Can you resent someone without thinking they don't deserve what they have?
January 9, 2012 9:02 AM   Subscribe

When someone feels resentful of another person who has something they don't, do they feel that the person who has those things is undeserving?

I have trouble understanding those who are resentful of others for having things they do not, specifically when those others are friends of the person. By resentment I mean that they don't merely feel jealous or envious, but they are actually angry or irritated and stifling those feelings while interacting with the person.

I'm not sure why, but I've never felt that way so I don't understand the line of thinking that makes the person feel resentment, and I would like to understand it better. (I understand feeling angry when someone has been wronged in some way, or mistakenly feels that they have been wronged, but not when no one has actually done anything involving them.) I can sort of understand resenting a stranger that one perceives to be a horrible person in some way, because I figure that the resentful feel that the person is undeserving of good things, or that the resentful person is at least more deserving. (Resentment of, say, the 1% has some logic in it that I can follow.) But maybe I'm misinterpreting this, too?

But I don't understand when people resent their friends for having things they do not. Does it mean that they feel that their own friends are undeserving of what they have, or that they are more deserving than those friends? Can one have those resentful feelings, recognize they are irrational, and still feel pangs of "so-and-so doesn't deserve what they have" they have to talk themselves down from? Is this only the case sometimes, and other times something else causes and feeds the feelings? I am very interested in any descriptions of persons feeling resentment when they like someone and believe the person deserves the good things they have. Is this possible?

Assume for the moment that the people they resent are not flaunting or bragging about what they have; I can understand why someone would be irritated by that and have not felt like I was missing anything on those occasions. The couple of people that specifically come to mind when I think of resentment seemed to feel it instantly, without provocation, when the fact that someone had something was brought up in a normal and non-threatening way. Everyone was a target of it, not just specific people, so I don't think most of the people did anything wrong to cause the feelings. And by "something they don't have" I mean not just material possessions, but stuff like good jobs, or health, or relationships, etc. Examples of this: someone can't say, "My husband/wife read an article about that," without the person feeling resentful that they have a marriage; or they can't say, "I had to stay home from work because I was sick," without the person being resentful that they have a job, or a specific job. It seems these are things that they are already resentful about, and any mention of it bothers them. I understand that these people are sensitive and insecure about certain things, but then there's a big black box I don't understand, and then resentment comes out. What's in the black box? When I am sensitive and insecure about something, it manifests in a more self-directed way where I think other people are actually better than me or more deserving of things, or I'm so down on myself I blame myself for not having things and don't have anger to spare other people, so I don't understand this well.

The resentful people seemed perfectly and genuinely happy for these same people sometimes, and expressed seemingly sincere thoughts that the people deserved good things, so this is why it's so puzzling to me. One person in particular seemed to recognize that their resentment was irrational, so I wonder what thoughts they were having. Needless to say, these people were not easy to talk to about this because it seemed to be caused by things they were sensitive about and most people don't like to admit to having crappy thoughts about decent people, and especially not to people they are close to. They weren't particularly unique in this behavior, so it seems more likely I will get more insight from strangers.

Whenever a friend becomes too resentful of people I simply quit interacting with them, and I have only had to deal with a few people where this was a problem, so I'm not looking for advice on how to handle these people. I just want to understand what upsets them. First hand accounts, articles, books, etc, are all welcome. I read the Wikipedia article on resentment but it didn't clear this issue up for me. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
You seem to have thought this out really well, I think a lot of your thinking makes sense. I think sometimes you can resent someone for not having you don't have because you don't think they deserve it (i.e. "It's not fair that I can't get pregnant and Casey Anthony was a horrible mother"), and sometimes you resent them because you think you deserve it just as much or more than they do (i.e "It's not fair that my cousin, who I love, got a promotion and I didn't.").
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:10 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I sometimes resent people for not appreciating what they have, regardless of whether it's something I have or want or anytime like that!
posted by rosa at 9:14 AM on January 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Our friends are like us in certain ways and very different in others. We tend to think about the former more than the latter. So when our friends get something they deserve and we've never even bothered working for, that similarity pops up before the difference does -- when is the last time you thought about a good friend and the differences between the two of you were immediately highlighted in your mind?

When someone gets something they deserve, we think about what we deserve. And most things we deserve, we never get. So when someone gets one thing they do, we can't help but compare that checked-off goal to our ten thousand not-checked off goals (if, for any reason, that we don't know all ours friends' goals, and will never know them as well as our own.)

A little while ago, one of my best friends from back in the day got featured in an Important Publication as an Important Person. The first thing in my mind was "wait, why is he so special? Why not me?" before the rest of my brain kicked in saying "well, you didn't put in the years of dedication and hard work into Thing like he did. Hell, you don't even like Thing and you barely understand what he does. Just be happy for him." And then I was happy for him and told all my other friends about my awesome friend.
posted by griphus at 9:16 AM on January 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


...and we may have never even bothered working for...
posted by griphus at 9:17 AM on January 9, 2012


Close, but not quite. In order to illustrate what I mean, I'm going to give your people names: Sid is the one who's married, and Hank is resentful. I don't think what you're seeing is that Hank thinks Sid doesn't deserve to be married, it's more like Hank thinks "I ALSO deserve to be married, why am I not? It's not fair! What makes Sid more special than me?" That's a little more complicated than Hank not thinking Sid deserves it; more like, Hank doesn't see that Sid is any more deserving of this happiness than Hank is.

What you see about sometimes these friends being genuinely happy is understandable -- because they're your friends and they want you to be happy. But sometimes we ALL get frustrated with our own lot. And the reason your friends may not have been willing to talk to you about it is because they also feel pretty guilty about these angry jealous feelings at the same time (in other words, one minute Hank may be thinking "It's not fair Sid's married, what has he got that I haven't got?" but the next minute he may be thinking "wow, what's wrong with me? Why am I so angry at Sid? It's not like it's his FAULT....")

However, usually these kinds of situations can be resolved with an honest heart-to-heart with your friends; that's how you work together to discover why Hank may be lashing out ("I don't mean to, Sid, but you actually kind of talk about how awesome your life is a LOT, and you know I just got dumped a few months ago and so it sort of feels like you're rubbing it in...I'll be okay in a couple months, but if you could dial it back a notch for a little while, that'd be awesome."). The fact that your friends seem so sensitive tells me that either you need to have such an honest heart-to-heart with them ("I honestly don't mean to upset you, and I think you deserve these things too, but I also want to be able to just talk to you without upsetting you, how can we resolve this?"), or, if you've done that and they're still unhappy, maybe the problem is theirs.

But to answer your original question -- I think it's a more complicated mindset than "Hank doesn't think Sid deserves these things".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:19 AM on January 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


There is a theory that a lot of the basis for our emotions developed in an ancestral environment tens of thousands of years ago.

Back then most humans lived in small communities of less than 200 people, so if you had a lot, and someone else didn't, you were taking more than your fair share of what was owned by the community. If you had a lot of something, it's entirely possible you were taking more than your fair share from someone else who didn't have any. Before the advent of capitalism, a lot of things were really and truly zero sum (unfortunately, some still are).

I believe the jealousy/resentment you're referring to would have a real evolutionary benefit to have developed in these small communities -- they're basically a compulsion to enforce a social norm. The lizard brain says "Suzie has way more than me, I need to find some way to either shun or torpedo her"

Then their rational brain says "But she hasn't taken anything from me! Suzie's a great gal!"

Lizard brain don't care. Brains haven't really changed since then.

Emotions are emotions, they're not rational decisions -- they come from a different part of the brain, so it's completely possible to rationally think one thing and feel another. There's also a huge variation in the general population as to how strongly emotions are felt. Some people are just very jealous. Some people cry at movies. Some people don't have a whole lot of emotions but sit around and try to explain and analyze the emotions of others....
posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night at 9:21 AM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


One person in particular seemed to recognize that their resentment was irrational,so I wonder what thoughts they were having.

He or she wasn't having any thoughts. He or she was having feelings.

I think what's missing from your equation is the concept if privilege. Two people both work very hard and make every right decision toward success. But only one person succeeded. Perhaps they came into it with a superior education because they lived in a pricey suburb as a child. Maybe she was prettier and caught the HR person's eye. Maybe his uncle was well-connected and got him an interview or internship.

The successful person will almost always attribute that success to his or her own hard work. But everyone works hard and not everyone succeeds.

There's a common narrative when you ask people about their personal success "I worked hard and believed in myself."

But you never hear from the people who worked hard, believed in themselves, and failed even though its far more common.

Even worse are the people who didn't work hard or didn't make the "right decisions" and STILL succeed. They often conclude that they're just plain superior to others. Man, I HATE those people!
posted by vitabellosi at 9:25 AM on January 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


What's in the black box?

The brutal truth that life isn't fair.

Some people are born more talented or with a silver spoon or have some undefinable skill that you don't have and may never learn. Those people aren't intrinsically better or more moral or more deserving. But by random luck, they got something better than you, something you want or crave and they may not even be aware of how lucky they are. Worse, society may actually value them more, which can make the person or friend without those things feel worse.

A thin woman who can eat whatever she wants without gaining weight is going to be resented by other women, even her friends. She's done nothing to deserve or win that coveted ability, she just won a genetic lottery that society places value on. She has want others want and can never get. Of course people are going to be jealous and resentful of that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:29 AM on January 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


I resent people who attribute their monetary success exclusively to their hard work and don't realize that more than hard work, it was purely luck with a little mediocre work put in. The resentment comes when I realize that even if I did exactly what the other person has done, worked exactly the same amount and put in exactly the same effort, those results would not be replicated for me because I don't come from a wealthy family with connections.
posted by anniecat at 9:31 AM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I recently visited some friends from long ago, I felt a level of resentment every time they would kiss in front of me, not because I thought they didn't deserve the happiness and togetherness they'd found, but because I felt my lack of same was entirely my own fault.
posted by No1UKnow at 9:46 AM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


or they can't say, "I had to stay home from work because I was sick," without the person being resentful that they have a job, or a specific job.

There's lots of types of resentment.

Resentment has political content. It's often presented as some kind of moral shortcoming, like it's just so terrible that you resent lovely people who have trust funds while you have to work as a non-union janitor, and you need to get your head right and accept what life has for you, etc etc.

Resentment is either energy (ie, you resent the easy success of trust-fund babies so you take political/social action against inequality) or it's self-medication: you have a shitty job but you can't quit because you have to pay your bills and you live somewhere awful but can't afford to move and you have to help out your parents because they are dealing with illness.

There's this American ideology (that is also, funnily, a Maoist one) that you can basically do anything if you want it enough, and so if you aren't succeeding it's because you haven't hacked the problem yet. So obviously, if you resent someone it's because you have a problem, and if you'd only direct your energy to getting a degree, or moving out, or accessing the [nonexistant] social safety net, you would be so much better off.

I mean, if someone resents me because as a white, college-educated middle class person my life has elements of cake-walk that theirs doesn't, I'm not going to be too fussed, you know?

Somehow this question rubs me the wrong way - it has this sort of faux-innocence, like the answers are supposed to clearly say that the resenters are wrong and screwed up and the privileged are always perfectly lovely people and that some have a lot and others have nothing is just the breaks, so we might as well not worry about it.
posted by Frowner at 9:50 AM on January 9, 2012 [16 favorites]


I have a friend who used to get really irritated if I ever mentioned one particularly positive event that happened to me. When confronted, that friend actually admitted to me that they behaved the way they did because they were mad at themselves for not pursuing their own dreams when they were perfectly capable of doing so. My own little success reminded them of their own inaction, and they didn't like to think about that.
posted by katillathehun at 9:52 AM on January 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


not because I thought they didn't deserve the happiness and togetherness they'd found, but because I felt my lack of same was entirely my own fault. what No1youknow and katillathehun say cover a lot of it.

There's also the utterly self-absorbed and delusional case. Sarah Palin probably wakes up everyday just thrilled about how wonderful she is, and then become frustrated and resentful as various people she interacts with during the day are jealous or ignorant and refuse to admit how awesome she is or deliberately arrange the universe so that undeserving other people get what she deserves. There's a lot of that going around and it's worse with smart people who should know better.

Sometimes I might seem resentful when what I am is dismayed that someone is taking credit for doing the hard work of, for instance, being hired by their brother-in-law.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:11 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


rosa: I sometimes resent people for not appreciating what they have

This is it for me. I lost my mother when I was 10, and never had someone to fill that maternal role once she was gone. There have been many times where I've resented people for not appreciating that they have a mother. I'm not talking about majorly abusive parents - but mothers that maybe call them too much, or buys them the brand of toilet paper that mom loves and knows child doesn't like but does it anyway, or just wants you to come over for dinner one night even though there's this really cool other event happening at the same time. I just want to firmly shake them by their shoulders and yell:

"FOR CRYING OUT LOUD OMG YOU ARE SO DAMN FREAKING LUCKY HOW CAN YOU NOT REALIZE THAT?!?!"

If you lost or don't have something, hindsight is 20/20. And rationally, I know that it's not fair to resent people who just don't know any better, or don't know what it's like to go without x, y, or z. But for me it definitely boils down to what I perceive as a lack of appreciation.
posted by raztaj at 10:13 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Which would be yes, I mean, you can resent someone for not realizing the role luck played in their having something that they, but not they alone, do deserve.

And sometimes people are just sad about not having something.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:14 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I am sensitive and insecure about something, it manifests in a more self-directed way where I think other people are actually better than me or more deserving of things, or I'm so down on myself I blame myself for not having things and don't have anger to spare other people, so I don't understand this well.

You can also think of this part as a dimension along which people vary (or ways in which people might vary depending on the situation) - insecurity can turn 'inward' to self-blame, or 'outward' toward resentment or anger.
posted by heyforfour at 10:25 AM on January 9, 2012


I just want to recommend that you take a look at equity theory. This is a stream of research that attempts to partially answer the types of questions you are asking here.
posted by bove at 10:31 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Somehow this question rubs me the wrong way

I have to admit I felt a little of this as well. My immediate reaction was that the OP is privileged in some (or many) ways, and the inquiry was a bit disingenuous. It struck me as the musings of a person who has not wanted for much, and hasn't put much effort into imagining him/herself in the shoes of those less fortunate. Apologies if that is way off. I don't know you, after all!
posted by Glinn at 10:34 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hey! It looks like you are inspiring resentment with your question! Resentment recursion! How many levels does it go?
posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night at 10:52 AM on January 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think people resent other people for having stuff for 1 or both of 2 reasons (for the moment ignoring personal, individual cases like "I resent your taking my lunch out of the refrigerator" where there is actual culpability and injury):

1) the successful person reminds the resentful person of their failing or shortcoming. The nominal first person to ever be resentful, Cain, was said to be resentful because God accepted Abel's sacrifice and not his. My friend who makes a six-figure income because they went to medical school and I kind of fucked around in school and still waste time on MeFi when I should be working and am very lucky to have a middle-class kinda income could be a focus for resentment for me, if I thought that way. To me this is the pure or classic resentment that you're mainly talking about. In this case, it completely doesn't matter how humble this person is, or how nice, or how "deserving," in large part because it's not even about them, and it's really not about what they "do" with their advantages. Whether they use their money to go on medical mission trips or go to Vegas and snort cocaine off hookers, the resent-ee will be POed because the other person remindst them of their own shortcomings. It's a defense mechanism. You don't even have to focus on the richer people as an individual - you can just be mad at "those people."

2) the successful person has something the resentee specifically wants. A nice car, house, family, whatever. Seeing this person or class of people pains the resent-ee because they don't have those things. I think this is more properly classed as "coveting," although that's kind of a religious word - I don't know of a better one. I think in this case resentment usually follows, but perhaps not necessarily. Maybe it just makes you depressed, even as you (at least logically) admit that this person is no less entitled to have this thing than anyone else, although I think again that defense mechanism is going to make you spin a bad story about them, or look for something to tell yourself that something balances out. The person who has a beautiful wife has a crappy job, or the person with the nice car has to commute to DC every day in it.

I think you can resent without coveting - I don't really want to go to Vegas and snort blow off hookers - but it's harder to covet without resenting. But because most people are very, very non-self-aware, I think most people tell themselves stories about other people if they resent them and/or covet their stuff. After all, it's crazy to feel bad or wish ill on a good person, right? So they have to demonize the person who has what they don't - especially if they intend to act it out.

I therefore think all the different cases like "resenting people for not using what they have wisely" or "not appreciating it" are kind of smoke screens. What business is it of mine whether a married person appreciates their spouse? Do I care about that as much if I am also happily married, or does my resentments shift to some other area where I'm less successful?
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:08 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think this is an outgrowth of the human tendency to think, "If only I had X, then I'd be happy." This is simply not true (unless X is basic needs like food and shelter, and even then they will not make anyone happy, just not completely miserable), but we pretty much all act as though it were true most of the time. So when, for example, someone who thinks, "if only I had a boyfriend I'd be happy" sees someone who does have a boyfriend and still has not achieved this mythical state of complete happiness, it can easily seem like that person does not deserve her boyfriend.

You didn't ask how to combat this resentment, since you claim not to feel it. But the answer is to recognize that people who have everything are capable of being totally miserable, and that if they are happy it isn't because they have everything.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:09 AM on January 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


For the sake of simplicity, let's suppose your friends resent you for having something they don't. Let's say you have kids and they keep trying and aren't able to have a successful pregnancy.

You say you're puzzled because sometimes they seem happy for you and sometimes they seem resentful, and because some of them recognize that their resentment is irrational.

Why does that puzzle you? Your friends are happy for you. They want to always be generous and happy for you and not compare your life to theirs. But they have trouble always feeling this way. Because they are human. So sometimes they catch themselves thinking, "It is SO UNFAIR. WHY does my friend get pregnant at the drop of a hat when I try and try and get nothing but heartbreak." And maybe sometimes they get so caught up in feeling this way that it's hard for them to stop or not to express it to you.

I don't think your "deserving" what you have matters. Your question seems so academic, but I don't think people can help feeling this way sometimes. How they deal with it is the important part. Some people will let it overwhelm anything good about the friendship -- others may let it slip out sometimes, but will acknowledge that and talk with you about it. If you find this is happening all the time, you might examine your behavior and think about whether you're being sensitive to your friends. You don't have to avoid all mention of the sensitive issue, but you don't want to gratuitously bring up all the cute things your baby did that day either.
posted by chickenmagazine at 11:26 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the OP:
To respond to some of the assumptions made about me here, I grew up lower class in a neighborhood where gunshots were a weekly occurrence, female, queer, with a physically and emotionally abusive father who was dying of a terminal illness my teenage years and died when I was in college, and I am unemployed. I am on medication for health problems. I am well-versed in privilege and I appreciate that sometimes that is the cause of resentment, however that is very easy for me to understand and why I mentioned I can understand being irritated at 1%ers; there is a perception that what they have is not entirely their own doing and I am sympathetic to that because luck plays a huge role. I don't think that privilege enters into resentment that someone else has a significant other or friends, though I can understand the luck aspect being similar. One friend I knew years ago was resentful of someone with a much harder upbringing than him who had worked much harder than him, too, and I can think of many examples along these lines (he had his college and grad school paid for by his parents and was mad that another friend, who came from a lower class and had a shitty childhood, was doing better than him). I can also think of examples where more privileged people were resentful of those that were open and honest about how luck played a role, though other examples make sense where people were not acknowledging their luck. (Privilege does explain several examples that come to mind, though, so I'm not telling anyone they're wrong for suggesting it; it's valid. I just don't understand this outcry that I must be some awful complacent privileged person when some
of the examples I gave don't have much to do with that.)

I find it hurtful that I am being accused of faux-innocence and I wonder if I could have asked this in any way that would not elicit that reaction. It is precisely because I have not had a terribly privileged background that it is difficult for me to understand why this manifests differently for other people; I used to work in politics so I am familiar with trying to change messed up social systems, but I have never felt anger toward friends for having things I do not. I don't think resentful people are horrible wrong people or anything like that, and I think that is an unfair assumption to make. I don't understand the jump from not understanding what spurs resentful thoughts to suddenly this meaning I think everyone should just put up and shut up or something. I worked for years trying to change systems like that. I just haven't felt resentment because I don't think people can be _blamed_ for good luck any more than bad luck (I guess? I can't be entirely sure why I don't feel it); when I wish I had something I don't feel mad at those that have it unless I think they got it at my expense dishonestly or unfairly. So, for example, if someone else has a relationship I do not feel this reflects on me or affects me. That other people's parents could pay for their college while I have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans makes me feel nothing toward _them_ personally because what were they supposed to do? And so on. That doesn't mean I'm a saint, it just means it's one thing I don't understand while I have other issues other people don't understand. That means I have to ask what those people are feeling when they are mad about this. I assume there is a good reason for it, or else I wouldn't ask the question.

I am not even the target of the resentment for the majority of examples I am thinking of, but rather thinking on things a friend who struggles with these feelings has expressed about other people over the last few years, and then other people I have known like them. This is not, "Oh dearie me, all my friends resent me because I'm so perfect and they're so awful!" whatsoever. I have loved some resentful people dearly and have had them talk to me a little about their struggles with it, and I only want to understand them better. It is genuinely confusing to me that they seem to sincerely love people and hold them in high regard but feel angry around them too. I have seen my friends resent other friends who were not bad people and I don't think it's weird to want to understand that. My experience with resentful people has been that they don't tell the target of their resentment, so I'm not sure how I would be knowingly resented enough to feel people resent what I have, specifically.

Many of the answers here have been helpful to understanding the thought process though, so thank you.

I don't know what to say if someone finds this unbelievable, but I have to admit I am trying to fight off feelings of regret for having even asked. Just because this is not something I can relate to doesn't mean I do not have other issues people would consider "bad" and I didn't post the question (anonymously, at that) in order to look good or something. I don't think resentment is a moral issue any more than depression is a moral issue, which is to say not at all.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:45 AM on January 9, 2012


I think some are seeing the OP as having a sense of entitlement here. To go a little against the grain, the resentful people I've witnessed most often are the ones with the sense of entitlement.

For example, I have a friend whose sister dropped out of school and got pregnant at an early age. This girl, let's call her B, was unsure who the father was, and unable to support herself, so she lived with her sister and sister's husband off and on for years as they helped her out, repeatedly.

B abandoned her own child for a while (they took care of him), supposedly to go back to school (she never went on to get her AA, so I'm not really sure what was actually going on during that time).

When B came back and got her daughter, they moved into an apartment with her new boyfriend, and she had another baby. It looked promising, because B actually found a job and started working soon after the baby was born, but B never seemed to have enough money to pay the rent. Her sister tried to help and offered to loan B money to make ends meet. It turned out that, instead of rent, the money was going into B's and her boyfriend's drug habit. Her sister (who is basically a saint in my book) would actually go to the rental office and write them a check to make sure B and the kids had a place to live.

So B stole her sister's identity and took money from her account. B's kids ended up with her sister again. It got very ugly. B would straighten up, come and get her kids, and then go back to her old ways again.

Eventually (we are talking years here), she got clean, met another guy who managed to get her to straighten up for good, but she burned a lot of bridges along the way. B's oldest child is barely on speaking terms with her, and her son has had run-ins with the law more than once himself--again, his aunt and uncle are most often the ones he turns to for help.

Meanwhile, my friend finished high school, went to work at a young age earning minimum wage, and continued to work over the years until she found her current field. She got laid off and changed jobs along the way, but she kept at it. She met and married a great guy, who came with very little baggage of his own, and they had children. They're still married after a couple decades together and she continues to work at her job, which she loves. She's well-respected in her field, has a nice house, money in the bank, and is generally content with her life.

B, a year or two older, looks at that life and is resentful. She feels that it is "unfair" that her younger sister has more than she does. It's not as if B's ever done anything to earn all those things her sister has that she wants so much; B acts like all of those advantages just dropped into her sister's lap.

B's not resentful because she worked hard and didn't get the same results, or because her sister doesn't appreciate what she has. B's resentful because she doesn't have the life she wants, period.
posted by misha at 11:46 AM on January 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I struggle with resentment toward my friends with happy families in terms of parent-child interactions. These feelings surface when I see my adult friends interacting positively with their parents/siblings as well as when I see my adult friends interacting positively with their children. In the former I am sad/envious/resentful of my friend, and in the latter I experience the same feelings toward the child who is so loved. It's clear to me that I wrestle with this anger/resentment/its-not-fair internal pity party b/c my childhood was pretty bad and my relationship with my abusive parents is a difficult one.

So, from a firsthand perspective, I can affirm that it's possible to recognize these feelings as irrational, work to put them in their place when they erupt so as not to damage others, but STILL find them sneaking up on you from time to time.

Everyone is tempted by different irrationalities and "sinful" urges. It's just a matter of what your temptations are, and it sounds like burning envy is not something you wrestle with. I suspect you will never quite really understand the process as it occurs in someone if its not something you wrestle with. Just like I will never understand the urge to physically abuse an animal or child and what that manifested urge feels like since I don't wrestle with such temptations.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 12:00 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh and I should clarify that it's hard for me to even pinpoint how I directly transfer the "its not fair, i didn't have that" feelings i get when i'm around a person with a happy family to feeling angry with the person themselves....it just sort of happens and i have to carefully dial it back. So i'm not sure anyone wrestling with such feelings can explain it adequately to you when we can't even explain it logically for ourselves. it's just a feeling that we learn to control and not irrationally act on or let takeover (on our good days anyway).
posted by TestamentToGrace at 12:02 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


One person in particular seemed to recognize that their resentment was irrational, so I wonder what thoughts they were having.

Isn't this kind of your answer? It's like asking, "why do people get angry?" or "why are people jealous?" We have involuntary, irrational emotional responses to things, particularly people who have what we want and what we can't have ourselves.

The faux-innocence of this question would come across similarly if you asked, "why do people punch the wall when they get frustrated? The wall didn't do anything!" or, "why do people get upset with their baby when it cries all night! The baby can't help itself!"

Resentment, anger, jealousy-- these are part of the human condition. There's no "why" other than "why aren't people perfect and rational in every way?"

When I am sensitive and insecure about something, it manifests in a more self-directed way where I think other people are actually better than me or more deserving of things, or I'm so down on myself I blame myself for not having things

Wouldn't you agree that this is also irrational? How would you answer this question about yourself regarding what thoughts you were having or why you think that way?
posted by deanc at 12:32 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


This really struck me
"It is genuinely confusing to me that they seem to sincerely love people and hold them in high regard but feel angry around them too"
Do you feel comfortable expressing anger to people? It's really hard, especially with a tough childhood but you can simultaneously love someone and be furious with them. They don't cancel. I think this might be related to you not understanding

One exercise would be to try to feel resentful - the thought of this might make you feel uncomfortable, which could be something to explore?. Imagine being angry that you haven't got what you want when you really want it, and it's been a long day and you're frustrated, and someone annoyed you, you feel vulnerable and a friend who you want to reassure you, mentions they have what you want the most. How does that feel?
If you can, can you observe how you feel when you let yourself feel resentful? Do you feel ashamed, lazy, or unimportant? Or empowered and in a way comforted? Resentment/anger can be very comforting against a situation you can't change. It might also feel very overwhelming to get angry.

I think it's great you want to understand others. Good luck.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 1:31 PM on January 9, 2012


What's in the black box? When I am sensitive and insecure about something, it manifests in a more self-directed way where I think other people are actually better than me or more deserving of things, or I'm so down on myself I blame myself for not having things and don't have anger to spare other people, so I don't understand this well.

To give you some perspective: Why do you blame yourself? That makes as little sense as resenting someone else for having something you want. Every single person makes mistakes. And every single person has good things happen randomly. That's what life is. Your reaction to blame yourself when other people have what you want is no more sensible or dictated by rational thought than people who's reaction to that is resentment. It's just an emotional reaction.

You rationalize your emotional reaction this way:
Well, Joe deserves that great job he just got more than I do because I did forget to call the Client last week. Joe doesn't forget things like that. I don't have a great new job because I am not as good as Joe. I just suck at life...

And those resentful people you don't understand might rationalize their (different) emotional reaction this way:
What's Joe got that I don't? I work my ass off, I deserve a new job. It's not my fault Joe's brother is a recruiter in his industry. If I knew someone with those connections in my industry I'd have gotten a better job by now too. Why does Joe get a new job and I don't? It's not fair!

You may never truly be able to understand why people get resentful, but remember that your reaction will never make sense to some people either. The human brain is what's in that black box.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 2:05 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I find it hurtful that I am being accused of faux-innocence and I wonder if I could have asked this in any way that would not elicit that reaction. It is precisely because I have not had a terribly privileged background that it is difficult for me to understand why this manifests differently for other people; I used to work in politics so I am familiar with trying to change messed up social systems, but I have never felt anger toward friends for having things I do not. I don't think resentful people are horrible wrong people or anything like that, and I think that is an unfair assumption to make. I don't understand the jump from not understanding what spurs resentful thoughts to suddenly this meaning I think everyone should just put up and shut up or something. I worked for years trying to change systems like that. I just haven't felt resentment because I don't think people can be _blamed_ for good luck any more than bad luck (I guess? I can't be entirely sure why I don't feel it); when I wish I had something I don't feel mad at those that have it unless I think they got it at my expense dishonestly or unfairly. So, for example, if someone else has a relationship I do not feel this reflects on me or affects me. That other people's parents could pay for their college while I have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans makes me feel nothing toward _them_ personally because what were they supposed to do? And so on. That doesn't mean I'm a saint, it just means it's one thing I don't understand while I have other issues other people don't understand. That means I have to ask what those people are feeling when they are mad about this. I assume there is a good reason for it, or else I wouldn't ask the question.

I mean this sympathetically - this sounds like some kind of disavowal. And I apparently misread your original post because it's a fairly emotional post on something that generally doesn't get emotional posts. So I assumed that what was going on was "I feel threatened by someone's resentment, or by the existence of resentment at all, so I hope you'll explain resentment itself as wrong and bad so that I can manage my feelings."

Now it sounds like "I feel uneasy about the possibility that I might feel negative feelings so I want to process this in a way that places negative feelings at a distance, as something that other people have but that baffle me totally."

I mean, ask yourself why you're hung up on this question enough to post a very large, emotional thing to Ask Metafilter about it and then post a large follow-up. The last time I remember feeling very anxious about something similar was actually precisely because I was treated very meanly by someone who accurately perceived that I had more systemic privilege than he did but totally misperceived some very key things about the actual amount of privilege and the type of person I was - I mean, it wasn't just an abstract philosophical question. (I don't have a terribly privileged background either - not compared to the people I went to school with - but compared to the guy in question, I sure did.)

I think this is kind of the wrong paradigm to have about resentment. People have resentment because they are stuck and in pain. Sometimes they're stuck and in pain for social reasons, sometimes for mental health issues reasons (too anxious to take the steps to address their anxiety or whatever), sometimes because they are suffering social injustice. Talking about the precise mental process whereby someone who is depressed and miserable blames someone else...that seems like a weird way to tackle the problem. The issue is the stuckness and the pain. The blame is froth on the surface.

There isn't any luck. Well, there sort of is, but....I have really nice shoes, for example, nicer than those of some of my peers. Folks often ask me how I have such nice shoes. "Oh, I get them gently used on Ebay," I say. It's "luck" that I spot the nice English benchmade shoes that are listed with a misspelling and got no bids. But it's not luck that I have the capital to buy them when I see them - it's the product of post-WWII privileging of white Americans and male Americans that put my family in the position to send me to college so that I could earn enough money to buy shoes at the drop of a hat; it's the product of all kinds of class-bias toward the nicely spoken that got me my job although my resume was weird; it's the product, if you like, of slavery and arms-dealing and Jim Crow and NAFTA and the murders of innumerable Lakota people. It's the product of some nasty actions on my part - playing the "I'm queer too so hire me" card to get a good summer job that I wasn't really qualified for when I was in college, thus giving me a stronger resume, etc etc. Someone who wants to resent me for having what I have - that person isn't resenting luck or coincidence but the inexorable grinding gears of history and some rather unattractive behavior on my part.
posted by Frowner at 2:16 PM on January 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


What's in the black box? When I am sensitive and insecure about something, it manifests in a more self-directed way where I think other people are actually better than me or more deserving of things, or I'm so down on myself I blame myself for not having things and don't have anger to spare other people, so I don't understand this well.

I have often heard that depression is one's anger turned against oneself.

In the same light, you know people who get depressed instead of angry, and people who will just--you know--get angry and yell at/hit somebody.

It's basically responses people have been taught to have. The main black box is that they were taught to deal with it one way, you've been taught to deal with it another. It's something one is often conditioned to do when very young, so it becomes as habitual as the way you tie your shoes.

Blaming oneself and blaming others are both ways to release a type of uncomfortable energy. Note there are other methods that don't involve blame at all.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:32 PM on January 9, 2012


I can relate. It took me years to understand why persons that I considered dear friends actually were jealous/envious and resented me for things that I never flaunted or bragged about or even took for granted.

I once read that envy is the feeling of self-incompetence. I believe it. I guess the resentment comes from a projection of the anxiety of that self-incompetence. Instead of hating or resenting themselves for not having or being a, b, or c, they resent others for not only having or being such things, but also for daring to elicit such feelings in them.

Like, convincing themselves that "it's your fault, I wouldn't have these negative feelings if it weren't for you." Instead of owning up to it.
posted by Neekee at 2:58 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The world's unfair. We all know that. People get wealthy for reasons that have nothing to do with intelligence or work or value. People get sick even if they're lovely. Wankers get girlfriends, and wonderful people stay single. That's all fine in the abstract, but can breed resentment when it gets specific. It's not just 'people' that have well-paying jobs, it's Mike, my friend, and I know I work just as hard as him, so why am I still struggling to pay rent? It's not just 'people' that have long term relationships, it's Sarah, my friend, and I know I have just as much to offer as she does.

I don't think the resentment comes about because you think that your friends are undeserving, but because you think you are equally deserving.
posted by twirlypen at 3:34 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


This sort of resentment, for me, boils down to one of two things:

1. Irritation over unconscious privilege - the feeling that the other person does not appreciate what they have and how they got there, particularly if they are a bit judgy towards others with lesser privilege

2. Irritation at myself for not having the wherewithal to do x, y or z as presented to me in the thing that triggers my resentment.
posted by mooza at 5:18 PM on January 9, 2012


I've got this one:

(he had his college and grad school paid for by his parents and was mad that another friend, who came from a lower class and had a shitty childhood, was doing better than him).


...because he really did see himself as superior, or because his failure is highlighted by his relative privilege.

I've heard jealousy as a friend you should welcome, because it's pointing out your "wants". But that's a hard perspective to come around to.

Sorry I missed your understanding of privilege -- your question was very long and with all the "theys" instead of he's and she's and lack of specific examples made it difficult to read. I had the feeling that you were actually thinking of a specific, very personal incident that you were taking great pains to avoid mentioning. I guess that's not the case.

I think the answer comes down to "there's no one answer, there are as many answers as scenarios you can come up with, people are funny that way.". And for anything more specific, you'll have to ask the people involved.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:54 PM on January 9, 2012


To go a little against the grain, the resentful people I've witnessed most often are the ones with the sense of entitlement.

I agree with this. Most of the jealous and resentful people I know just don't fully grasp the hard work that DOES go into having and maintaining things.

There are of course exceptions, but in my experience, resentful people fail to see (or refuse to acknowledge) the work that their target of resentment did to leverage any luck or privilege they might have been born with. Hard work may not guarantee success, sadly, but not working hard usually guarantees not-success.

I know a couple of people like this. "Oh, so and so got a new car... Must be nice to have all that money to throw around!" (Actually, they drag their ass out of bed at 5am 4 or 5 days a week and go work 12 hour shifts.)

Or "oh, they make THAT much money? What did they do to deserve that?" (They figured out that they needed to make money, and then got a degree.)

Or "you have a 401k? Must be nice to have 'extra' money!" (actually, it's not extra, it's a sacrifice)

[sadly, these are near-quotes from the same sad, sad person, all said with an air of "who gave them this, and why aren't they giving me more?"]

For some resentful people, it's a type of magical thinking, where they are envious of the success and want the same for themselves, but fool themselves into thinking it just fell from the sky so they don't have to own up to their mistakes and lack of drive. Maybe that's delving into narcissism, but I think they are related.

Resentment is a sort of cognitive bias, I think. But I can't really explain what I mean. Just as someone "deserving" something is a cognitive bias that presumes one's own judgement is pure.
posted by gjc at 6:30 PM on January 9, 2012


In psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is called theft of enjoyment. The idea is that you feel like you're missing something in your life, the lost object -- sometimes you might not be exactly sure what it is, but you feel incomplete, like you've lost some kind of primordial wholeness which prevents you from enjoying your life properly. Things feel out-of-joint and you feel frustrated, like you can't quite fit the pieces of a puzzle together properly. If only you could recover that lost object, and make things right again... then you notice someone you know.

They seem so happy, like they have everything they ever wanted. Why do they get to be whole while you feel this lack? It must be because they have the lost object! They stole it from you! Thus the idea that they don't deserve it, they cheated you somehow. The purpose of the fantasy of the theft of enjoyment is to sustain the belief that there really was a lost object to begin with, and this can be recovered to restore the longed-for wholeness. In reality, this wholeness doesn't exist. The lost object doesn't exist -- in a way, it only exists after it is lost. It's absence brings it into being.

Of course, its much easier to resent a friend than a stranger. A friend is always perceived with a minimum of narcissistic identification, as if they are your mirror image or double. So the lost object found its way back, but to the wrong version of you. That's how you can perceive their enjoyment as originally yours -- they are very similar to you, that's why they are able to enjoy in your place.

Your way of dealing with the lost object is called melancholia, where you believe you have your object, but it no longer works, so you don't want it any more. You already have your object, you don't feel like it was stolen or your double is enjoying in your place, but there's also no use looking for it. Here, you are mourning the loss of the desire for the object. This is more of a hopeless, depressive kind of belief where there's no point making trying to change or improve things, i.e. to recover the object. All you can do is mourn the tragedy. This is another strategy for sustaining the fantasy of primordial wholeness where full enjoyment was possible.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:52 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I actually think it's an interesting topic and I apologize if I added to your angst. Your question was pretty packed and as a few have said, it was difficult to parse your part in the situations you related.

You do go to great lengths to say you have never felt resentment for any but the most clear cut reasons. But is it possible you felt similar feelings, but were able to recognize the irrational nature of the feelings and not act on them as those in your examples seem to do? We can't control how we feel, only how we act on our feelings. And that's the rational part. Maybe you're wondering why people aren't more rational? (It's a good question!) But the fact is, life is weird and often hard, and everyone is irrational sometimes* (bad day, depression, being treated unfairly, bad relationship, loss of job, death of a loved one, etc). And for some people, more than sometimes. Maybe they never learned (or refused to learn) the life skills necessary to overcome feelings like resentment.

*Except Spock.
posted by Glinn at 8:57 PM on January 9, 2012


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