Untangling You (2021) is a guide to attaining gratitude by way of its conceptual opposite, resentment. Drawing on research, anecdotes, and practical insights, it explores how moving from resentment to gratitude will help you mend relationships and lead a happier, healthier life.
Mindfulness, Happiness, Personal Development, Self-Help
Introduction: Untangle challenging relationships by moving from resentment to gratitude.
Maybe it always seemed like your older brother was your parents’ favorite. Maybe your neighbor’s baby kept you up until 4:00 a.m. with its crying. Or your coworker got the promotion you felt you deserved. Or a good friend shared a story you told her in confidence. The list could go on and on. But all these situations have one thing in common: they breed resentment.
Unless it’s dealt with, this resentment will bubble away under the surface; in time, it will grow and fester, infecting other areas of your life and having a negative impact on your health, relationships, and productivity.
Kerry Howells, the author of the book Untangling You, personally experienced this as a young philosophy professor. For years, she’d been tangled up in resentment toward her mother, which directly impacted their relationship; in fact, their relationship was nonexistent. Not only that, but the resentment trickled into her other relationships – even into her own parenting.
One day, she decided to practice what she’d been preaching to her students about reframing resentment as gratitude. She went outside with a pen and paper and wrote her mother a gratitude letter. She thanked her for giving her life, for allowing her to experience the joy of having friends, of learning, of swimming in the ocean, and of being a mother herself.
Howells visited her mother after sending the letter. They hugged. They cried. They felt the tension between them melting. In that moment, their relationship was revived – and it grew stronger until Howells’s mother suddenly died six months later.
From then on, Howells started to feel deeply grateful for everything in her life. Her experience with her mother kick-started her research into gratitude and resentment, which led to a simple but powerful realization: the pain of not being able to access gratitude opens the door to transformation and growth.
It can be difficult to make the first move when you feel wronged. But if you’re as stubborn as a mule (guilty as charged) and think the other person should apologize or change, you’re in the right place. This summary will show you how the act of practicing gratitude can help you let go of resentment. You’ll acquire the confidence and learn actionable steps to untangle the challenging relationships in your life – and move from pain and conflict to joy and peace.
In this summary, you’ll discover
- the interplay between resentment and gratitude;
- how gratitude can help you take responsibility for your choices; and
- strategies to deal with resentment, both toward others and yourself.
Practicing gratitude leads you away from resentment and toward health and happiness.
Here’s a short story for you about two old friends, Sarah and Dave. These longtime best buds made the bold move to get a place together – and that was the beginning of the end of their friendship. Sarah was clean and tidy, and Dave was more of a “free spirit.” Coexisting in the same space can be difficult. It takes communication and compromise. And Sarah and Dave weren’t engaging in either. Soon, Sarah began to withdraw. She was hurt and angry that Dave wasn’t even trying to do his part. Every spoon in the sink, sock on the floor, and light left on in an empty room added to her rage. The distress at home spilled over into the rest of her life. She wasn’t sleeping well, she had a hard time focusing on her studies, and her friends were tired of her complaining. Dave, meanwhile, was oblivious. One day, Sarah couldn’t take it anymore. Bitterly, she decided to move out. The end.
Might there have been a better way for Sarah to handle this conflict – a way that avoided bruised feelings, a broken friendship, and lasting resentment?
This brings us to the first step in shifting from resentment to gratitude: finding your why. Sarah’s why, for instance, might have been to save her friendship with Dave. If she’d cherished their friendship more, she might have been able to shift her focus to the gratitude she felt for him. When finding your own why, make sure you find a reason that resonates – that motivates you to make the often difficult shift. Because there are so many benefits to practicing gratitude.
Here’s one benefit: gratitude makes you feel connected. Being thankful for someone highlights your interdependence by acknowledging the other person’s value, and it takes inventory of what you’ve received from the relationship.
Practicing gratitude can also remind you of someone’s good qualities. Research shows that gratitude, more than any other emotion, has the power to amplify the good thoughts and memories, and weaken the bad. With gratitude, Sarah could have reminded herself of the positive aspects of living with Dave instead of focusing on just the negatives.
Embracing gratitude can also dissolve resentment’s destructive illusions – resentment that makes you feel like you’re a controlling, hyperemotional, or unrealistic person. Gratitude imparts a sense of calm by showing you that you’re not powerless, that you have a choice in how you respond to your circumstances. You don’t have to stay stuck in negativity; there’s another way out.
This sense of agency, calm, and connection that gratitude grants has a positive effect on your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Studies show that having a grateful disposition can help combat anxiety, stress, burnout, and depression – and it can result in better sleep, a healthier heart and immune system, and more energy. In short, gratitude can help you become more resilient to all the challenges that life throws at you.
Because life will throw them. And when you’re hurt, it can be easy to fall prey to resentment. Nelson Mandela was spot on when he said “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Resentment harms and hardens only you as life around you moves forward and forgets. But in order to avoid it, you first need to see your resentment for what it is.
Looking at resentment in terms of its opposite, gratitude, can be helpful in identifying it. Think about your relationships. Is there one where expressing any type of gratitude seems impossible?
As we’ll soon see, it’s only once you’ve identified and understood your resentment that you can address it and start practicing gratitude. And every step you take toward gratitude will take you one step further from resentment.
By understanding the causes of your resentment, you can begin to address them.
Let’s do a little exercise. Close your eyes and consider your life. What do you feel? What thoughts come to mind? Maybe you’re thinking, Wow, life is beautiful – I feel so lucky. Or maybe you’re feeling disappointed and are wondering, How did I end up here? Why is life so unfair? How did my relationships get so strained?
The answers to these questions can be unearthed – and then addressed – by understanding the causes of your resentment. And often, the cause is tied up in nothing more than broken expectations.
In order to have functional relationships, expectations need to be clearly communicated, assessed, and reassessed down the line. And we all know this isn’t easy – remember Sarah and Dave? It can feel very awkward – scary, even – to approach the important people in your life to talk about expectations. But it’s crucial because without recourse, these relationships can fall apart.
Some people react to their resentment by announcing that the only way not to get hurt is to not have any expectations at all. If you don’t expect anything from anyone, you’ll never be disappointed. This stance might make sense for situations in which you truly have no control. But remember, when it comes to how you approach relationships, you have a choice.
So what if, instead of banishing expectations, you adopted a wider lens? What if you still held high expectations but weren’t attached to a certain outcome? Being ok with things not turning out exactly as you expect takes maturity. And it doesn’t always come easy. But the more you practice acceptance by detaching yourself from a particular outcome, the less resentful you’ll be.
Acceptance is one of the building blocks of gratitude. It allows you to search for the learning opportunities embedded in adversity: disappointment is a chance to change and grow. Choosing to work through your resentment by cultivating gratitude doesn’t mean accepting the status quo. It simply means that, even if your expectations aren’t met, you’re still able to keep in mind all the good in the other person. With acceptance, you won’t totally write someone off whenever they disappoint you.
Developing compassion and empathy can help you grow acceptance. To hone these skills, shift your framing from an “I-It” relationship, where you see others as a means to your own end, to an “I-Thou” relationship, where your connection with another person is an end in itself. Ultimately, many of the irritating qualities people display may be underpinned by a frustration – by someone seeking to be heard and seen. In fact, a 2016 study in the UK revealed that people who’ve been bullied are twice as likely to bully others. So try to put yourself in their shoes. If you consciously try to be compassionate and empathetic, you’ll be more apt to spot the gifts that others give you – even those that hurt you.
Receiving gratitude can feel uncomfortable; for many of us, it’s easier to give than get. But the better you are at receiving gratitude, the deeper your interpersonal connections will be. You’ll understand and value others more, and make them feel more valued in turn. So the next time someone thanks you for walking the dog, or just picking up their call, really try to absorb and accept their gratitude.
Being able to receive gratitude is especially pertinent when it comes to feeling inferior – another central cause of resentment. Maybe a joke’s been made at your expense, or you were the target of someone’s thoughtless prejudice. This can result in feeling dumb, humiliated, and resentful.
The French word for gratitude is reconnaissance, and its meaning harkens back to the verb “to recognize.” As Margaret Visser observes in her book The Gift of Thanks, one of the things that humans crave most is recognition from others. Being open and able to receive reconnaissance when it’s offered, then, is vital. An antidote to the inevitable harshness of the world, to feeling small and insignificant, it can restore a sense of identity, worth, and belonging.
In this context, you might see how being a good listener is paramount. Sometimes, expressing gratitude – reconnaissance – just means listening to another’s discomfort and pain with your whole being. If you’ve ever been truly listened to by someone who’s totally there for you, you’ll know what a beautiful, affirming gift this can be.
This is as true for the workplace as it is for your personal relationships. Maybe you’ve noticed that most effective leaders are pros at listening. That’s no coincidence! A great listener builds trust, restores goodwill, and promotes peace – all of which are integral to maintaining happy and productive employees.
Gratitude gives you agency and promotes a growth mindset.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he details the atrocities of the concentration camps – of experiencing the deaths of his wife, brother, and parents. He discusses how some people were broken by their suffering while others took “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances.”
Frankl distilled a universal truth: humans have a choice in how they respond to life’s events – yes, even in the midst of horror. Whether you choose resentment or gratitude will depend on your inner attitude. This refers to the deep you, your essential character. Your inner attitude informs how you orient yourself toward the world; it influences your emotions, thoughts, and actions – even your physical health. As we mentioned earlier, this is where the sense of agency comes in. By merely acknowledging that your inner attitude can be one of gratitude or resentment, you give yourself a choice in how to respond.
If you know you’re approaching a challenging situation, you can enter what’s called a “state of preparedness.” That is, you can strengthen your inner attitude and your sense of agency by proactively setting a tone of gratitude. Concentrate on everything you can possibly be grateful for – your friends’ support, the pretty flowers growing on your balcony, your adorable fluffy companion – and let the awareness of these things fill you up. As you head toward your challenge, this state will help you feel centered and calm; it’ll grant you more freedom to decide how you’d like to respond.
One of the funny things about resentment is that while you’re trying to avoid it, you can simultaneously have gratitude toward it. Actually, being grateful for resentment’s teachings is a crucial step in moving away from it and toward healing. This applies not only to others who’ve wronged you, but to yourself. We’ve talked about expectations; often, falling short of your own expectations is the most painful experience of all. The resulting self-resentment can be pure torture. You become your own worst enemy.
Perfectionism is a common cause of self-resentment. And so to move from self-resentment to self-gratitude, it’s important to explore what “perfection” means to you. To acknowledge that attaining “perfection” is impossible. To admit that the concept is inherently flawed – that even something “perfect” can always be improved.
Instead of chasing the mirage of perfection, strive to do your best – and be grateful for your imperfection. Celebrating the imperfect is embodied in the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, where an object’s cracks or asymmetry make it more beautiful and valuable. Your mistakes, too, can be seen as something beautiful, something valuable, and maybe, eventually, even something to laugh about.
To help increase your self-gratitude, try keeping a gratitude journal. Every night, before going to sleep, write down all the things you were grateful for today: your big cup of tea, a stranger’s smile, the sound of birds singing. Remember to include the aspects of yourself that you’re grateful for: your good health, the way you cheered up your sister, your strength at getting through the day. Then write down an aspect of your character you’d like to change, as well as a way you could practice gratitude toward another.
Noting what you’ve received from others, from the world, and from yourself will diminish your feelings of inadequacy and allow you to be more open to the gifts life is offering. Your self-discovery will also help you cultivate a growth-mindset and proactively look for ways to evolve and do better. With a growth-mindset, perceived mistakes or failures morph into exciting new paths that lead to more awareness and help you grow. In this way, each day is a new chance to learn something – and another thing to be grateful for.
Gratitude helps you take responsibility and gives you the courage to confront resentment head-on.
Assuming you’re human, you have, without a doubt, rubbed someone the wrong way at some point. We all have. As social creatures, though, we’ve evolved to want to be liked. So that feeling you get when someone is upset with you stings in a deep kind of way. Even worse is the thought of having to address that person’s resentment toward you. But although this act can be excruciating, there’s something even worse: not addressing their resentment at all.
In this final chapter, we’ll put everything together and lay out practical steps that can lead you through the murky waters of another’s resentment to a place of clarity and understanding.
As you’ve learned, the first step is to identify the cause of the other person’s resentment. This can be tricky; there’s often not just one thing that caused the pain or misunderstanding, so be diligent. From there, try to acknowledge any part you may have played in contributing to the situation. Pause for a moment, and really examine yourself and your actions.
It’s gratitude journal time: list all the things you’re grateful for. Bringing awareness to these things will replace the bitterness with optimism and courage – they’ll help you see a way forward in your relationship. Now, rehearse how you’ll approach the resentment, and think about what you’ll say. Be as specific as possible. Maybe you’re a manager who didn’t follow through with a particular policy – you could say something like, “I recognize that I undermined your well-being when I broke my promise to be flexible with sick leave, and I want to let you know how sorry I am.”
Finally, you need to face the resentment in the flesh. As you start your conversation, you’ll likely be met with defensiveness and distrust. Don’t take it personally – you’ll need to move past these reactions to find a way of connecting. Here is where your state of preparedness will be a major help!
Addressing others’ resentment won’t be a one-and-done deal. You’ve got to keep focusing on doing your best to be an open, aware, and grateful component of the relationship. In other words, boost your integrity – recognize when you’ve deviated from your course, and make an effort to get back on track. This won’t just broaden your capacity for gratitude; it’ll make it easier for others to come to you with their issues before they devolve into resentment.
Gratitude isn’t just a feeling. It’s an action. And like with learning to play an instrument, you won’t become a virtuoso overnight – it takes practice. To do well, set realistic goals. Don’t take on the world. Instead, choose just one or two frayed relationships. Focus on consistently and steadily developing your gratitude toward them. Start with the less intense relationships, like the coworker who slighted you. From there, you can slowly work your way up to the more emotionally heavy relationships, like the person who broke your heart.
It’s important to note that gratitude is nonreciprocal. It’s not a give-and-take! In order for your practice to really work (and for you to reap all its sweet rewards), you need to express your gratitude authentically and unconditionally.
For things to change, you have to change. Keep this adage in mind, but also remember to be patient with yourself. There will be times when you feel like you haven’t made any progress – maybe you really tried to give that coworker more reconnaissance, but you just couldn’t bring yourself to say “Good morning” today. Rather than focus on results or on how fast you’re moving, appreciate the fact that you’re trying. Baby steps are still steps, after all.
Ultimately, the exploration of gratitude and resentment reveals what matters most in life: your relationships. That’s not to say that all your relationships need to have the same levels of depth and connection. And you don’t have to try to love everyone equally. But here’s the thing: you’ll always be in a relationship with someone – even if that someone is simply yourself. And if relationships are a given, what’s better: ongoing strife and suffering, or peace and happiness?
The choice is up to you.
The main takeaway here is:
The conscious act of practicing gratitude can help you identify and address resentment – and the pain wrapped up in it. To build gratitude toward yourself and others, focus on honing your awareness, compassion, and integrity. With these tools, you’ll realize that you have a choice in how to respond to challenging situations; gratitude will also provide the courage to confront your grievances and make you more open to others’ input. Ultimately, you’ll replace helplessness, anger, or fear with a sense of agency, joy, and interconnectedness.
Here’s another tip:
To express gratitude in a truly meaningful way, put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Consider the person you want to thank: What would they appreciate most? Chances are, their preferences will be different from how you like to show – or be shown – gratitude. Their values, interests, age, background, culture, or gender could all come into play here. For instance, maybe your friend is a working single dad and desperately craving some alone-time. You could offer to cook him a meal or pick up his kids to grant him that.
About the author
Dr Kerry Howells is a thought leader, author, award-winning educator and experienced researcher who has spent over 25 years researching, teaching and practising gratitude. She has presented on the topic of gratitude to audiences around the world as a TEDx speaker and to the United Nations in New York, and is passionate about harnessing the role of gratitude to bring about flourishing relationships, a respectful workplace culture, and ultimately a more peaceful world.