Banishing Resentment (January 16, 2014)

The theme of this week’s Al-Anon meeting was “Resentment.” It was examined and discussed from a variety of angles. But the larger lesson imparted was that holding onto it does no harm to anyone but thyself. As the great Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Before the meeting started, I joked with a friend that resentment was my life’s work. How could I be expcted to give it up? Keeping score was one of the family’s favorite activities throughout my formative years. We were competitive on the athletic field, at the game board and most of all, during arguments. The rules confused my sister and I but we certainly internalized the need to try and follow. Satisfaction points were awarded to the aggressor who delivered the lowest blow, drew the quickest and most plentiful tears and generated the most enduring shame. On the other hand, earning the title of “Most Acutely Suffering” also seemed to possess its own appeal.

I never cared much for developing my skills as a verbal pugilist. The debilitating firsthand pain offered by domestic and external bullies alike led to resolution. I would not wittingly subject another to ritual humiliation. It’s cruel, bad karma. But oh how the martyr title fit just right. I often wore the cloak of the persecuted – and I wore it well. It provided excellent cover for withdrawing into my own little world, furiously journaling about how they’d all be sorry one day.

With very little consciousness, I carried this habit forward into adulthood. I found comfort in a familiar pattern. Step 1: Deplete my own energy by giving everything I had without consideration of the worthiness of the task or subject. Step 2: Experience the special kind of misery only available to those with a determined lack of self-respect and the good sense to say “Enough. I’m done.” Step 3: Bask in the masochistic glory of knowing I had been utterly wronged. Step 4: Wait vigilantly and patiently for my assailant to receive their comeuppance.

String 35 years or so of co-dependent, destructive relationships together however, and it becomes impossible to hide from the reality that for all your perceived virtue, you are definitely part of the problem. In the first place, Ms. Naïve Version of Social Justice, there is no mathematical certainty that someone who’s injured you will come to regret it, either through self-awareness or ironic retribution. It is in fact frequently the case that those who move through the world without conscience, remain untouchable. Life isn’t fair. And in the second place, if you’re repeatedly drawn to this dynamic, maybe you’re just as broken as the person you’ve deemed a horrible monster. Repeatedly casting yourself as a victim under circumstances designed to end up with that result, is nothing short of pathological.

While I have not been successful in knowing when to say, “Enough. I’m done.” to others, I figure the quickest way to improve is to start with myself. And so, I am taking off the cloak of matrydom. It’s scary but it must be. Recovery is of course a process and I am bound to risk a step backward now and again, but I am resolute. All those years of cocooning myself in bitter resentment has yielded insomnia, autoimmune diseases, depression and two divorces. Who is the bully in my world after all? Letting go and detaching with love is not a habit that comes naturally, and I can think of two people toward whom I’ve not evolved far enough yet to forgive and compartmentalize. But I’ve put the scoreboard away. The game is over. Team Martyr has lost repeatedly. It’s time to stop blaming my parents for impulses I now have a choice to control.

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