers the release of stress hormones, which prepare us to fight, flight or freeze. This response is useful in circumstances of acute danger, but when it becomes chronic, the stress of resentment impairs our immunity , brain function , and even causes premature aging . This truth is even reflected in our popular culture. In Avengers Endgame, Tony Stark ends his feud with Captain America with these words: "Turns out, resentment is corrosive, and I hate it."
It’s hard to let go of resentment, particularly when we feel it is rooted in the perception of injustice. Regardless of how justifiable your resentment might be, the unfortunate truth is that the bitterness you feel harms you, and no one else. Living in a state of perpetual resentment – if left unchecked – can snowball from a specific event or person to a general orientation towards the world. From a health perspective, the goal should be to pursue justice and fairness without resentment.
How Can you Stop this Vicious Cycle?
Here are two strategies that might help you escape the haze of resentment.
Write it Down and Talk it Through
Ask yourself what this feeling is telling you. Are you justified in your bitterness? Have you truly been mistreated? Or does the tension within you reflect an insecurity or personal shortcoming? Are you reacting particularly negatively to someone else’s behavior because they’re manifesting a trait that you dislike in yourself? Do you fully grasp the situation, or could you be making a snap judgement without all the facts? Could it be that you are another victim of the kind of mob outrage that is so common on social media? Consider writing your thoughts out on paper or relaying them to a close friend who can give you unbiased feedback.
If writing your thoughts down or talking to a trusted confidant doesn’t make a difference, here’s a second tool you can employ to trigger a shift in headspace. There is actually a form of meditation called “loving-kindness meditation” (formally called Metta). This may feel contrived at first, but research shows it to be a very effective way to short-circuit negative emotions . Remember, it’s not about letting the person who has harmed you off the hook. It’s about letting yourself off the hook, and being able to move forward with your life. If the term meditation doesn’t resonate, consider it a form of prayer. And even if you consider yourself a pure “rationalist,” rationally consider the consequences of the alternatives to kindness. Regardless of how you frame it, the practice is the same.
Close your eyes, and silently direct wishes of peace, happiness, and contentment towards the subject of your resentment. Try the following: “May you be happy; may you heal; may you be at peace.” Repeat this for 5 minutes, trying each time to say the words with more love and sincerity. If you can’t feel it, just practice saying the words and over time, it will get easier. After 5 minutes, continue saying the same words, but expand your well-wishes towards the broader community, and even the whole world. This practice doesn’t work for everyone, but for those with whom it resonates, it produces feelings of peace, which are a true antidote for resentment.
With each repetition of the methods above, we take a small step towards love and away from hatred. We strengthen a new neural pathway, which recognizes that bitterness serves no one, and that while we can’t control how others treat us, we can control how we respond.
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 Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(5), 1045.