We all know that person in our friend group who is often ranting about someone’s behavior, dropping F-bombs, and making everyone around rather weary. And most of us have been that complainer at times. Or all the time.
It’s not as if we think ranting and hating are positive social behaviors. We just may not know what else to do when our emotions are exploding, so we attach a narrative to anger: one of resentment, built on unchecked facts that lend false righteousness to our rage.
Due to my extensive experience with resentment, I have learned a few lessons about how to stop it before it starts. This knowledge has stemmed recently, from my encounters with three sources of wisdom: a 12-step exercise in cataloging my resentments, the writings of Lao Tzu, and Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book The Surprising Purpose of Anger.
Initially I started cataloging my grudges as part of a 12-step program. The long list of rows had two columns, per the instructions. Step four was to identify not just what the other person had done to hurt me and cause my resentment, but what I had done in the circumstance. Of course, I didn’t think I had done anything. It took many conversations with a mentor to understand what that question meant.
So and so didn’t ever pick up my calls. What did I do? I expected her to pick up my calls, got angry when she didn’t, and judged her as wrong. But I was continuing to call even when calls were not answered. I was asking for something that was not there. Its absence infuriated me. I became righteous. I deserved to be heeded. These people were wrong for not responding to me.
My mentor pointed out that they could not respond.
How did she know? She never met these flakes who ignored my calls.
But there was nothing more to know than the fact that these people never picked up my calls. That was the fact, and I was not accepting it. I had a temper tantrum. I blamed myself and felt ashamed that they had let me down. I had no way of knowing whether they hadn’t returned calls because of something I had done wrong. I cannot read minds, even though most of the time I think I can.
The relationships had changed or degenerated. What I expected was not realistic. And this was going to keep happening for the rest of my life because relationships are dynamic. They get closer or more distant, they pause, they renew, or they die.
Once I stopped crying, I was able to accept this. In fact, it made me feel better.
I later read part of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s foundational work. This ancient Chinese philosophical text lays out many principles of Taoism, the religion with the yin-yang symbol. Most of us were told briefly at some point in our lives that the symbol represents the need for both light and dark, which together make a whole, or something to that effect. Look down at your tattoo and try to remember what you heard about its meaning.
For months, the idea represented by the yin-yang hung around in my head. Light and dark are part of the same whole. But not only that:
“The intelligent man accepts what is as it is. He does not devote himself to the making of distinctions which are then mistaken to be separate existences.”
These distinctions, Lao explained, do not exist in nature. Labels do not exist in nature. Judgments do not exist in nature. And any man who has to prove his point or is querulous is not wise. The wise man does not presume to know all and try to prove it by arguing with people and petulantly demanding that the world meet his expectations.
Case Study: A Traumatic Situation
I learned to apply these lessons after my neighbor and friend, A., killed herself. Although we knew she was depressed, this event came as a shock. I cared for her cat, and I spent way too much time in her apartment. There, I learned things about my friend that broke my heart.
I waited for her family to adopt the cat, but they were delayed for understandable reasons. I attached great importance to this boisterous tomcat, as did her family. A. had cherished him, even though he made messes, bit, and cuddled aggressively. To me, he was sacred — a spiritual remnant of my friend.
I lived down a hall and on the other side of the building from A. Her closest neighbor was a man I’ll call Daniel. He knew A. better than I did and had even briefly dated her. Still, during her frequent trips out of town, she never asked Daniel to cat-sit. I did it, or another one of our girlfriends did.
Daniel sobbed when he found out A. had died. He was shocked to learn she had been so sad. He said he had been depressed for years and understood the impulse to give up on life.
Daniel and I were the oldest tenants in the building, but we didn’t approach life the same way. While I feverishly worked, waking up early in the morning and coming home late and doing extra work as a writer at night, Daniel slept in, smoked a bowl on the balcony, and spent half the day on his small business. At night when I was coming home from the gym, he was drinking beers and smoking with his friends and our neighbors on the balcony. Most of them were younger girls and guys who looked up to him because he is charming and light-hearted. Sometimes he sold them his Adderall—once he even gave me a pill for free because I was on a deadline.
Daniel always said hello to me, but I wasn’t always happy to speak to him. I found his lifestyle childish and sleazy.
When A. had been gone for a month, I started sharing the responsibility of taking care of her cat with other neighbors. It had become too much for me. The cat was so lonesome that it provoked my guilt, and that apartment full of self-help books and sticky notes A. had written to herself and put on walls and mirrors to help boost her spirits felt tragic. I regretted how I had acted with her in the last days of her life, when I had no idea she would soon give up completely. If only I had said something more powerful.
Every neighbor volunteered to drop by, feed, and pet the tomcat, except for Daniel. I saw him nearly every time I was coming and going from A.’s apartment, and every time he smiled and said hello. Once he made a comment that the cat had made a big mess and been annoying on a long-ago occasion when he had cared for the cat while A. had been on vacation.
This comment hurt me; I cringed physically. Insulting the cat was, to me, like spitting on our friend’s grave.
After two months of suffering alone in the apartment, the cat was taken in by A.’s relatives in another state. I ran into Daniel on the stairs a few days later, and he said he was glad someone else was now responsible for the cat so that the neighbors no longer had the burden of caring for him.
This comment sent me into a rage. A burden? Not only did most of us accept the depressing responsibility of the cat because we missed our lost friend and wanted to honor this creature she had left behind, but the idea that Daniel could feel burdened when he had done nothing to help seemed so morally reprobate that I started to resent him hatefully.
While I seethed in my apartment, he stood on the porch with our neighbors, drinking beer, smoking pot and cigarettes, and laughing. I could hear the girls laughing in response to his jokes — the college students he sold Adderall to. He’s corrupting those girls, I thought.
As I drifted off to sleep to the sound of Daniel’s laugh, Lao Tzu returned to my thoughts. It dawned on me, looking through the lens of Lao Tzu’s teachings, that Daniel was providing something of value to the people in our building: pleasure, relaxation, and camaraderie.
I was the one who had created the distinction between us — bad versus good. It was only my opinion that young adults should not smoke pot, take Adderall not prescribed to them, and party with men in their late 30s. But those girls obviously didn’t agree with me, and who was I to determine what was and wasn’t good for them? They were adults by law, living on their own. Maybe they had ADHD. Maybe they were corrupt, more so than Daniel. And why was I so much better than all of them? When was the last time I had chatted amiably with my neighbors and provided them with humor? I was always tense, running up and down the stairs and shouting strained hellos and goodbyes because I was busy trying to advance my life.
What value I had to the building community was as a sort of house mother, someone who looked out for younger people and cats. Daniel was lackadaisical and funny, and people enjoyed his energy. I helped the younger neighbors when they needed advice, a ride to the airport, or a job reference. We both added value.
Lao Tzu’s message humbled me. I stopped resenting Daniel and ceased to do so for months.
But he provoked me again when he went to live with a new girlfriend and failed to pay rent, leaving his apartment without moving out of it. What a jerk! I was friends not only with my landlord, but with my landlord’s parents, a generous elderly couple who always replaced what broke in my apartment, took me out to dinner, and invited me to their Christmas parties. My indignation this time was on behalf of them.
The landlord lived in another state. But when Daniel moved out, he came to town to stay at his parents’ house and remodel Daniel’s unit and a few other units. Daniel’s apartment was a wreck, and the floors had to be replaced. I think it had been in bad shape when he had moved in, and, being a low-key, undemanding person, he had never complained. When I had dinner with our landlord, he told me that Daniel had not paid rent in months.
“He’s a selfish, childish asshole,” I said.
Our landlord laughed. “He’s not that bad.” His twinkling eyes showed me my error of hate.
I was stunned into silence. Why should I be angry on behalf of the landlord when he didn’t feel wronged? That was definitely a waste of energy.
Later, when time had lessened the trauma of losing A., I was able to question even my reaction to Daniel’s disinterest in sharing the cat-sitting duties. A. and Daniel hadn’t had a good relationship. Since they had briefly dated, they had had awkward interactions and a few arguments. Her death had caused me to render her a perfect martyr who had died from depression. But she had been imperfect, like all humans. That’s how Daniel had seen her. And he hadn’t had my imagination when he had looked at the cat. To him, it had just been a cat, not a spiritual connection to a martyr. Perhaps Daniel was more realistic and pragmatic than I. There is no question that I tend towards the melodramatic.
Lao Tzu and step four of my 12-step program taught me to reconsider my resentment. What it came down to was that my way of seeing a dynamic was not the absolute truth. It was my truth, and that was all. Trying to impose it on other people was dogmatic and naive. Everyone in that building and the landlord had a different way of perceiving A. and of reacting to her suicide and to Daniel. But so much of my life had been spent foolishly trying to insist that my truth was the truth. It certainly didn’t help me, and it didn’t change the situations I resented or people such as Daniel. So what was the point?
Well, there was one: my anger pointed to my unmet needs. Marshall Rosenberg, the late creator of “nonviolent communication,” taught me this in a handy short book called The Surprising Purpose of Anger.
I had been angry because I had needed help caring for the cat. When Daniel had remarked that it was a burden, I hadn’t taken his comment as meaning “You have been burdened,” but as “I, Daniel, have been burdened by having to be around a cat left behind by a dead neighbor.” Who can know what he had meant? But I had used his comment as an occasion to judge him, globally, not just for the comment, but for all of his behavior.
And that’s where I had gone wrong. Because yes, the cliché about resentment is true — it’s like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.
So what would the wise solution have been?
I could have met my own needs by not taking on a responsibility that would hurt me. I had done too much cat-sitting in a haunted apartment. There had been others with whom I could have shared the responsibility earlier.
Daniel had had nothing to do with this. He had just happened to come in my line of fire.
From this experience, I learned to accept what is and to meet my own needs.
The Process of Acceptance
Are you feeling resentful of someone? Perhaps you feel cheated or want to complain about him or her.
Here’s how to free yourself of that resentment.
Get out your journal, write down what it is that’s bothering you so much about this other person (or situation), and then do the following:
- Ask yourself what unmet needs are involved in this conflict. What didn’t this person do that you wanted him or her to do so that your need would be met? This need is real, and you are not wrong for feeling it.
- Detach your need from the other person, because he or she is not responsible for meeting your needs. Don’t judge his or her character. It was you who decided he or she should act this way, but you aren’t the ruler of the universe, and you can’t control other people. If you feel let down, that’s understandable. Let yourself cry or feel sad that this person can’t give you what you want. We all feel let down from time to time. Feel compassion for yourself. You will surely meet more people in your life.
- Explore other ways of meeting your needs in this situation that do not depend on someone who has repeatedly shown an inability or unwillingness to act as you want. Take action to meet your need.
- Be peaceful. Don’t relive this situation by griping about it. You don’t know how this person might be adding to someone else’s life or whether he or she might have lost some of his or her own hope in the past. If you can’t handle that person, avoid him or her. Move forward with your life, without a narrative of you being a victim of this person.
This practice can be applied to any conflict. Its immediate effect is to reduce righteous anger. Its secondary effect is to reduce the amount of negative energy we emit. Less ranting. Less polluting of our environment. Less hubris. More positive stories and laughter.
We can meet our needs. Even some of the most painful conflicts can be accepted.
As Tupac said, “I was given this world, I didn’t make it.”
Keep your head up.