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Why so bitter? What the rise of resentfulness is doing to your health

<span class="caption">What resentfulness is doing to your health</span><span class="photo-credit">Hearst Owned</span>
What resentfulness is doing to your healthHearst Owned

No one wants to perceive of themselves as a resentful person. But, when you think about it, honestly, it's hard to argue against the emotion having a starring role in your emotional ecosystem, right now. Maybe you’re silently seething at your partner who exits the draining labour raising of raising a toddler for 10+ hours every Monday to Friday. Or congratulating your friend for scaling another rung of the corporate ladder – and being financially rewarded for doing so – only for them to order decadently at a group dinner and declare: ‘We’ll all split the bill, yeah?’

Perhaps it’s politics – which, for many, has never felt more personal – causing the wedge to build up - scaly and stubborn as limescale on a shower head - between you and someone, or something in your life.

For Phoebe*, a 34-year-old who works in the City, the source of resentment came from a mismatch between how she wanted her friend to act, and how they did in reality. ‘I’m a people pleaser – like, overly, overly so,’ she tells WH. ‘Within my relationships, I always seek resolution, sometimes sacrificing what I want and need and believe to be correct for an outcome I know will satisfy the other person. I’d do it to keep the peace within the relationship, but it would trigger an inner turmoil that would leave me with this low, rumbling hum of bitterness. I’d resent the friendship; I’d resent myself. It was miserable.’

Phoebe isn’t alone. Resentment is an emotion that spreads like ink through water, churning you up as you swallow it down. ‘By its very nature, resentment is addictive,’ explains psychotherapist Dr Charlotte Dunsby-Ferguson. ‘It’s generally born of a feeling of injustice and so you look for vindication, mentally replaying emotions and events in your head on a continuous loop.’

And if you think you’re above it, then stop for a minute. Look a little closer – it’s not even the big headline-grabbing stuff. That suspiciously brusque email from your boss that you’re still rereading a week later? The argument you can’t stop telling people about because you need to hear how it really wasn’t your fault?

And that skin-tingling, heart-ratcheting feeling you get when you’re stalking your ex online only to discover that his new girlfriend doesn’t look like Michael Gove exiting a rager? Small, insidious resentments are creeping up everywhere, quicker than you realise. Society is in the throes of peak resentment, and experts are aware just how destructive it can be to your health; landing the same sort of blow to your immunity and mind as long-term stress or anxiety will.

Root cause

Predictably, you can start by blaming your parents. Unlike their own tough-gig upbringings, a lot of late-20th century childhoods were built on positive encouragement, the belief that ‘you can be anything you want to be’ and the mantra: ‘It’s the effort that counts.’ So real adult life can be a bit of a kick in the teeth.

‘As kids, we’re often taught to think the world is fair, but this only sets us up for disappointment later,’ says Professor Ann Macaskill, a psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University. Now take those dashed expectations and marry them with a social shift fuelled by technology.

So much is pinned on social media nowadays that it’s easy to blame it for everything. But when it comes to resentment, it really is something of an emotional bear trap. ‘Social media makes it far too easy to compare yourself with others,’ says Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology at Manchester University ‘These comparisons can lower self-esteem and form a root cause of resentment.’

Because when you’re not confident, you feel hurt even more keenly. Added to that, you can’t move on the way you used to. Once upon a time, you’d break up with someone – be it a partner, friend or colleagues – and never have to see them again.

Now you can revisit them on social media constantly, never quite breaking the link. And as you’re stoking the fire, you’ve become less equipped to put it out. ‘It’s then all too easy to fuel that resentment with online stalking. If you already feel resentful towards them, then you’re feeding that resentment over and over.’

Technology has also skewed your emotional intelligence. ‘We’re doing less and less eyeball communication,’ continues Professor Cooper. ‘And when you can’t see someone face to face, you can’t pick up on social cues and intentions, so you’re more likely to misread a situation.’

A joke that would have been obviously tongue-in-cheek in person seems passive aggressive by email. When a friend texts last minute to cancel plans, you can’t sense the stress and sincerity in her voice. So what do you do? Rather than chat over a walk, or even on the phone, you seethe in private, building up a wall of silent resentment.

Toxic consequences

Of course, we’re all guilty of letting bitterness get the better of us now and again. But there’s a reason you need to nip it in the bud. Experts agree that once you feel resentful about one thing, it can open the floodgates.

‘Over time, you can become hyper alert to perceived snubs,’ says Professor Cooper. ‘It becomes a vicious cycle of oversensitivity, feeding your existing feelings of potential inadequacy and pessimism.’

So, if you’re already carrying a heavy resentment load, you’re probably not going to look fondly on that guy who nips into the empty self-service checkout before you. ‘At first, people will be sympathetic. But that sympathy will wane, and this just makes you more bitter about the fact that no one cares,’ says Professor Macaskill. It can erode your relationships quicker than you can say, 'er, I was in front.'

It’s this pernicious nature that has led German psychiatrist Dr Michael Linden to coin the term ‘post-traumatic embitterment disorder’ (PTED) to describe when resentment is so deep-rooted that it has long-lasting physical consequences.

Whereas the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) revolve around feeling as though your life is under threat, with this, it’s as if your whole belief system is being attacked. ‘PTED sufferers feel the world has treated them unfairly,’ says Professor Macaskill. ‘For these people, it’s their way of being – resentment has become a part of their identity.’

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Even if you wouldn’t get PTED stamped on your file, living with any level of resentment can throw your health seriously out of whack. Its obsessive nature makes it a self-perpetuating sort of stress; the more you obsess over your resentment, the more your body will suffer. ‘Long-lasting resentment can lower immune system function as well as bring on headaches, insomnia and chronic pain,’ says Dr Dunsby-Ferguson.

Professor Cooper agrees, pointing to several studies by Ohio State University that have shown that people who bury their emotions inhibit their immune systems and are at risk of developing long-term illnesses.

‘A lot of research has shown that, as a coping strategy in life, holding in your emotions (which is very much part of being resentful) is one of the worst things you can do,’ explains Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology at Manchester University. ‘Either you eventually blow up – but it’s usually not targeted at the person you feel resentful towards, which, in turn, causes you more mental distress – or you get sick.’

Researchers in psychoneuroimmunology – the study of the interaction between psychology and the body’s nervous and immune systems – found that holding on to negative feelings stimulates the overproduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines. And this inflammation can leave you vulnerable to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers.

Furthermore, while you’re battling with bitterness, you might try to replace it with other addictions, warns Dr Dunsby-Ferguson. ‘A resentful mind screams to be altered by something, whether it’s alcohol, drugs or coffee. That then becomes the emotional crutch.’

Better not bitter

Recognising resentment early is key. ‘Once it’s become a part of your identity and you’ve internalised it, it’s harder to get rid of,’ explains Professor Macaskill. Now, we’re not saying the answer is to simply forgive and forget and be done with it – unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as that. (Not least if the source of your resentment is injustice baked into society – be it systemic sexism and misogyny, or discrimination directed at you because of your race, religion or political beliefs.) But people have found a way through.

Phoebe, for one, learned - with the help of a psychotherapist - to accept that people don't necessarily think the way she does. They'll act in the way they're wired to - and that, if she didn't like it, she could do what she's most afraid of and address the issues - or make a call that the person, and their friendship, was no longer for her.

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'I used to have incredibly intense anxiety. I'm not confrontational, so it would manifest with literal knots in my stomach, and racing thoughts about the situation.' She opened up to her friend. It led to a fallout. But this isn't a sad ending.

'It turned out that however difficult having that confrontation - and losing that friendship, at least for now - was, it's been preferable to carrying around the weight of resentment. I'm happier.'

Learn how to let go

Nip bitter behaviour in the bud by askingyourself these four questions…

1/ Am I being a bit of a dick?

We can all be guilty of overreacting now and then, or getting unnecessarily offended because we got the facts a bit wrong. Try to make a detached assessment of your feelings. ‘Go through it with someone else,’ advises Professor Cooper. ‘But make sure it’s someone who can be honest with you.’ Now’s not the time for yes men.

2/ Have I explained what’s wrong?

Does the person in question know you’re upset? ‘Before confronting someone you resent, sit down and think about what led to the situation,’ says Professor Cooper. ‘Then plan what you want to say. This will help you address them in a rational way. If you’re aggressive, you’ll get a defensive response, which will only fuel your resentment.’

3/ Do I feel confident?

When you’re less self-confident, you often want people to respect you more, and when they don’t you can get upset,’ says Professor Cooper. When it comes to improving your self-ratings, try making a scrapbook - be it in an actual journal or a file on your desktop - of anything that reminds you that you’re a decent human. Yes, it’s basically an ego trip, but it can help. (Just don’t post it on social media looking for self-confidence boosting plaudits.

4/ Am I in a negative thought rut?

If you’re the turbo-introspective sort, you need to get out of your head. ‘Your thoughts can influence your feelings so, every evening, spend 10 minutes focusing on the positive aspects of your personality and your day,’ advises Professor Macaskill. ‘This will give you more positive thoughts, crowding out the negativity.’

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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