Being worn down by a lifetime of resentment: complication - it's not me
July 12, 2014 2:38 PM   Subscribe

How do you help someone get beyond their resentment of the slights, perceived and actual, against them?

I have a relative who is a martyr, putting everyone ahead of herself, but now that she has been retired for a number of years, her children are all grown up, and her mother passed away, she has no one to take care of other than herself.

Taking care of others helped her hide her resentments, but she has collected them for most of her life. She still brings up that her husband didn't book a hotel for their first night as a couple, when they were planning a road trip, so they had to find some second-rate place. She even brings up the fact that a long-dead relative didn't thank her for setting up a nice birthday bash.

I know I cannot directly change her, because the only person I can really change is me, but is there any way I can support her and give her tools or guidance to help her come to terms with these grievances? I want her to be happy (or at least happier), but she has so much attachment to the past that she is having trouble moving ahead, with relationships and with her own life.

A complication to this is that she has come to terms with the fact that she has let others make decisions for her, under the guise of "going along" with people to avoid creating a fuss, but she hasn't found a balance between letting others decide and getting angry at what she sees as selfish decisions made by others.
posted by filthy light thief to Human Relations (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I mention the complication because it can make having a discussion with her hard, as she can be passive until she feels like she has been too passive, then gets assertive to the point where it's an argument, when it could have been a discussion with some agreement at a middle point.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:40 PM on July 12, 2014

Knowing that you cannot change her, maybe the best way to be supportive is to simply listen and be as present as possible when you are around her. Maybe stop trying to have discussions about her resentment and let her feel resentful.

Another way of supporting her could be indirect: Do you think she'd be open to you sending her a book on letting go of the past ?
posted by Gray Skies at 2:48 PM on July 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

When someone's life has been tied to people needing them their whole lives, and then there is no one who needs them, it can indeed stir up resentment.

Maybe she is lonely? Why don't you ask her advice on things? Does she garden, cook, know another skill? I know I get a thrill when my grown daughter calls and asks me advice on gardening.

Otherwise, encourage her to get out and be with people. Being alone can indeed make one prone to rumination and dwelling on the past. Bring her to events, ask her what she wants to do. My mom always wanted to be a song writer (and she did write songs, but they were never published), and sometimes she'd get onto past bitter memories, and the only thing to do was listen for a while, then change the subject, make a joke. Often, people want to feel validated, and if you're not up for doing that, that's cool. If it gets to be too much, limit it to 20 minutes and then make your excuses.

Sounds kind of like empty nest to me. And it's a difficult transition, especially if you are older and alone. Maybe look up that and see if there are books or activities, etc. you can suggest. Going to concerts, volunteering, anything to keep her in the present and feeling needed.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:57 PM on July 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

When she was looking after other people, she didn't dwell on the past or these slights. Would she be amenable to any sort of volunteer work, or performing care-taking-type tasks in her life now (cultivating a garden, being a 'mother's helper' to a family member with small children, etc.)? Emphasize the many opportunities that still exist to contribute in the way she likes to contribute.

Your relative has a certain perspective on herself, as a giver and nurturer; now that she's not doing the positive things that (in her mind) define her very character, she's dwelling on the negative aspects of the choices she's made (remembering the times she felt neglected by others, was too passive, and so on). She's lived her life via a highly specific framework; even if she was interested in doing the work, it's kind of late in the proceedings to figure out a whole new way to define herself. (Possible exception: in one of these conversations, you uncover something she really regrets not doing, a trip of a lifetime or some other bucket-list-type item, and you can encourage movement on that front.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:07 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a close coworker who said something to me that made me think twice about my moaning about my past: "But, you're okay now."

My advice would be to say something that is true when she brings this kind of stuff up. The hotel thing: You have/had a happy marriage. The birthday thing: I bet you had fun planning it. Some people aren't great about showing their gratitude. Maybe he/she was nervous.
posted by Fairchild at 3:14 PM on July 12, 2014 [17 favorites]

Best answer: I'd ask her questions in a positive way, "So Aunt Susan, I've had some neat things happen this past week, what neat things happened to you in the past week?" If she has problems coming up with stuff, model the behavior. "Oh, I'm sure nice things happened, for example, I got a great parking space right in front of the grocery store when it was raining, by the time I got out, the rain had stopped."

Another thing you can do is say to her, "Aunt Susan, I know you sacrificed a lot for so many of us over the years, I hope I've expressed my gratitude to you over the years, but in case I haven't or in case I haven't thanked you enough, I want you to know that I really appreciate everything you've done. You make thins seem so effortless, and I know you put a lot of work into it. Thank you so much for all you've done for me."

Another thing you could do is when she gets started, "your Cousin Julie never thanked me for that $5 I sent her on her birthday." You could respond, "You know what? She was just telling me the other day how much she loved getting your birthday cards when she was younger. She told me that she's kept them all in a drawer with a ribbon around them."

Other than that, there's not a lot you can do with these people. It's pathological really, they see themselves as a victim, or a martyr and the LIKE it. I don't let it pay off when I'm around one.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:23 PM on July 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

You are asking her to let go of something by which she defines herself and by which she wants others to define her. She is the Martyr.

That may not be the role you would cast for yourself and it may look like pure misery to you. It is the role she picked and maybe the only one she knows how to play. There are surely pieces of the Martyr role which give her pleasure. (Others see her as giving. She brings peace and happiness to her family...)

Recognize that she made her own choice and she derives pleasure that you don't necessarily understand. Then let her suffer/revel in her path.
posted by 26.2 at 3:33 PM on July 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Does she have any friends her age who are coming from a similar place (in terms of motivation, values, cultural frameworks, experiences) and have found new ways of coping and spending their time?

I feel like no matter what a younger person says, people from the age group I think you're talking about put more weight on the experience of their peers, who've been through similar things, and are more likely to be open to their influence as potential role models. I've actually seen this in action. It'll be like, "Hey, you know what, Susan just decided to go on a cruise by herself. Maybe I should think about doing that," or "Helen decided to start taking care of herself. No more helping everyone. Maybe it's time to take care of me," or "Joan looks so good these days, I wonder what she's doing?" And Joan will have cut out white carbs or something, and they'll talk and talk and talk about "why not white carbs?" and how "Karen cut out sugar" or whatever and which way is better.

And maybe it won't make a difference, but maybe it will, and I've found that Susan/Helen/Joan have had more cred than me in my persuasion attempts* with a family member in the likely target group.

*not about martyrdom, although I am definitely hearing a lot of "it's ME time" talk kind of ambiently.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:43 PM on July 12, 2014

I'll share with you something I realized only after a really long time struggling with a family member. You don't actually know (or may be misinterpreting) what your relative is thinking or feeling when she's complaining about things that happened in the past, and your characterization of her as a martyr is a judgment of how she's behaving on the outside. In some strange way, you support the martyrdom by portraying her as someone who is easy to explain to people that don't know her. I do this all the time. If you can connect with that particular aspect of the complexity of human nature, you can work on changing your relationship with her one day at a time, and maybe even getting underneath her resentments, simply by not honoring them so much. And by not buying your own story so much, either.

I have a relative who has a knack for saying the worst possible thing about any person or situation. I mean, it's a gift. He comes off cranky and emotionless. The thing I realized is that this relative does not necessarily feel this way inside, it's just that complaining is his way of processing and bonding within the family. In fact, if you look at his actions, he seems to care a lot and is probably the most emotional member of the family. He's also both very strong and very weak.

I guess my point is when it comes to certain family members, the trick is to not buy into their complaints. Subconsciously, they may not even really want you to. Man, people are really silly sometimes. Be part of the solution. It's the best you can do.
posted by phaedon at 3:58 PM on July 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

This sounds like anxiety and loneliness and boredom. I second the suggestion above of asking her advice on stuff, if you want to make her happier, at least for the moment. It will give her something to focus on (assuaging the boredom) and make her feel like someone needs her (combats loneliness.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:10 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love what Ruthless Bunny said. Focusing on here and now will probably help somewhat, as well as the gratitude stuff.

Perhaps, if these things come up in conversation, it might be worth asking (in words you know won't raise her hackles) "Why are you still letting this bother you?"

Was it Eleanor Roosevelt who said that thing about resentment/hate letting people live rent-free in your brain? Is that the sort of sentiment she might respond to? (I'm inferring from age that Eleanor or whoever it was might be a powerful figure to her.)

It might also help, if this is a reasonable possibility for you, to straight up say "Hey, I'd like to take you out on $_day. What would you like to do?" and then give her exactly what she wants, in the way she wants it, with maybe a little extra whipped cream and a cherry on top.

Perhaps also helping her look at her life and the things she's achieved--you mention her taking care of other people--might help her let go of resentment. Some people (I'm one of them) suck at showing gratitude, even when we feel it. Maybe try and steer her focus away from that, and towards what a wonderful (if true, and I'm guessing it is from what you've said), giving, selfless person she's been for so long. That's a virtuous thing to be. Maybe slowly and gently steer her focus to that, without assisting in the martyr complex?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:43 PM on July 12, 2014

After a lifetime of doing for others, always taking the smallest cookie on the plate, maybe she's earned a good bitch-fest. Would she be interested in writing a memoir that "sets the record straight"?
posted by Ideefixe at 4:44 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Rather than being hurt, which is painful and sublimating, people become angry, which can seem to give them control and power over the situation.

My father was like this, and I am, too. I agree with the post above that said she may not know another way. It was likely modeled for her.

I agree with engaging her on other topics and asking for input and advice.
posted by jgirl at 5:12 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first best answer you marked ("but you're okay now") risks sounding like you are dismissing her feelings, like a nice version of "you're fine now so shut up." She knows she's fine, what she's trying to say is that she feels hurt and angry at never getting the respect she deserved or something, I don't know. It's something in her relationship with herself (as you explain in your last paragraph) (e.g., a hope that she deserved that respect but never being sure and therefore not asking for it or being ultra sensitive to not getting it, etc.).

My strong suspicion is that nothing you can say will change this and that half the things you say will prompt an angry response or a long rant about how she was mistreated. I would instead develop an interest that you share and can discuss instead, e.g., celebrity gossip, sports teams, you learning some skill she has -- a reliable way to change the subject.
posted by salvia at 5:58 PM on July 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

This sounds a lot like one of my older relatives, also female, and also someone who made a lot of sacrifices to care for others throughout her life. Over the years I tried many of the suggestions above, to try to recognise her sacrifices and reinforce that we valued her, even if others in the past hadn't, or to point out that in fact, her life was pretty good now, despite her past suffering. Thing was, the resentment just seemed to grow and grow as she got older and had fewer social connections, to the point that it seemed like a full-blown persecution complex and eventually paranoia that everyone around her was constantly slighting her or taking advantage of her. It eventually damaged many of the remaining relationships she had. Looking back (she's dead now), it seems like it was likely a personality disorder, particularly as there were persistent themes that got replayed as a the same story with various people. I suppose this isn't very helpful in the sense of providing advice for you, but I just wanted to suggest that this may not be something you can help her with. Perhaps a good therapist could.
posted by amusebuche at 6:49 PM on July 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

There's someone in my life who is really narcissistic. Holds onto slights, resentments grudges. Sees only one side of every story. Can be very generous, but doesn't perceive the generosity or kindness of others, esp. when in a snit. The hurt and bad feelings are real, though the circumstances may be quite distorted. Reasoning with people like this doesn't work. Acknowledge the hurt That must have hurt your feelings., acknowledge the generosity It was very kind of you to do whatever, and change the subject, suggest an activity or in some way move on from the snit.
posted by theora55 at 8:19 AM on July 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I know some people like this. I wonder if this is more likely to occur with women who are strongly socialized to put others first, ahead of their own wants and needs, and who take that completely seriously. (Some women get the same training but seem to have a way of making a reasonable effort to do the socially acceptable thing while also taking care of themselves in important ways).

I think the subtext here might be: I did what I was told. I planned the damn parties, I showed up to every birthday/wedding/funeral, and yet I'm not happy and something is missing. I sacrificed for others, but no one is making a sacrifice for me, and often my sacrifices/efforts aren't even acknowledged. I feel taken for granted.

The other possible subtext is fear of being invisible and unacknowledged. The husband not booking ahead on his wedding night wasn't considering her and her comfort ahead of time. The relative didn't see all the effort that went into planning the party. If she doesn't feel empowered to speak up for her own needs or acknowledge herself, then it's all the more devastating when those who she expects to speak up or acknowledge her do not.

Rather than trying to tackle this head-on, you might try encouraging her to be "selfish" - especially if she seems to have trouble with identifying and doing things that she wants/enjoys, just for herself. If she mentions that she always wanted to do x, encourage her to do it and maybe help her get started if that's practical for you.
posted by bunderful at 8:46 AM on July 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

Sometimes it's a misinterpretation of biblical verse that becomes pathological. The person likes, wants, and even NEEDS to feel like a martyr or victim. And they'll rearrange their memories and rewrite their stories so that they can be the victim.
It is overwhelmingly unpleasant to be around someone like that. But for them, it's how they want to be.

You can ask them, "why are you still allowing that to hurt you after so many years". Throwing in some Jesus and forgiveness is good too. But, in my experience, it won't override or transform the framework of their personality. They have to want to do that themselves.
The best you can do is not let it upset you. It's okay not to empathize with their ridiculous drama. It's fine if they want to believe they're victims, not okay for you to allow the negativity to get under your skin. <- that should be your primary focus.
posted by Neekee at 8:49 AM on July 13, 2014

I'd say, "I'm sorry that still hurts." She might just want somebody to acknowledge that it felt bad. Even though you're not the one who hurt her, she'd feel better with just a little empathy anyway.

You can't do anything help her not think about old slights or help her not feel bad about them when they enter her mind. But I think it might help her to have a relative who briefly acknowledges and validates the pain without giving advice. I'd always prefer to hear, "That must have been hard for you," instead of, "Why are you still bothered by it?"
posted by wryly at 2:52 PM on July 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

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